For years the Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin operated largely in the shadows, amassing a fortune on government catering and other contracts while also quietly running a notorious "troll factory" in St. Petersburg that spearheaded Moscow's efforts to influence foreign elections.
But in recent months, as his ostensibly private Wagner mercenary group has borne the brunt of the fierce fighting in and around the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Prigozhin has stepped out into the limelight. His company released videos showing him personally visiting prisons to recruit convicts to fight in Ukraine and purportedly touring the battle-scarred streets of Bakhmut.
His frequent, bluntly worded press releases and unrestrained, profanity-laced criticism of senior Russian officials and military brass have become something of a personal trademark, prompting some to speculate he harbors political ambitions that could even include challenging President Vladimir Putin.
In a video released around the time Russia was marking the May 9 Victory Day holiday, Prigozhin stood in front of a pile of corpses he said were those of Wagner fighters and accused senior Russian military leaders of causing their deaths through incompetence. Prigozhin has been particularly cutting in his criticism of the chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who has long been considered one of Putin's closest advisers.
Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov, the former Federal Security Service operative and Russian military veteran who played a key role in the Russia-directed anti-Kyiv uprising in parts of eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014, said in a podcast last month that "the struggle for the Kremlin after Putin has begun."
"Some serious forces stand behind Prigozhin," he added.
'Just A Guy With A Couple Of Restaurants'
Prigozhin, 61, is a native of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), like Putin, and owes his rise to power to his personal relations with the president. He has been called "Putin's chef" for his role catering Kremlin events. While still a teenager, he was arrested for the first time. In 1981, he was sentenced to 12 years in a Soviet prison after he was convicted of robbing apartments with a gang of accomplices. He was released from prison in 1990, a year before the collapse of the U.S.S.R., after serving nine years.
He likely met Putin for the first time in the early 1990s when he was trying to get into the casino business and Putin, an official in the St. Petersburg city government, was chairman of the supervisory board for gambling.
Russian investigative journalist Andrei Zakharov told RFE/RL that Prigozhin's power in Russia today most likely still stems directly from Putin.
"He has been carrying out special assignments for Putin for some time now," Zakharov said, mentioning the Internet Research Agency -- the troll factory used to conduct campaigns to influence opinion and elections in the West -- and Wagner, which has supported Kremlin aims in Ukraine since 2014, in Syria, and in several African countries.
"He is used to solving problems in ways not normally used by Putin's insiders," Zakharov added.
But he said Prigozhin's position is not secure.
"I have long urged people not to exaggerate his significance," Zakharov cautioned. "If the state turns off its support tomorrow, he is just a guy with a couple of restaurants in St. Petersburg and nothing more. Everything he owns, all the Wagner money, the troll factory -- all of it is paid from government contracts…. He is a man who is completely dependent on the state."
Ukrainian political analyst Leonid Shvets agrees that the most important thing about Prigozhin is his connection to Putin.
"Prigozhin is able to do things that only someone protected by Putin himself could do," Shvets told RFE/RL's Russian Service, mentioning the scathing epithets he has used in speaking of Gerasimov and Shoigu, as well as the way he rode roughshod over Russian prisons to get thousands of convicts released for service in Ukraine.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich has given him carte blanche," he added, referring to Putin. "Putin loves to conduct special operations inside of special operations."
'Anything Could Happen'
In one of his recent diatribes against Russia's military leaders, Prigozhin used coarse wording that many interpreted as referring to Putin, who is the "supreme commander-in-chief" of the armed forces. Prigozhin later said he was not talking about Putin, but his remarks nonetheless raised the question of whether he might someday step across the Kremlin's red lines.
A recent report saying leaked U.S. intelligence documents indicate that Prigozhin offered to give Ukraine information about Russian troop positions if Kyiv withdrew its forces from Bakhmut has also raised questions about his loyalties.
Shvets said he is certain that Putin would quash any ambitions Prigozhin might have to succeed him.
"As soon as Putin senses this," he said, something would befall Prigozhin similar to the radioactive polonium attack that killed former FSB officer and Putin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006 or the near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that struck opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in August 2020. "Anything could happen."
Shvets speculated that Putin needs a person who can "bite at the heels of officials and officers who don't please him."
"Putin needs someone to call Shoigu and Gerasimov idiots," he said.
Although this could reflect badly on Putin, who put these people in their posts, that is a risk the president can afford, Shvets said.
"It is important for Putin that there be a person to bite the heels of Gerasimov and Shoigu or whomever else he points to," Shvets said.
Mark Galeotti, a Russia specialist and honorary professor at the University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, wrote in The Spectator that Prigozhin's behavior is typical of "Putin's style of managing the elite."
"A culture of mutual suspicion, cannibalistic competition and opportunistic self-interest has kept Putin in power for more than two decades," Galeotti wrote, although the practice is risky in wartime when "the need is for unity, discipline and mutual support."
Liberal St. Petersburg politician Maksim Reznik added in an interview with RFE/RL that Prigozhin may also play a scapegoat role as Russian officials seek to lay blame for battlefield shortcomings both now and going forward.
"What we are seeing now is a search for those guilty for defeats," Reznik said. "Both Prigozhin and those who stand at the pinnacle of power understand this perfectly well."
In November 2022, a Wagner-connected social-media channel published a video showing a mercenary who allegedly defected to the Ukrainian side being murdered with a sledgehammer. Prigozhin later praised the men for punishing the "traitor." In February, a similar video was published. Both videos echo a 2017 video in which Russian mercenaries tortured and killed a Syrian Army deserter.
Although the gruesome videos have appalled most of the world, the sledgehammer image has become an integral part of the Prigozhin brand and, more importantly, symbolic of the brutal shift that Russian political culture has undergone since Putin invaded Ukraine. In a stunt seemingly straight out of a mafia movie, Prigozhin sent a sledgehammer daubed in fake blood and packed in a violin case to the European Union just as the bloc was adopting a resolution designating Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
In December 2022, unidentified masked individuals threw sledgehammers onto the grounds of the Finnish Embassy in Moscow. The same month, law enforcement officers reportedly intimidated a teenager in Arkhangelsk by wielding sledgehammers while searching her residence. In January, Duma Deputy Sergei Mironov posted a photograph of himself holding a sledgehammer, which he said was a gift from Wagner.
It has become a symbol of Russia's obsessive search for "traitors" and "enemies" both at home and abroad. It also symbolizes the reductionism that Putin's Russia has experienced: One is either wielding the sledgehammer or being battered by it.
"The sledgehammer is brilliant," Shvets said. "Horrible, but brilliant. You can just buy one in a store and hand out this horrifying gift."
Reznik described Prigozhin as "the most organic embodiment of all the demons of Putin's fascist regime."
"The things that Prigozhin is doing, all of his demonstrative acts connected with the sledgehammer and such things demonstrate that we are seeing the clearest illustration of the death throes of dying Putinism," Reznik told RFE/RL.