VLADIMIR Putin’s mercenary warlord sidekick, once one of his most trusted allies, may now be the man he fears.
Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has emerged from the shadows to become one of the main players in the Russian war in Ukraine.
In the past, 61-year-old Prigozhin was most often spotted in a bow tie and silver service, but today he’s more often seen in battle fatigues.
Despite years of denying his ties to the brutal criminal mercenaries, in the last year he has built on his reputation by taking a leading role in the Battle of Bakhmut.
And after he boasted about seizing control of the city from Ukraine to end the bloodiest battle of the war, the question is: what’s next for Prigozhin?
Russia faces potential chaos and turmoil from the devastating war, and many believe Putin’s future now depends on his success or failure.
Experts told The Sun Online that he may have set his eyes on the presidency as he is increasingly critical of the Kremlin.
And there has been speculation that he could be one of the men Putin fears as his power in Moscow continues to grow.
Bill Browder, an investor dubbed Putin’s “number one enemy,” told The Sun Online that Prigozhin is a “gangster.”
He told The Sun Online: “He would seize power, he’s not a guy who would respect power.”
However, he added that the increasingly deranged Prigozhin could be used as a “scarecrow” in the upcoming elections to get people to say that Putin is “not that bad” by comparison.
“Nothing in Russia is what it seems on the surface,” Browder said, reflecting on Russian politics’ stealth and dagger schemes.
“Putin is a dictator. Prigozhin is carving his place in the Putin regime.”
“It’s remarkable that they allow him to say something like that against Putin. He defies everything.”
Is he protected by the Kremlin or are they afraid of him because he has an army behind him?
Samantha de Bender
With an estimated net worth of around £10million, the oligarch is often dubbed ‘Putin’s chef’ for having secured lucrative catering deals from the Kremlin.
Prigozhin’s meteoric rise to fame saw him become a powerful business ally of Putin – Putin even held positions in his St. Petersburg restaurants.
He took his job very seriously and even played waiter to some of the most powerful people in the world.
Prigozhin can be seen as a menacing figure in the background of countless state offices since the early 2000s.
Pictures show him serving George W. Bush, possibly lurking in the background of a dinner between G8 leaders including Tony Blair, and even bringing dinner to his patron Putin.
His leaked resume also appears to brag about his gangster past, including full accounts of his crimes.
The leaked document boasts that meals are being served to dignitaries such as kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers.
In recent years he has been awarded the Order “For Services to the Fatherland” – a far cry from his past.
old criminal documents, received from Russian news publication Meduza in 2021, revealed that Prigozhin was charged with robbery and assault and sent to the penal colonies of Soviet Russia.
After nine years in prison he was released.
Hardy and opportunistic, he began whipping hot dogs on the streets of decaying St. Petersburg, Vlad’s hometown.
And that venture led to him opening a supermarket and eventually a chain of restaurants, while also getting involved in organized crime.
His exponential rise in the St. Petersburg restaurant scene in the post-Soviet 1990s was reflected in Putin’s rise to the top of the Kremlin.
And soon Prigozhin created an empire that gave him access to the highest echelons of Russian politics.
He fought his way through the ranks and was soon at the top – founding the Wagner Group and funding troll factories that influenced western politics.
Prigozhin has seen himself landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List – with a $250,000 bounty on his head.
In September 2022, he dismissed himself as head of the Wagner Group due to his increasing involvement in Ukraine.
Samantha de Bendern, a Russia expert from the Chatham House Thank Tank, told The Sun Online that Putin may be afraid of Prigozhin’s increasing influence.
She said, “We knew he was the de facto boss of Wagner, but he came out of the closet and started recruiting and offering pardons for Wagner in prison.”
“He essentially took on the functions normally reserved for the state, since releasing prisoners and granting pardons is normally a job for a state actor and he could not have done so without prior authorization from the state.”
When a shocking video emerged in November of Wagner soldiers murdering one of their members with a sledgehammer, Prigozhin made headlines by remarking, “A dog gets a dog’s death.”
de Bendern said that following the video, the Kremlin claimed it was “none of their business” — yet the murder of a citizen is “always a country’s affair.”
She continued, “That means one of two things. Either the Kremlin delegates power to Prigozhin, or the state has no control.
“How can Wagner get away with it?
“Prigozhin continues to insult the defense minister, the chief of staff and the government, even as others who insult the war and the government in Russia are imprisoned.
“Is he protected by the Kremlin or are they afraid of him because he has an army behind him?”
“Prigozhin was Putin’s puppet. The question now is: will Prigozhin become a puppeteer?”
Prigozhin warned this week that Russia could face revolution and lose the fight in Ukraine if the elite don’t take the war seriously.
If ordinary Russians continue to put their children back in coffins while the elite’s children “bask abroad,” Russia would see turmoil like the 1917 revolutions that ushered in a civil war, he claims.
de Bendern said it appears that Prigozhin is preparing for a presidential bid in 2024 – but there is no telling what the political climate will be in March 2024.
She explained: “He is the only one in Russia who is even remotely telling the truth.
“Your most trusted voice is the leader of an organization that has been labeled a terrorist organization by a number of countries and parliaments around the world.”
“He speaks the language that people understand and tells the ‘truth.’
“He’s an excellent communicator with an army – the power he can amass, his army, his well-hidden resources make him a powerful figure and a force to be reckoned with.”
Prigozhin was Putin’s puppet. The question now is: will Prigozhin become a puppeteer?
Samantha de Bender
Robert David English, an expert on the politics of the former USSR and Russia, disagrees.
He said Prigozhin could only run for the presidency with Putin’s blessing.
He declared: “If he opposes Putin, the best he can hope for is arrest and prosecution for his many shady dealings.”
“The worst would be an ‘accident’ that eliminated many of Putin’s former rivals.”
Still, there is one scenario English believes could happen: “He could be made the ‘recognized’ opposition candidate, allowed to run to give the appearance of a competitive election but not win.”
de Bendern believes that many scenarios could play out in the upcoming election.
One can see that Putin feels his time as president is coming to an end and that he could strike a pact with Prigozhin along the lines of “I’ll let you run for president if I’m protected”.
de Bendern said: “Prigozhin has a good chance if he is not left behind before the election. But it’s permissible, it could be presented as a crazy option to make Putin look more desirable.
“But if Prigozhin is framed, the Kremlin will play with fire. He is a man who seems uncontrollable.”
“He’s useful, but they’re afraid of him. It’s pure chaos. He openly sows divisions in the army.
“For Russia, there is chaos on the western front. Over time we will see more chaos in Russia and more raids on the border.”
Colonel Hamish de Bretton Gordon told The Sun Online: “Prigozhin seems to have taken his gloves off at the moment – and in an almost Roman fashion he has an army that could invade the Kremlin and take power.”
He added: “Prigozhin is aware that Putin wants to delay this war.” [to outlast Ukraine and the West]
“And he wants this war to end so he can replace Putin.”