At 62, the foul-mouthed founder of Russia’s private army of Wagner mercenaries does not sound or look much like a photogenic, aspiring politician.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s face is scarred, his head is shaven tight, his uneven teeth are tobacco-stained, and the ex-convict’s vocabulary is filled with expletives.
He spent most of the 1980s in Soviet jails after being found guilty of armed robbery and recruiting children into a gang.
But more than 30 years later, Prigozhin has stepped out of the shadows, right into the limelight of Russian politics.
Polls show that he became a recognisable public figure and staked out a political niche among conservative Russians who revere Soviet leader Josef Stalin and want to win the war in Ukraine no matter what.
“Comrade Stalin was absolutely right,” Prigozhin said in May, touting the death penalty for servicemen and officials who “fail” to support the faltering war effort.
Such a law would be similar to Stalin’s WWII policies.
Prigozhin also said that after losing tens of thousands of mercenaries in eastern Ukraine, his Wagner Group will have to recruit more people and “transform into an army with an ideology”.
In late May, the once shadowy, secretive figure toured Russia and gave four press conferences.
To some outside observers, Prigozhin’s transformation may be part of the Kremlin’s power transfer plan in case of a collapse similar to the “Times of Trouble” between the death of Czar Ivan the Terrible and the ascension of the Romanov dynasty four centuries ago.
There are two possible scenarios, says Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch.
“The hard version is the case of Times of Trouble 2.0, when all official power institutions such as the army and police fold, [and Prigozhin] can head a volunteer army,” he told Al Jazeera.
“In a lighter version, [under the Kremlin’s] management, he must lead the radical part of the public unhappy about the war’s outcome and lead manageable opposition to power,” he said.
“At the same time, by accumulating the discontent, he will bulldoze liberal opposition to political sidelines.”
“Bulldozing” may be an appropriate term to describe Prigozhin’s managerial style.
In February 2018, he gave Wagner mercenaries fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army an order to seize a natural gas plant in the Kurdish-controlled part of eastern Syria.
His step eventually led to the first armed clash involving Russian and US nationals since the Cold War’s end.
“He decided that everything would go smoothly,” Marat Gabidulin, who led a Wagner unit in the February 8, 2018 battle, told Al Jazeera. “Americans thought differently.”
A United States-led coalition attacked the unit and the Syrian servicemen they backed with planes and artillery, killing hundreds.
“We were simply annihilated,” said Gabidulin, who described his four years with Wagner in two published books. “I was lucky to come out alive, with a light wound.”
The failure stemmed from Prigozhin’s “totalitarian” decision-making style that frequently leads to miscalculations and the loss of lives, Gabidulin said.
“Because of his conviction that he’s always right, that he’s a genius, he often overestimates his abilities,” he said.
‘Shut up and obey Putin’
Prigozhin’s possible way from the trenches to the halls of power is paved with the bodies of other warlords who rose to short-lived fame in eastern Ukraine.
“I would not rule out a political career for Prigozhin in Russia,” Sergey Bizyukin, a fugitive Kremlin critic and publicist, told Al Jazeera.
However, Prigozhin is more likely to end up like several separatist leaders in southwestern Ukraine who died under suspicious circumstances after falling out with their Kremlin curators, he said.
“Historic logic is harsh and practically doesn’t leave [Prigozhin] a chance to survive,” Bizyukin said.
Another analyst agrees – given that Prigozhin made enemies among Russia’s top brass and refused to force Wagner mercenaries to sign contracts with the defence ministry.
He has two options, says Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University.
The first one is “to shut up and to obey [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s decision to fuse all the rampant Cossack, anarchic liberty of Wagner within the framework of the usual state structures,” he told Al Jazeera.
Option two is to “burn to death after a shot from the Shmel [flamethrower] in the side of his car, something that will be later ascribed to Ukrainian diversion groups,” he said.
Prigozhin has crossed too many red lines, and one more may prove lethal.
“Putin tolerates former distinguished allies, but Prigozhin has repeatedly been told that he hit rock bottom and will have no more [political] credit,” Mitrokhin said.
A sledgehammer case
On June 1, Prigozhin received an unusual gift from another warlord with political aspirations.
The Wagner chief dropped by a hospital in the western city of Nizhny Novgorod, where pro-Kremlin writer Zakhar Prilepin is recovering from a May 6 assassination attempt he blames on Kyiv.
Prilepin is a former Putin critic who jumped on the Kremlin’s bandwagon after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. He admitted to committing war crimes while heading a unit of pro-Moscow separatist fighters in southeastern Ukraine.
These days, Prilepin co-chairs Just Russia, a leftist party with a tiny presence in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.
Just Russia is led by Sergey Mironov, a former geophysicist who befriended Putin in the 1990s. His party is widely seen as a Kremlin project designed to siphon off the votes of elderly, pro-Communist Russians.
In December, Mironov boasted of a gift – a massive sledgehammer with Prigozhin’s signature.
A month earlier, a similar tool was used to execute a Wagner mercenary who surrendered to Ukrainian forces and was later swapped.
Prilepin gave Prigozhin a “sledgehammer case” he embroidered himself while in hospital – and praised him and Wagner mercenaries.
“The very fact of their existence is a hope for another war, another politics, another political language where there’s very little politicking and more honesty, where one learns to stick up for oneself,” Prilepin wrote on Telegram.
Kremlin-connected officials told the Meduza website in April that Prigozhin may try to gain control of Just Russia’s St Petersburg branch.
From cockroaches to ‘blood diamonds’
Prigozhin’s fortune dates back to a hotdog stand he opened in 1990 in St Petersburg.
He soon earned enough to open a riverboat restaurant – and Putin, a city hall official at the time, soon took a shine to it.
After becoming president, Putin hosted several state leaders on the boat – and awarded Prigozhin’s companies contracts with the military, schools and hospitals.
The cash flow did not dry out even after worms, hair and cockroaches were found in the food, and hundreds were hospitalised with infections, according to a 2019 analysis of court cases involving Prigozhin’s companies.
Media dubbed Prigozhin “Putin’s chef,” but his most valuable services to the Kremlin have been even less palatable.
His Internet Research Agency used fake accounts and stolen identities of real Americans to propagate pro-Kremlin views and interfere in the 2016 US presidential elections, according to the White House.
And in 2014, Prigozhin started the Wagner Group, which has operated in southeastern Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali and Mozambique.
Prigozhin tries to develop mineral riches below their feet.
His Evro Polis company signed a deal to mine hydrocarbons in Syria and restore its energy infrastructure.
He also got a stake in trading African “blood diamonds”, the France-based All Eyes on Wagner research group claimed.
In January, Wagner seized the town of Soledar, which used to produce 90 percent of Ukraine’s edible salt. Its environs are also rich in alabaster, valuable clay for ceramics and coal.
In early June, Prigozhin’s approval ratings grew from one to four percent, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s only remaining independent pollster.
In Russia, it made him the fifth most recognisable figure after Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Levada’s head, however, says that Prigozhin’s public profile will not translate into a political career.
“Prigozhin has little chances of becoming a federal politician,” Lev Gudkov reportedly said.
“Such figures cause fear and caution. He is an outlaw.”