Chilling photos show Putin's chef mingling with world leaders before becoming Wagner Group warlord who could topple Vlad | The Sun

VLADIMIR Putin's mercenary warlord crony who was once one of his most trusted allies could now be the man he fears.

Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has emerged from the shadows to become one of the key players in Russia's war in Ukraine.

Prigozhin, 61, was once most often seen wearing a bowtie and carrying a silver service – but now he's more often than not spotted sporting combat fatigues.

Despite spending years denying his links to the brutal criminal mercenaries, over the last year he has leaned into his reputation as he took a leading role in the Battle of Bakhmut.

And after he boasted to have taken control of the city from Ukraine to end the war's bloodiest battle, the question is what is next for Prigozhin?

Russia faces potential chaos and upheaval over the disastrous war, with many seeing Putin's future now tied to its success or failure.


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Experts told The Sun Online that he could potentially be eyeing the presidency as he becomes increasingly critical of the Kremlin.

And it was speculated he could be one man Putin does fear as his power continues to rise in Moscow.

Bill Browder, an investor dubbed Putin's "Enemy Number One", 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."

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He added however the increasingly deranged Prigozhin could be used as a "scarecrow" in the coming elections to make people say Putin "isn't that bad" in comparison.

"Nothing in Russia is as it seems on the surface," Browder said, reflecting on the cloak and dagger scheming of Russian politics.

"Putin is a dictator. Prigozhin is carving his place into the Putin regime.

"It's remarkable they allow him to say this stuff against Putin. He's defying everything."

Is he protected by the Kremlin, or are they afraid of him because he has an army behind him? 

With an estimated fortune of some £10million, the oligarch is often referred to as "Putin's Chef" thanks to the lucrative catering contracts he won from the Kremlin.

Prigozhin's rapid rise saw him position himself a powerful business ally of Putin – with Putin even holding functions in his restaurants in St Petersburg.

He took his job very seriously, even playing waiter amongst some of the most powerful people in the world.

Prigozhin can be seen as an ominous figure in the background of countless state functions dating back to the early 2000s.

Pictures show him serving George W. Bush, potentially lurking in the background of a dinner between G8 leaders including Tony Blair, and even bringing his benefactor Putin a dinner.

His leaked CV also seems to boast about his gangster past, including detailed accounts of his crimes.

The leaked document brags about serving meals to dignitaries including kings and queens, presidents and prime minsters.

In recent years he was given the Order "For Merit to the Fatherland" – a far cry from his past.

Old criminal documents, obtained by the Russian news publication, Meduza, in 2021, revealed that Prigozhin was charged with robbery and assault and sent to the penal colonies of Soviet Russia.

He was freed after serving nine years.

Hardened and opportunistic, he began flogging hot dogs on the streets of a crumbling St Petersburg, Vlad's home town.

And this venture led to him opening a convenience store and eventually a chain of restaurants, whilst he dipped his hands into organised crime.

His exponential rise in the restaurant scene of St Petersburg in the post-Soviet 90s was mirrored by Putin's rise to the top of the Kremlin.

And soon Prigozhin created an empire which gave him access to the top level of Russian politics.

He elbowed his way through the ranks and was soon serving the top table – setting up the Wagner Group and also bankrolling troll factories influencing politics in the West.

Prigozhin has seen himself end up on the FBI's Most Wanted list – with a $250k reward on his head.

In September 2022, he ousted himself as the leader of Wagner Group as he became increasingly involved in Ukraine.

Samantha de Bendern, a Russia expert from the Chatham House thank tank, told The Sun Online that Putin could be fearful of Prigozhin's increasing influence.

She said: "We knew he was the de facto head of Wagner, but he came out of the cupboard and when he began recruiting in jail for Wagner and offering pardons.

"He essentially took on the functions normally reserved for the state, as freeing prisoners and granting pardons is normally a function of a state actor, and he could not have done this without prior permission from the state.”

When a shocking video of Wagner soldiers murdering one of their members with a sledgehammer came out in November, Prigozhin made headlines after remarking: “A dog receives a dog’s death.” 

de Bendern said that following the video, the Kremlin claimed it was "none of their business" – yet a murder of a citizen is "always a country’s business".

She continued: “This means one of two things. Either the Kremlin is delegating violence to Prigozhin, or the state doesn’t have control.

"How can Wagner get away with this?

“Prigozhin continues to insult the minister of defence, the chief of general staff and the government, even when others who insult the war and government in Russia are jailed.

"Is he protected by the Kremlin, or are they afraid of him because he has an army behind him? 

“Prigozhin was Putin’s puppet. Now the question is, is Prigozhin becoming the puppet master?”

Prigozhin warned this week that Russia could face a revolution and lose the fight in Ukraine unless the elite got serious about the war.

If ordinary Russians continue getting their children back in coffins while the children of the elite "sun themselves abroad", he claims Russia would face turmoil along the lines of the 1917 revolutions which ushered in a civil war.

de Bendern said it seems that Prigozhin is preparing for a presidential run in 2024 – but there’s no telling what the political climate will be in March 2024. 

She explained: “He’s the only one in Russia getting close to telling the truth.

"Their most reliable voice is the leader of an organisation that’s been named a terrorist organisation by a number of countries and parliaments across the world.

“He speaks the language people understand and tells the 'truth'.

"He’s an arch communicator with an army – the power he can amass, his army, his well hidden assets all make him a powerful figure and force to be reckoned with."

Prigozhin was Putin’s puppet. Now the question is, is Prigozhin becoming the puppet master?

Robert David English, an expert in politics of the former USSR and Russia, disagrees.

He said the only way Prigozhin could run for the presidency is with Putin's blessing.

He explained: "If he defies Putin, the best he could hope for is arrest and prosecution for his many shady businesses.

"The worst would be an 'accident' of the sort that has eliminated many past Putin rivals."

Yet, there is one scenario English believes could unfold: "He could be anointed an 'approved' opposition candidate, permitted to run to give the appearance of a competitive election but not permitted to win."

de Bendern believes that many scenarios could play out in the upcoming election.

One sees Putin feeling that his time as president is coming to an end, and he could have a pact with Prigozhin along the lines of  “I’ll let you run for president if I’ll be protected”.

de Bendern said: “Prigozhin stands a good chance if he’s not bumped off before the election. But he’s permissible, he could be painted as a crazy option to make Putin look more desirable.

"But if Prigozhin is being set up, the Kremlin is playing with fire. He’s a man that doesn’t come across as controllable. 

“He’s useful, but they’re afraid of him. It’s pure chaos. He’s openly creating splits in the army.

“For Russia, all is chaos on the western front. As time goes by, we’ll see more chaos in Russia and continued incursions on the border.”

Colonel Hamish de Bretton Gordon told The Sun Online: ""Prigozhin seems to have the gloves off at the moment – and in an almost Roman-type way he has an army that could march into the Kremlin and take over."

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He added: "Prigozhin realises Putin wants to drag this war out [to outlast Ukraine and the West]

"And he wants this war to end so he can take over from Putin."

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