As if Russian President Vladimir Putin was not already in enough trouble over his botched handling of the invasion of Ukraine, the blatant attempt by Yevgeny Prigozhin to topple Russia’s military leadership represents the biggest challenge to his leadership he has faced during his twenty-three years in power.
For years, Prigozhin has been one of Putin’s most trusted confidantes, running the mercenary Wagner Group as a private army dedicated to pursuing Putin’s drive to reestablish the Russian Empire.
Having helped Putin to achieve his invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries have been active on Putin’s behalf in conflict zones such as Libya, Chad and Syria, where the group played a prominent role in keeping the regime of Bashar al-Assad in power.
More recently Prigozhin has been the most vocal supporter of Russia’s attempts to conquer Ukraine and overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky.
But while Wagner has been at the forefront of Russian efforts to withstand Ukraine’s recently-launched counter-offensive, relations between the Kremlin and the abrasive Prigozhin have become strained in recent months, with the Wagner leader becoming increasingly critical of Moscow’s handling of the conflict.
While Wagner has been at the forefront of Russian efforts to withstand Ukraine's recently-launched counter-offensive, relations between the Kremlin and the abrasive Prigozhin have become strained in recent months
A 1917-style revolution
In one of his more outrageous comments in May, he warned that the Kremlin's disastrous handling of the Ukraine conflict meant that Russia faced a 1917-style revolution, and accused senior Russian defence officials such as defence minister Sergei Shoigu and chief of the defence staff Valery Gerasimov for bearing much of the responsibility for Russia's war failings.
"The guilty people will receive their punishment – as a minimum, they'll be hanged on the Red Square," he warned, claiming Russian elites in Russia were living comfortably while troops are dying on the front lines. "This divide can end as in 1917 with a revolution," he said.
Now Prigozhin has gone even further by launching what Putin has described as an "armed mutiny" against the state after the Wagner leader launched a "March for Justice", an attempt by his 25,000-strong army of mercenaries to seize control of the Russian military.
Describing his forces as "true patriots", Prigozhin denounced Putin's claim, made in a hastily-arranged television address to the Russian people, that his Wagner mercenaries were "traitors".
Putin made the comment after the Wagner chief, whose forces have been involved in heavy fighting in Ukraine, led his forces back into Russia with the specified aim of toppling Moscow's military leadership. In their first significant challenge to the Russian high command, Prigozhin's forces seized control of military buildings and the airport in the southern city of Rostov.
The move by Prigozhin undoubtedly represents a major challenge for Putin, who has sought to portray the war in Ukraine as a matter of national survival, as Russia seeks to prevent what it regards as a Western attempt to encircle the Russian homeland.
Putin has long regarded the conflict as a great patriotic undertaking, one that requires each and every Russian citizen to do everything in their power to achieve success.
Anyone who does not give what the Kremlin has termed the "special military operation" in Ukraine their full backing is deemed to be nothing short of a traitor to the Russian cause.
Since the war began in February last year, Putin has been especially keen to attract the support of prominent Russian nationalists to back his efforts to prevent Ukraine from forging closer ties with the West, such as seeking membership of Nato and the EU. In this context Prigozhin has played a pivotal role.
Since the war began in February last year, Putin has been especially keen to attract the support of prominent Russian nationalists to back his efforts to prevent Ukraine from forging closer ties with the West
A long-standing ally of Putin
A former criminal who served nearly ten years in a Russian penal colony, the Wagner leader was regarded as a long-standing ally of the Russian president whose friendship dates back to the earliest days of Putin's presidency.
Having proved himself as a devoted supporter of Putin's vision of restoring Russia to its former imperial glory, Prigozhin has played a key role in the numerous military adventures the Kremlin has initiated in recent years, starting with the initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
Following Putin's decision to invade Ukraine in February last year, Prigozhin's Wagner mercenaries found themselves at the forefront of Russia's attempts to capture and hold territory in Ukraine.
Wagner forces were primarily responsible for mounting the recent Russian offensive to capture the eastern city of Bakhmut, suffering thousands of casualties in the process.
But while Prighozin's mercenaries have proved to be one of the more effective units in the Russian military effort, claims that they have not received sufficient support from Russian military commanders has prompted the Wagner leader to make a series of increasingly hostile attacks on the Moscow establishment, a development that has been the source of considerable tension with the Kremlin.
Strains first began to appear in the relationship between Putin and his erstwhile ally at the start of the year when Prigozhin claimed his forces had been responsible for capturing the Ukrainian town of Soledar, one of Moscow's first significant territorial gains in the war. While the Russian military forcefully dispute the claim, Prigozhin released a video lauding Wagner as "probably the most experienced army in the world today".
Russia's losing the war
Since then Prigozhin has become the most prominent Russian critic of the Kremlin's handling of the conflict. In May he threatened to withdraw his troops from the besieged eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, citing a lack of ammunition received from Putin's government.
Then, after his forces claimed they had finally captured the city, suffering an estimated 10,000 combat fatalities in the process, the Wagner leader launched a blistering attack on the Russian military, branding it a "disgrace", after Russian forces were accused of abandoning their positions on the city outskirts, allowing the Ukrainians to recapture valuable territory.
But by far his most outspoken criticism, which was directed at Putin personally, was his claim at the end of last month that Russia faced losing the war in Ukraine because of Putin's flawed invasion strategy, and that the country faced the prospect of a 1917-style revolution as a consequence.
In an interview with prominent Russian pro-war blogger Konstantin Dolgov, Prigozhin claimed the Russian invasion had only succeeded in helping Ukraine to amass "one of the world's strongest armies" as a result of the support it had received from the West.
"We made Ukraine a nation, known to everyone around the globe. They are like Greeks at their peak, or Romans." Ukraine now had more tanks and more troops than it did at the start of the war. "We militarised it up to the brim," he said.
The strength of Prigozhin's criticism of Putin's handling of the Ukraine war has even prompted speculation that the Russian leader's days are numbers, and that he could be replaced by an even more extreme Russian nationalist such as the Wagner leader himself, which would be a remarkable turnaround bearing in mind his decidedly humble origins.
We made Ukraine a nation, known to everyone around the globe. They are like Greeks at their peak, or Romans. We militarised it up to the brim.
Wagner's chief Yevgeny Prigozhin
Who's Yevgeny Prigozhin?
Born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, in 1961, nine years after Putin, Prigozhin had an impoverished childhood. His father died when he was young and his mother worked in a hospital, he later recalled.
The young Prigozhin was sent to a sporting academy, where daily activities often involved hours of cross-country skiing. Despite his efforts, he did not have the necessary qualities to become a professional athlete, and after finishing school he fell in with a crowd of petty criminals.
After one particularly unpleasant incident, when Prigozhin was involved in mugging a woman in St Petersburg and stealing her jewellery, he was sentenced to 13 years in a penal colony, of which he served less than ten.
After his release he turned his back on his criminal youth, and tried to make an honest living selling hotdogs. He mixed the mustard in his mother's kitchen, and before long was earning $1,000 a month, a considerable sum at a time when the Russian economy was in meltdown during the Yeltsin era.
The profitable time he spent selling hotdogs soon developed into a vastly more profitable endeavour, as he used the money he earned to buy a stake in a chain of supermarkets. Before long he had opened his own restaurant, which led to him eventually setting up his own catering business.
Before long, by making skilful use of his contacts in St Petersburg, Putin's home city, he soon found himself arranging the catering when the Russian president entertained important visiting dignitaries, such as the occasion when former US President George W. Bush and his wife visited Russia in 2006.
While the coarse and shaven-headed Prigozhin was not everyone's cup of tea, Putin was impressed by his attention to detail and his willingness to undertake even the most menial tasks, such as clearing the dishes, when arranging state occasions.
Before long Prigozhin had earned the nickname "Putin's chef" after Putin rewarded his loyalty by giving his company, Concord Catering, a number of lucrative government contracts to feed Russia's schools and military. In addition his company provided the catering for Putin's presidential inaugurations, while the Russian president often chose to celebrate his birthday at one of Prigozhin's restaurants.
Prigozhin had earned the nickname "Putin's chef" after Putin rewarded his loyalty by giving his company, Concord Catering, a number of lucrative government contracts to feed Russia's schools and military.
'The orders come from Papa'
Putin clearly came to hold Prigozhin in high regard, as the relationship ultimately led to him making the transition from celebrity caterer to becoming the founder and head of one of the infamous Wagner Group.
The origins of the Wagner Group date back to Putin's original invasion of Ukraine in 2014 when, keen to deny any direct Russian involvement in the violence, Putin was keen to set up a proxy militia that could do Moscow's bidding in Ukraine while at the same time providing Putin with the ability to deny Russian involvement.
Prigozhin was soon holding meetings at the Russian defence ministry, where he demanded to be given land from the Russian military that he could use to train his "volunteers", as his growing band of militiamen were known. When Russian officials questioned his motives, he would respond simply by stating, "The orders come from Papa," which is how Prigozhin referred to Putin at the time.
Having proved their worth in Ukraine, in 2015 Wagner forces were deployed to Syria as part of Putin's military intervention to keep the Assad regime in power, and allow Moscow continued access to its military bases in Tartus and Latakia.
More recently Wagner forces have been in the thick of the action in Ukraine, where its ranks have ballooned to about 50,000, according to western intelligence estimates, including tens of thousands of ex-prisoners recruited from jails around Russia, often personally by Prigozhin. During visits to Russian prisons, Prigozhin made it clear the prisoners would probably die at the front. But if they survived for six months, they would be released with a full pardon and paid generously.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, recently claimed Wagner had recruited more than 38,000 prisoners in recent months, and said 30,000 had been killed, wounded, captured or were missing.
Now that the hot-headed Prigozhin has turned his guns on the Kremlin itself, Putin can no longer persist with his claim that the Wagner leader is nothing more than a restauranteur.
Prigozhin has also earned a reputation for being one of the cruellest commanders taking part in Russia's offensive against Ukraine. On one occasion he appeared to tacitly endorse a video showing the murder, with a sledgehammer, of a Wagner defector who had apparently been handed back by the Ukrainians in a prisoner exchange. "A dog's death for a dog," Prigozhin said in a statement at the time.
For all the controversy that Prigozhin has attracted, Putin had continued to back his former protege, not least because his Wagner group's activities had allowed the Kremlin a degree of deniability about its military operations. When Putin was recently asked about Wagner's activities in Ukraine, he dismissed claims of Prigozhin's involvement. "He runs a restaurant business, it is his job; he is a restaurant keeper in St Petersburg," Putin replied during an interview with Austrian television.
Now that the hot-headed Prigozhin has turned his guns on the Kremlin itself, Putin can no longer persist with his claim that the Wagner leader is nothing more than a restauranteur. On the contrary, the man he once regarded as his protégé, and who used to refer to Putin as "papa", now represents the gravest threat the Russian president's own survival.