Less than a month after leaving the Kremlin quaking as his Wagner mercenaries marched on Moscow, leaked photographs of Yevgeny Prigozhin in his underwear in a tent have been leaked online amid an ongoing campaign to discredit the exiled mutineer.
As Vladimir Putin – whose grip on power is perceived by many to have been severely weakened by the popular mercenary boss’s armed rebellion – sought to insist that Wagner had never actually existed, images showing a dishevelled-looking Mr Prigozhin in a state of semi-nudity appeared on Telegram.
In the latest bizarre twist of the saga, the president insisted to the Kommersant newspaper on Friday that the private military company “simply doesn’t exist” as a legal entity under Russian law – while his emboldened ally Alexander Lukashenko claimed that some of the exiled mercenaries were now training Belarus’s military.
While the latter’s remarks indicated the enactment of at least part of the deal struck by Mr Lukashenko and Mr Prigozhin for him and his fighters to relocate to Belarus, halting their armed progress less than 125 miles from Moscow last month, efforts to undermine the mercenary leader appeared to continue.
Just days after a pro-Kremlin media outlet published photographs supposedly seized in a raid at Mr Prigozhin’s St Petersburg mansion showing him donning various bizarre disguises such as lengthy wigs and stick-on beards, a new image began circulating on Russian social media spaces on Friday.
The picture appears to show Mr Prigozhin sitting in a tent wearing Y-fronts and a T-shirt, sparking futher speculation over his whereabouts after weeks of uncertainty.
In claims appearing to chime with Minsk’s assertion that Wagner fighters are instructing the Belarusian military at a camp near Osipovichi – some 50 miles from the capital – the pro-Russian Telegram account which first posted the image claimed its metadata showed it was taken on 12 July, according to monitoring group Belarusian Gayun, which noted similarities with other photos from the camp.
The floorboards in the tent appear to match those shown in photographs taken last week during an official tour of the formerly disused Osipovichi camp, at which satellite images reported by Radio Free Europe and the BBC appeared to show scores of newly erected tents and other structures.
Despite the activity at the camp, and potential presence of Mr Prigozhin, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg had told reporters as recently as Tuesday that the alliance had not witnessed “any deployment or movement of any Wagner forces into Belarus”.
Despite it being a long-favoured foreign policy tool of his own creation, Mr Putin appears to have urgently sought to defang the private military company since its fighters seized the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don last month and threatened Moscow.
In remarks denouncing the aborted mutiny as “high treason”, the Russian president toed a cautious line in a televised address last month in which he claimed the mercenaries – whose prestige on the battlefield in Ukraine has boosted their domestic popularity – had been “tricked into a criminal adventure”, without specifically referring to those under Mr Prigozhin.
Criticising what he called “a stab in the back of the troops and the people of Russia”, Mr Putin insisted however that Wagner troops were free to join the Russian military, return to their families, or leave Russia for Belarus.
The extraordinary mutiny came after Wagner withdrew from Bakhmut, which it seized from Ukraine after months of bloody attrition in the frontline Donetsk city, with Mr Prigozhin having frequently voiced his anger at an alleged lack of ammunition and coordination by Russian military leaders.
The 62-year-old’s vitriolic criticisms drew surprise from many observers given their apparent disregard for the Kremlin’s typically rigid grip on the narrative of its war in Ukraine, and were widely interpreted as a sign of the former convict’s growing political stature within Russia.
A former hot dog vendor, Mr Prigozhin rose to prominence as he garnered the attention and favour of the Russian president while working as a restaurateur, with both men having grown up in St Petersburg.
He benefitted from large state loans while expanding his business under Mr Putin’s gaze, winning millions of pounds in contracts to provide meals to public schools, the Kremlin and Russian military – also drawing the attention of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Claiming to have served 10 years in jail during the final throes of the Soviet Union, reportedly after the violent robbery of a woman whom he choked unconscious, Mr Prigozhin was permitted by Mr Putin to create Wagner in 2014, despite Russia’s constitution outlawing such groups.
Following exploits in the Donbas and Syria, while also fighting for national leaders and warlords in Africa in return for lucrative sums and assets, Wagner has become a household name during the Ukraine war as a result of its relative prestige in comparison with the faltering Russian military – and its apparent brutality.
While Mr Prigozhin’s recruitment drive in prisons fuelling “human wave” attacks was deemed largely responsible for Wagner’s gains in Bakhmut, footage has also circulated of its fighters bludgeoning an alleged deserter to death with a sledgehammer, symbolism since adopted by Mr Prigozhin himself.
Having long sought plausible deniability on the subject of Wagner, in seeking to discredit Mr Prigozhin following his shortlived mutiny, Mr Putin reversed his position by seeking to claim ultimate responsibility for the group, as he insisted the fighters’ wages had come out of state coffers.
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