In an interview published on his own Federal News Agency, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared to imitate Mr Putin’s highly choreographed public meetings and photo ops, which typically show him seated at a desk, according to the Institute for the Study of War (IWS).
“This interview was noteworthy for its unique format – during the interview Prigozhin seemed to mimic the way that Russian President Vladimir Putin films his choreographed public meetings, either to mock Putin quietly or to suggest subtly that Prigozhin could become Russian president like Putin,” the think-tank wrote in an online assessment.
Mr Prigozhin, who is known to be a close ally of Mr Putin, was speaking to Russian reporters from state-run Russia Today, RIA Novosti and Federal News Agency.
IWS said he may be using his influence in Russia’s mainstream media to position himself as a contender in Russia’s 2024 presidential elections. It said the staging of the interview was “unusual” for Mr Prigozhin, who usually opts to film himself in wide shots on battlefields or in staged videos that “strive to appear candid and gritty”.
The analysts added that Mr Prigozhin used this interview to “reiterate his previous arguments about the need to instill hardline ideology in Russian fighters and insinuate that the Russian Ministry of Defense is deliberately depriving the Wagner Group of artillery ammunition”.
“Prigozhin’s recent behavior — regardless of its intent — is advancing a narrative among Russian society that Prigozhin has larger political aspirations in Russia,” they said.
But John Lough, associate fellow for the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, says this is “wild speculation”.
“Prigozhin is fighting to influence the conduct of the war, but this is very different from having political aspirations,” he said.
Dr Martin Smith, senior lecturer in defence and international affairs at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, said Mr Prigozhin was more likely looking to wield power from behind the scenes, should Mr Putin fall.
“I think it unlikely that Prigozhin will mount a formal challenge for the Russian presidency,” Dr Smith told i. “Rather, he is manoeuvring himself into the strongest possible position to wield power and influence from behind the scenes if President Putin falls, or his regime becomes increasingly weakened by continuing military failure in Ukraine.”
He adds that Mr Prigozhin has avoided direct public criticism of Mr Putin so far, instead “concentrating his fire on Russia’s Defence Ministry and the army’s General Staff”.
Dr Smith believes the Wagner Group and the Russian army are competing to claim the capture of Bakhmut, in order to “gain the influence and kudos that would come with being able to present President Putin with a much-needed victory”.
Recent reports suggest Mr Prigozhin has fallen out of favour with the Russian president, who has cut him off after revealing that his troops in Ukraine are running out of ammunition and demanding they be given more.
In a message on Telegram earlier this month, the Wagner Group boss said that all his direct communication lines to the Kremlin have stopped responding.
Meanwhile, the fight for the eastern city of Bakhmut grinds on, with heavy casualties on both sides.
In an intelligence update, the UK’s Ministry of Defence said the Ukrainian military has pushed back Wagner Group fighters from a critical supply line for Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut, where fighting continues, though “Russian assaults are still at a reduced level compared to recent weeks”.
The Wagner Group has now confirmed the release of at least 5,000 prisoner fighters, which the MoD said meant “personnel shortages are likely hampering Russian offensive efforts”.