Russia's president is trying to present Yevgeny Prigozhin as a corrupt liar, following his mutiny last weekend.
Vladimir Putin is attempting to destroy the reputation of the Wagner mercenary boss, the Insitute for the Study of War has claimed.
The US-based think tank said on Tuesday that Russia's president was trying to tarnish Yevgeny Prigozhin as "corrupt and a liar" to undermine support among Wagner personnel and Russian society.
Prigozhin staged a startling mutiny on Saturday, with his 25,000-strong mercenary force marching on Moscow.
The rebellion was stopped thanks to a secretive deal, which saw Prigozhin exiled to Belarus with an amnesty, but it has rattled Putin.
The Russian president's authority has been dented, with some analysts claiming he will now purge critical or wavering voices inside the regime.
"Putin has likely decided that he cannot directly eliminate Prigozhin without making him a martyr at this time," wrote the ISW in its daily briefing.
"Prigozhin still retains some support within Russian society and the Russian regular forces," it continued. "The Kremlin will need to ensure that these groups become disillusioned with Prigozhin to effectively deprive him of his popular support in Russia."
The mercenary boss, once a Putin ally, has gained notoriety criticising the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
He has openly contradicted key aspects of the Kremlin's narrative that Nazis lead Ukraine, besides slamming how the military establishment was handling the campaign - something that had landed many others in prison.
"Prigozhin... [has accused] the Russian MoD of mistreating regular Russian military personnel in combat – a message that likely appealed to many servicemen and their families disillusioned with mobilization, casualties, supply shortages, and great loss of life with little to show for it," wrote the ISW.
"The Kremlin needs to separate Prigozhin’s cause from his persona, lest an attack on Prigozhin be perceived as a Kremlin attack on his popular narrative and his stated objectives of punishing the criminally incompetent Russian MoD leadership," it added.
"The Kremlin will likely continue to attack Prigozhin’s character to break Prigozhin’s popular support, discourage Wagner personnel from following him to Belarus, and destroy his financial power."
Even before his mercenary army was deployed in some of Ukraine’s grittiest battles, Prigozhin ran a troll farm meddling in US elections – landing him in hot water with the FBI – and used his private militia for shady business across the African continent.
This earnt Prigozhin, Putin's reported former chef, economic and political power.
On Tuesday, the Russian president claimed the parent company of the Wagner Group was not independent of the Kremlin in a bid to discredit him, suggested the ISW.
He publically claimed for the first time that the Kremlin “fully funds” and “fully supplies” Wagner, while making various payments for personnel and their families.
This claim has been contested by analysts in the past.
Speaking to Euronews in April, Mark Beissinger, Professor of Politics at Princeton University said Prigozhin was “useful to Putin" because his armed group could "provides services" independent from the state.
Wagner mercenaries have been accused of engaging in widespread human rights abuses around the world, which few governments would want their fingerprints on.
Without mentioning him by name, Putin added that Prigozhin's "Concord Company” had received 80 billion rubles (€$854 million) between May 2022 and May 2023 for delivering and catering food to the Russian military.
He said the Kremlin will investigate whether the company stole anything during its work.
"Putin’s insinuation that the Kremlin will investigate the Concord Company may be preparation to justify the Kremlin’s confiscation of Prigozhin’s assets via corruption charges," wrote the ISW.
"Prigozhin had built his personal brand on criticizing the Russian military command and bureaucrats for corruption and ties to Western countries, and Putin is likely attempting to shatter Prigozhin’s populist appeal by accusing him of the same sins," it added.
The Kremlin has launched a campaign to forgive Wagner fighters for their part in the mutiny, offering them contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defence.