He challenged Ukraine’s president to a duel from the cockpit of a bomber. He threatened to urinate on the face of a critic. He declared his private army was fighting for "every street, every house, every stairwell” in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

And that was just the past couple of weeks in the still-nascent public life of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the St. Petersburg tycoon who is confounding Moscow’s Kremlin-allied elite by starting to dabble in politics alongside waging war in Ukraine.

Prigozhin operated for years in secrecy, profiting from his personal ties to President Vladimir Putin to win lucrative catering and construction contracts with the Russian government while building up a mercenary force known as Wagner. After throwing his forces into Ukraine, their ranks swelled by prisoner recruits, Prigozhin has emerged as a public power player, using social media to turn tough talk and brutality into his personal brand.