A Russian spin doctor-turned-mercenary has apparently been targeted in a possible execution attempt in eastern Ukraine in what analysts have suggested could be a warning to the increasingly influential boss of the Wagner Group.
Igor Mangushev, a captain in the Russian army going under the call name of Bereg, was taken to a hospital in the town of Stakhanov with a gunshot in the head in the early hours on Saturday.
His friend and colleague Boris Rozhkin posted photos of Mr Mangushev with a bloodied bandaged head lying on a hospital bed on his Telegram channel.
The doctors concluded he was shot from a handgun at a close range.
Mr Rozhkin said Mr Mangushev, who is reportedly in a grave condition, was attacked at a checkpoint in Stakhanov but did not offer further details.
Russian authorities in the area have not confirmed the incident.
"I think we can safely describe this as a hit," said Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert and author of the new book “Putin’s Wars: from Chechnya to Ukraine”.
He suggested that given Mr Mangushev's links with Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the private military contractor Wagner, it could be a "proxy attack".
“This could be a warning, or taking a pawn off the board, or a sign that Mr Prigozhin’s more thuggish rivals feel he is weakened enough that they can move,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mr Mangushev first fought against Ukrainian government troops in 2014 as part of the military contractor ENOT, whose members made no secret of their neo-Nazi views. The 36-year-old man frequently posed for photos doing a Nazi salute.
He gained notoriety as a spin doctor working for companies affiliated with Mr Prigozhin.
He became one of Russia’s most notorious faces of the invasion, even claiming that he and his allies came up with the letter Z as a symbol of the Russian invasion.
Russian military vehicles and tanks with markings with “Z” and “V”, however, were stopped in the border areas well before Mr Mangushev’s social-media posts promoting the new symbol of the war in Ukraine.
Last summer, Mr Mangushev was featured in a video holding what he said was the skull of a slain Ukrainian defender of Mariupol.
Unlike most Kremlin officials, Mr Mangushev did not hide his genocidal views on Ukraine.
In the video he claimed the Russian army in Ukraine was “fighting against an idea - and everyone who shares this idea has to be eliminated. Like this dude here.”
The assassination attempt against the notorious warmonger bears a striking resemblance to a string of murky deaths of notorious pro-Russian warlords in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015.
Back then, the Kremlin was reported to be anxious to get rid of some of the most unsavoury elements in the Russian-backed separatist movement.