MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's most powerful mercenary, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said on Wednesday that he had asked prosecutors to investigate whether senior Russian defence officials had committed any "crime" before or during the war in Ukraine.
Prigozhin's request is his most blatant public challenge to date against President Vladimir Putin's top military brass, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
The 61-year-old restaurateur-turned-mercenary has spent months insulting both Shoigu and Gerasimov, who are leading Russia's war effort, for alleged treachery. Neither has responded publicly to his criticism.
"Today I have sent letters to the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor's Office of the Russian Federation with a request to check on the fact of the commission of a crime during the preparation and during the conduct of the SMO (Special Military Operation) by a host of senior functionaries of the Defence Ministry," Prigozhin said.
"These letters will not be published due to the fact that the investigative authorities will deal with this."
The defence ministry declined immediate comment.
Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, is the most striking member of Putin's circle to gain widespread notoriety during the 15-month war in Ukraine.
He quipped last week that his nickname should be "Putin's butcher" rather than "Putin's chef".
He says loyalty to Putin is part of his political stance, which he summed up as: "I love my motherland, I serve Putin, Shoigu should be judged and we will fight on."
In statements this week, he said he continued to inform the top leadership of the country about problems and slammed senior Kremlin officials for blocking media coverage of him and his private army.
Prigozhin is not directly challenging Putin but rather playing a jester role and acting with the approval of those dismayed by the military's conduct of the war, officials, diplomats and analysts have told Reuters.
Prigozhin's private army has been fighting alongside Russia's regular forces in Ukraine and spearheaded the months-long assault on the eastern city of Bakhmut which fell earlier this month.
(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones)