An alleged Russian mercenary leader made 99 calls to Vladimir Putin's chief of staff in eight months and frequently spoke to top officials at the Kremlin, leaked records have revealed.
Moscow claims it has no links to the Wagner security force and that its reputed boss Yevgeny Prigozhin merely provides catering services to the Kremlin - but calls revealed by Bellingcat show the restaurateur was in regular contact with Russia's elite.
Putin himself was pictured at a Kremlin function with Wagner troops including lieutenant colonel Dmitry Utkin, the suspected founder of the group.
Wagner troops are known to have fought in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic but officials deny that they take orders from the Kremlin.
Vladimir Putin poses with four alleged Wagner officers at a function at the Kremlin - which denies any involvement with Russian mercenary groups
Prigozhin, who is nicknamed 'Putin's chef' because of his catering business, used his personal phone number to make regular contact with top Kremlin officials in 2013 and 2014.
The Bellingcat investigation found he had called and texted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov 144 times in eight months, and had 99 phone conversations with Putin's chief of staff Anton Vayno.
There were also 54 contacts with Putin's domestic politics chief and 25 calls with Alexey Dyumin, the deputy head of the GRU intelligence service.
Emails also revealed at least two face-to-face meetings between Prigozhin and Russia's defence minister Sergey Shoigu.
In addition, Prigozhin was found to have made at least three calls with Russia's former ambassador to the US, Yury Ushakov.
The investigative website said it was 'not plausible' that Prigozhin's catering services could have required this level of communication with top officials.
On top of that, Prigozhin's employees made joint air travel bookings with known Wagner troops and the chef also has financial links to the mercenaries.
Russian media says that thousands of Russians under contract to the Wagner group have been fighting in Syria since 2015.
Syrian opposition groups claim that Wagner has been recruiting people under the supervision of the Russian army, which supports Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
In contrast to unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the Syrian conflict has seen a low Russian death toll because of the use of private contractors.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured lift) is nicknamed 'Putin's chef' because of his catering business which supplies services to the Kremlin
Wagner has up to 1,200 people deployed in Libya, according to a confidential UN report earlier this year which said its activities included deploying sniper teams.
Putin insisted in January that any Russians in Libya are not being funded by the government and do not represent the Russian state.
Wagner troops have also set up shop in the Central African Republic and reports have claimed that Prigozhin has advisers working in 20 African countries.
Prigozhin is also thought to have business interests in Africa and links to armed political groups in Chad and Benin.
One photo which has circulated on social media in Russia shows four Wagner officers posing with Putin, including former lieutenant colonel Dmitry Utkin who is suspected to be the group's founder.
Utkin is a military veteran who is thought to be linked to senior figures in the Russian armed forces and the GRU.
The Kremlin has previously acknowledged Utkin's presence at an official reception in 2016 to honour people with state decorations.
Prigozhin separately used Utkin's name as a pseudonym for the CEO of his catering firm and another associate, it is believed.
Private military contractors use a defence ministry base in southern Russia containing barracks built by a company linked to Prighozin, it emerged last year.
However, Russian authorities deny using mercenaries and Prighozin has denied being linked to Wagner at all.
Russian military vehicles last year in Syria - where private contractors Wagner are thought to be involved in the conflict
Prigozhin was indicted by US authorities in 2018 who accused him of funding Russia's 'troll factory' in a bid to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Prosecutors claimed he bankrolled the shadowy Internet Research Agency in order to 'sow discord in the US political system'.
The Russian denied the claims, saying that 'Americans are very impressionable people... if they want to see the devil, let them see him.'
Putin has also rejected the claims, mocking the West for falling 'so low' as to suspect 'a restaurateur from Russia' of influencing the US election.
Prigozhin served nine years in prison during the Soviet era after he was convicted of robbery and running a prostitution ring, before striking it rich in the 1990s.
In the 2010s, companies associated with Prigozhin began getting lucrative defence contracts ranging from catering to cleaning services.
The businessman has also won $2billion in contracts for supplying food to Moscow schools since 2009.
Last year his catering firm was linked to a dysentery outbreak at seven daycare centres and kindergartens in Moscow which left 127 children sick.
Russia's Consumer Oversight Agency said inspections at Prigozhin's firms had found violations of 'sanitary standards'.
In addition, an investigator who took up the cause on behalf of the parents affected said she was subject to a smear campaign by Prigozhin's media groups.
One of these, the Federal News Agency, is thought to have been linked to the Internet Research Agency before it moved into different buildings in St Petersburg.
Prigozhin was separately sanctioned by the US in 2016 over claims that his companies had been involved in the conflict in Ukraine.
The restaurateur's assets include Evro Polis, an oil trading firm that has allegedly served as a front for Wagner's operations in Syria.