What next for the Wagner Group as leader presumed dead in plane crash?

Options for the mercenary group – in the wake of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demise – include complete dissolution, nationalisation into the conventional Russian army or finding a new leader. Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to hold the key to the future

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 31 August 2023 03:36 BST
Wagner soldiers release statement after Prigozhin killed in plane crash

The Wagner founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is confirmed to have died in a plane crash – a turn of events that appears to leave his Wagner Group fighters rudderless and facing a highly uncertain future.

Prigozhin, a convict, turned gourmet restaurateur, turned warlord, was onboard an Embraer private jet flying from Moscow to St Petersburg when it came down over the Tver region, killing everyone on board. Two other senior commanders, Dmitry Utkin and Valery Chekalov, were also on the passenger list.

The crash came exactly two months after Prigozhin led his men in a mutiny that gravely embarrassed Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, his fighters leaving their posts in southern Ukraine to occupy the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don before marching on Moscow along the M4 highway.

Yevgeny Prigozhin is dead, according to Russian investigators

That was the crescendo of a months-long feud between Prigozhin and Russia’s top military brass, over the decisions made during Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the lack of support Prigozhin’s mercenaries had received in the battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut.

Prigozhin had been a vocal critic of Russia’s chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov and defence minister Sergei Shoigu over their leadership of the war effort over the winter months.

Wagner’s dramatic uprising on 23 June was eventually called off after 24 hours with the mercenaries about 125 miles from Moscow, thanks to intense negotiations with the Kremlin mediated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Prigozhin said his forces had consented to stand down to avoid spilling Russian blood in the streets. As part of the deal, Prigozhin – and a number of his fighters – agreed to relocate to Belarus. Although the Wagner chief would later be pictured back in Russia, adding an air of mystery to his movements.

Precisely what Prigozhin hoped to achieve has never been definitively established, but it is possible he believed he could topple Mr Gerasmiov and Mr Shoigu. It appears difficult to believe that he would do so without at least the tacit support of some of Russia’s military elite, but headstrong would be an apt word for Prigozhin.

In the hours before he met his end, there were reports in Russian state media that Sergei Surovikin, AKA “General Armageddon” – who was said to have close ties to Prigozhin – had been formally removed from command of Russia’s Aerospace Forces.

What is known is that Pirgozhin and a number of senior Wagner figures met with Mr Putin at the Kremlin on 29 June, five days after the mutiny, for what appeared to be clear-the-air talks. According to the president’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, a three-hour face-to-face meeting was held with 35 people in attendance at which Wagner unit commanders reiterated their loyalty to their commander.

Speaking to a reporter from Russia’s state-controlled Kommersant newspaper a little later, Mr Putin said he offered Wagner troops several options, including continuing to operate under the command of someone he identified by the call sign “Sedoy,” meaning “Grey Hair,” whom they had served under for 16 months.

Prigozhin with Wagner troops

“All of them could have gathered in one place and continued to serve and nothing would have changed for them,” Mr Putin said. “They would have been led by the same person who has been their real commander all this time.”

“Many people nodded when I said that,” the Russian leader continued. “And Prigozhin, who was sitting at the front and didn’t see this, said after hearing me out: ‘No, the guys do not agree with this decision’.”

That may give a clue as to Mr Putin’s thinking now, but he will not want to lose Wagner’s presence in Africa, which has essentially become an extension of Russian power in the region. Wagner is believed to have thousands of fighters on the continent, embedded in countries including Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) – where rights groups and the UN accuse them of committing war crimes.

Wagner fighters have also been accused by the US of enriching themselves with illicit gold deals on the continent.

Leading up to the crash, Prigozhin appeared to be making clear Wagner’s commitment to Africa. He was photographed attending the Russia-Africa Summit at the Trezzini Palace Hotel in St Petersburg in July, posing for photographs in front of maps of the continent and gladhanding diplomats, before this month issuing a statement in support of the coup in Niger and posting a video, apparently shot in Africa, encouraging Russian investment in the CAR. Russian flags and chants mentioning Wagner have been a feature of demonstrations of pro-coup supporters in Niger.

Rama Yade, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said this may not have helped Prigozhin’s cause. “Putin was very clear about that when he said the mutineers ‘betrayed the country... He could not trust Prigozhin, who was under investigation for armed rebellion, any more. Even after his exile, Prigozhin was a threat to Russian interests in Africa, maybe a competitor with rival interests.”

Vladimir Putin met with Prigozhin in the days after the failed mutiny

She pointed out that foreign minister Sergei Lavrov moved to reassure his country’s African allies at the summit that Russia’s operations in Mali and beyond “of course, will continue” when they expressed anxiety about what Wagner’s actions meant for them.

Professor David Lewis of the University of Exeter told The Independent that Prigozhin’s killing “leaves behind an extensive business empire across three continents”, which are likely to be scrambled over, given that, “Prigozhin’s companies were involved in everything from serving school dinners in Russia to a huge gold mine in the Central African Republic”.

Professor Lewis predicts that “different factions linked to the Russian military will probably try to take over these lucrative business contracts and create new proxy forces to expand Russia’s footprint in Africa. Prigozhin was particularly skilled at managing these transnational networks, but he is not indispensable. Russia will find new ways to use mercenaries and murky business deals to challenge the West for influence in the Middle East and Africa.”

For Ms Yade, Wagner’s mercenaries now have three options: complete dissolution, nationalisation into the conventional Russian army or finding a new leader. Should Wagner live to fight another day, Yade’s Atlantic Council colleague Ariel Cohen warns: “Integration into the Russian military will be bumpy, as many fighters are personally loyal to Prigozhin, and the state armed forces’ affiliation would even further dilute the already-tenuous plausible deniability the Russian state-supported mercenaries have enjoyed.”

Since the mutiny, around 5,000 of its fighters have been situated at bases in Belarus awaiting redeployment, with some fighters training Belarusian troops a few miles from the border with Poland. Warsaw, a Nato member, is certainly concerned enough about their presence to move up to 10,000 troops to reinforce the border. Following the plane crash, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki suggested the Wagner group would become an even bigger threat now it is likely to come under Mr Putin’s control.

“The Wagner group comes under Putin’s leadership. Let everyone answer the question for themselves – will the threat be bigger or smaller? For me, that’s a rhetorical question,” Mr Morawiecki told a news conference.

But for Belarusian journalist Hanna Liubakova: “The motivations for Wagner mercenaries to remain in Belarus are diminishing rapidly. The future course of action for them remains uncertain.

“Their presence in Belarus initially stemmed from Lukashenko’s effort to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin. It was then manifested through the intimidation of neighbouring Western countries and Ukraine, a stance that found favour with Putin.

“Now, following Prigozhin’s death, there is a possibility that the mercenaries could face pressure to leave Belarus. Their departure is likely to bring a sense of relief to the Belarusian people.”

She added that the killing of Prigozhin will also chasten Belarusian President Lukashenko, who has boasted about the important role he played in bringing the rebellion to a peaceful conclusion, once more reminding him – and the wider world – that it is Vladimir Putin who is really in control.

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