The presumed death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is raising questions about the future of the influential mercenary group that has played a key role in the Russia-Ukraine war. Prigozhin is believed to have died on Wednesday in a plane crash along with his second-in-command Dmitry Utkin.
In addition to Prigozhin, Utkin, and three crew members, Russian emergency services reported that five other individuals were killed on board the plane, all of whom were reportedly involved with Wagner. Among them was Valery Chekalov, a long time Prigozhi ally who was believed to be managing Prigozhin’s assets in Syria, according to the Guardian. Another was Sergey Propustin, a Chechen war veteran who was Prigozhin’s personal security guard.
Preliminary U.S. intelligence reports say that the crash was a deliberate assassination that likely occurred via a bomb explosion or other sabotage attempt while the plane was in midair, according to the Wall Street Journal. Russian authorities said they would launch a criminal investigation into the incident. Many believe the crash was orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin in retaliation for Prigozhin’s rebellion against the Moscow government this June.
The Wagner Group, a private for-profit military company founded in 2014 and backed by the Kremlin, has played an essential role in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, experts say. The mutiny in June is considered to be the most direct threat Putin has faced in his rule since he took power. Since then, Prigozhin was allowed to stay in Belarus under a truce brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (though he was also spotted in Russia in July). Nevertheless, many speculated that Prigozhin’s rebellion would not go unpunished.
Who could succeed Prigozhin?
Wagner’s leadership structure is kept tightly under wraps, so it is unclear who will replace Prigozhin as head of the organization, says Amalendu Misra, a professor of international politics at Lancaster University.
Despite the havoc Wagner has caused for Putin’s government, Misra predicts that the paramilitary group will continue to play an essential role in Russian foreign policy and remain distinct from the Russian Ministry of Defense.
While Moscow has for years denied any affiliation with Wagner, it more recently acknowledged the Kremlin’s relationship with the group, with Putin claiming in June that Wagner was “fully financed” by the state. The Kremlin has had to strike a delicate balance with Wagner, and it still maintains a distinction between the organization and the state. Nevertheless, experts believe the Kremlin uses Wagner to enact Russian foreign policy.
“The Kremlin is not going to say that a new person was appointed [as leader] because that would open itself up to all sorts of legal issues and accusations of war crimes,” says Misra. “So this is going to happen surreptitiously and quietly. I would guess all this might have been planned a long time ago.”
Prigozhin, who made a name for himself—and grew his fortune—through his close ties to Putin, has become known as a prolific social media user. He frequently posted scathing profanity-laden criticisms of the Russian defense minister Segei Shoigu and the Russian chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov. Misra says that this time around, it’s likely that Putin will pick someone with much less of a public profile.
“The Kremlin wouldn't want anyone to have the same degree of public persona in regards to whoever is the future head of the Wagner Group,” says Misra. “This new leadership will be amenable to the Kremlin’s suggestions and views and there won’t be any kind of confrontation the way we have seen before.”
Wagner in Ukraine
Wagner was officially disbanded in Ukraine after the mutiny in June. U.S. intelligence reported in July that there are no longer Wagner fighters inside Ukraine. However, Wagner fighters are still active in Belarus, training special forces in the country. Wagner was officially registered as an educational company by the Belarusian government on Aug. 4.
Wagner was essential to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since the mercenary group’s fighters tended to be more highly trained and were more efficient on the battlefield than official Russian Army soldiers, according to Andreas Krieg, a professor of security studies at King’s College London.
“Wagner is structured like a special forces unit where there’s quite a lot of autonomy for boots on the ground to make decisions as they see fit,” Krieg told TIME in June. “That makes them far more dynamic and agile than the Russian military, which is still a post-Soviet military and is very hierarchically structured.”
Wagner’s independence from the Russian government gives the Putin regime plausible deniability regarding the group’s military activities, according to Krieg. This allowed Russia to conduct operations both in Ukraine and around the world in a more clandestine manner, he says.
“Wagner serves a critical purpose for the Kremlin,” says Misra. “The Kremlin needs an organization which can do its dirty work effectively,”
Russia’s relationship with African nations
Beyond Europe, Wagner has maintained a presence in Africa for a decade, supporting autocratic regimes. The mercenary group has played a role in propping up the junta in Mali, supporting the the Central African Republic (CAR) army against rebel groups and fighting against jihadists in Mozambique, with varying degrees of success.
“Those governments have been worried since the mutiny about Russian support,” says Thierry Vircoulon, an associate research fellow at the Sub-Saharan Africa Center of the French Institute of International Relations. “They are probably getting much more anxious now. It makes people think about the fact that they are dependent on the power struggle in Moscow … So that’s very worrying for them.”
Wagner is a crucial part of Russia’s strategy to expand its influence in Africa, as the Kremlin has been condemned and shunned by much of the international community after its invasion of Ukraine. Even as Prigozhin’s rebellion made public a deep animosity between the Wagner Group and the Russian state, Wagner’s operations in Africa were hailed by both sides.
Shortly after the failed mutiny in June, Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov reassured his African allies that Wagner would continue its operations in Mali and CAR, where the group has official contracts and where Wagner was, he said, “doing a good job.”
Then, on Monday, a video was posted of Prigozhin—his first video address since the mutiny—believed to have been filmed somewhere in Africa. Wagner was conducting “making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even more free,” Prigozhin said in the video. Earlier this month, he had pitched the group as a way to restore peace after a military coup in Niger.
Wednesday’s plane crash also comes at a somewhat sensitive time in Russia-Africa relations, as Putin has incurred the ire of some leaders in the continent.
On June 16, as a delegation of African leaders arrived in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on a peace mission, the city was hit by Russian airstrikes. Then, a day later in Russia, Putin showed disinterest in the African delegation’s peace plans, interrupting their presentations and out-right rejecting parts of their proposal, which was seen as a clear sign of disrespect. The following month at the highly-anticipated Russia-Africa summit, only 17 heads of state attended out of the 49 African countries that sent delegations.
“Those two incidents have really undermined African support of Putin,” says William Gumede, professor at the University of Witwatersrand School of Governance in Johannesburg. “So now, with the death of the Wagner leader, I think it will further decrease the support of Russia in Africa.”
Wagner’s future in Africa
The recent changes in Wagner may also instill greater caution among African leaders from becoming too cozy with Moscow, even though Russia-Africa relations are unlikely to change.
According to Alex Vines, director of the Africa programme at Chatham House, the presumed death of Prigozhin and his deputy will likely “demoralize Wagner personnel in Africa,” which could drive some to leave the forces. It may also serve as a reminder to leaders in the region that “accepting a tight Russian embrace is not in their interests.”
Even so, Vines says, “Many African countries will continue to engage with Moscow—as they believe multipolarity is best for them.”
The strategic importance of Wagner to Russia’s foreign policy cannot be ignored. For the most part, Wagner’s business model fell in line with Russia’s foreign policy—appealing to African states that feel neglected by the West. This has become especially important as Russia finds itself isolated on the world stage.
Wagner will likely remain in Africa in some form even after the death of Prigozhin, says Federica Saini Fasanotti, a senior fellow in the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology.
“They will remain because they are an important strategic asset of the Kremlin in Africa. Putin needs this presence desperately right now because of the situation of Russia on the international stage,” she says. “And so I think that Wagner would remain no matter what.”
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