The fate of the Wagner Group hangs in the balance after its field commander and chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is killed in a blazing plane crash.
Analysts told The Hill that the private military company – once a vast empire that helped prop up authoritarian regimes in several African countries and played an important role in Russia’s invasions of Ukraine – will increasingly come under the control of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin and his military officials must decide what parts of the group to keep, what to get rid of — and how to keep mercenaries in line.
John Hardy, deputy director of the Russia Program for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Wagner would be easier for Moscow to control “with Prigozhin, Utkin and other prominent figures out of the picture”.
“But without its core leaders, it would not be the same organisation,” he wrote in an analysis sent to The Hill newspaper. “And their deaths may lead to some Wagner fighters becoming completely disillusioned with service.”
The Kremlin could also seek to disband the mercenary force, which includes thousands of fighters around the world. However, Katrina Ducsey, program director and research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said major changes are unlikely.
“It’s really in Russia’s interest to allow all of this operational infrastructure to continue with as little disruption as possible,” she told The Hill. “The vast network that Prigozhin has created has essentially become a cornerstone of Russian foreign policy in a lot of these areas.”
However, Duccy said, in the long term, Russia is likely to seek to reduce Wagner’s independence from the state and limit its hegemony.
“The goal will be to ensure there is tighter cooperation with the Russian government, stricter supervision, and potentially a push toward diversifying the general market” for mercenary firms, she said.
Whatever Putin’s plans, Wagner Group officials and militants appear to be deeply upset about the supposed deaths of Prigozhin and co-founder Dmitry Utkin, who was a highly respected field commander within the company. The group is actually named after the old call sign Utkin used when he served in the Russian army.
Telegram accounts linked to the Wagner Group spent the days after the news broke eulogizing the two men and blaming the Kremlin for the plane crash.
Russia is still investigating the crash, but the United States believes an implosion forced the plane to land, and Biden administration officials said the incident aligns with Putin’s history of silencing critics. The Kremlin has denied any role in Friday’s incident.
Wagner’s representatives wrote on Friday that they were awaiting word from senior officers on next steps.
“First, in a situation like this, it is important not to act on emotions, you need to formulate a clear plan of action.” they wrote. “Secondly, it is necessary to properly redistribute responsibilities. Thirdly, we all need time to come to some conclusions.
There are some reports that Wagner may advance on Moscow again, but military analysts say the private company lacks the resources or capabilities to carry out any kind of retaliation and is likely more interested in maintaining its global operations.
“It’s game over,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t think Wagner – without her leadership – has enough money, credibility, and influence to take on another challenge.”
And the British Ministry of Defense wrote in an article Intelligence update on Friday that Prigozhin’s apparent death would have a “destabilizing effect” on the company.
“His personal traits of hyperactivity, exceptional daring, desire for results, and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor,” she wrote.
Wagner’s future had been up in the air since June, when Prigozhin launched an insurrection against Moscow, then quickly abandoned it. The warlord has been exiled to Belarus in an apparent truce with Putin, but he is still said to be moving in and out of Russia.
The uprising cast doubt on what would happen to the Wagner network in Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Syria and Libya., Russia considers it an ally and has benefited from the lucrative security, oil, gold mining and other contracts gained in providing fighters to these countries.
In the two months before Prigozhin’s crash, Putin had been signaling his intention to curtail Wagner’s capabilities and lay the groundwork for a new monarchy.
In June, the Russian leader ordered the company to hand over its heavy weapons and publicly announced for the first time that Wagner was receiving state funding. He also stated that Prigozhin’s Concorde Catering Company would be investigated for possible theft from the Russian government.
Meanwhile, Putin avoided criticizing the Wagner fighters, allowing them to be released after the mutiny.
Several Wagner fighters were flown to Belarus, as part of a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to end the confrontation between Prigozhin and Putin while the mercenary leader marched toward Moscow.
Lukashenko said on Friday that up to 10,000 mercenaries are in his country or will arrive soon and will stay there “as long as we need this unit”.
“Long live PMC Wagner, long live PMC Wagner, PMC Wagner will live in Belarus despite anyone’s wish to the contrary,” Lukashenko said. according to Belarusian state-run media Belta. “Prigozhin and I came up with a system for how PMC Wagner will be absorbed into Belarus.”
The transfer of Belarusian forces could end up in Putin’s favour, allowing him to keep the forces parked there for the time being while the war rages on in neighboring Ukraine.
Kupchan, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said he ultimately expects the Kremlin to create a hybrid structure in a way that allows “the state apparatus to get a much greater view of what Wagner is doing.”
Mercenary armies, Kupchan said, “sometimes become strong and independent enough that they turn against the centre.” “Putin has learned his lesson and will not allow Wagner to continue to exist as an independent mercenary army.”
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