The Kremlin is weighing options on bringing the private military group Wagner under its direct control following the presumed death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, according to US and Western officials.
Among the possibilities, officials say, is Wagner’s absorption into the Defense Ministry or its military intelligence arm. The Kremlin could also appoint a Russian general or another government ally as its new chief, according to people familiar with the initial intelligence.
The officials stressed that the future of Wagner, on which Russia relied as a parallel fighting force in Ukraine until it fell out of favor with the Kremlin after a brief revolt in June, was far from clear. However, U.S. officials said the Kremlin believes the organization’s military strength, experienced operators, and ties to African governments are too valuable to give up or allow to fade.
Russian, US and European officials said a plane believed to be carrying Prigozhin crashed on Wednesday. US officials said the plane appeared to have been shot down on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in retaliation for Prigozhin’s aborted rebellion. He had sent a column of mercenaries towards Moscow in an attempt to overthrow the leadership of the Ministry of Defense. US officials believe an onboard explosion, possibly a bomb, brought the plane down.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Kremlin did not appear to have made any final decisions about what to do with Wagner, and as a result, the intelligence picture was evolving.
Whichever option the Kremlin chooses, American and Western officials say there are countless challenges for the Russian government.
If the Kremlin tries to assimilate Wagner into the broader GRU or Defense Ministry, the key question will be whether Wagner’s old mercenaries will trust, or even accept, any kind of government takeover. A mass exodus could follow.
But there are also other complications, including what to do with the company’s efforts to make money in Africa, and whether it will succeed as a state-controlled operation.
US officials believe Putin wants to assert direct control and has no intention of allowing the company to choose a replacement for Mr. Prigozhin.
In early July, after Prigozhin’s initial insurrection, the Kremlin moved to disband the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm and influence operation that Mr. Prigozhin built and used to attack Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. Experience of asylum in Belarus, even while enticing others to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense.
Under Prigozhin, Pentagon officials say, Wagner’s forces have been Russia’s most effective combat force on the battlefield in Ukraine, particularly in the fight to capture the city of Bakhmut in the east. But Wagner’s forces have since withdrawn from Ukraine, and most of them have moved to Belarus.
“For all intents and purposes, their combat effectiveness has diminished. They are no longer a significant factor when it comes to the conflict inside Ukraine,” Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Thursday.
U.S. officials said an absorption of Wagner by GRU, or a military general put in charge of it, would be a logical step for the Kremlin.
The military intelligence service worked closely with Wagner’s forces in Africa, sometimes devising operations supported to some extent by the mercenary group. The company’s work there often mixes soft and hard power. Wagner’s operations in Ukraine were more in line with conventional military operations, throwing waves of poorly trained convicts against the Ukrainian army.
Absorbing Wagner would expand the GRU’s hard military power, but the two organizations also operate in similar ways, masking their true intentions and operating in the shadows. And while the intelligence service’s operations often fail to achieve their tactical goals, the GRU embodied the kind of aggressive hybrid intelligence apparatus Mr. Putin desired, blending propaganda, influence campaigns, hacking attacks, and assassinations to further Russian intelligence and foreign policy goals.
Even after Mr. Prigozhin’s death, Gen. Ryder said the United States would closely monitor Wagner’s work in Africa. “I don’t think anyone is going to underestimate the potential for danger when it comes to that group or the remnants of that group,” he said.
Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that a general in GRU was about to take over Wagner’s African operations.
Russian military intelligence — in particular, one of its secret arms, Unit 29155 — planned and carried out the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who had been sent to Britain in a spy exchange, in Salisbury, England. to British and American officials.
The unit was also accused of orchestrating a destabilization campaign in Moldova, poisoning an arms dealer in Bulgaria, and organizing an attempted coup in Montenegro. Some US officials also believe that Unit 29155 was involved in a plan to pay bounties to Taliban members who killed US service members in Afghanistan.
Alain Delaqueriere Contributed to research.