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Prigozhin’s death spells end of Wagner, but Russia won't abandon its missions

With the Wagner Group's top leadership reportedly dead in a likely assassination, Moscow is continuing to quietly replace the private mercenary outfit in its overseas operations.
AFP via Getty Images

Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is presumed dead along with his top deputies following a plane crash in Russia’s Tver region Wednesday. While the cause of the crash has yet to be revealed, observers immediately pointed to the Russian state. The likely assassination was expected following the paramilitary group’s failed June rebellion and Moscow's subsequent quiet replacement of Wagner mercenaries in various countries. 

Russia’s federal air transportation agency confirmed on Wednesday that the heavily mythologized Prigozhin along with two of his closest associates Dmitry “Wagner” Utkin and Valery “Rover” Chekalov were on the flight manifest, but Moscow has yet to confirm his death (although Putin on Wednesday expressed condolences over his death). Although some Russian analysts suggest the Wagner boss may have staged his own death, this scenario is unlikely given Prigozhin's personal qualities and the nature of the struggle for his business.

Soon after Wagner took control of the southern city of Rostov-on-don and began a march on Moscow June 23, the group reached an agreement with the government to end the conflict. Despite the Kremlin's announcement that Prigozhin would leave for Belarus, he continued to be active politically and economically both inside and outside Russia, signing new state contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. His top deputies Utkin and Chekalov also had continued to work on maintaining the presence of mercenaries in key countries, in addition to maintaining in Belarus the 5,000-strong contingent withdrawn from Ukraine and Russia and building new logistical routes for the group in Syria, Libya and the Sahel. 

The appearance of some sort of reconciliation between Wagner and the Kremlin following President Vladimir Putin's meeting with the group a few days after the mutiny was obviously false. While the authorities did not take drastic steps against the group — likely for fear of weakening state positions abroad — the Kremlin did work to intercept the projects that Prigozhin had managed to personalize over the years in conjunction with the security services. 

Some Wagner commanders claimed that the number of mercenaries — among whom the most famous is Andrei "Sedoy" Troshev — transferred to another private military company (PMC) under the control of the Defense Ministry was negligible and that their morale is “extremely low,” suggesting a struggle for personnel. 

At the same time, the authority of Prigozhin and Utkin, their ability to maintain a force in Belarus and the danger of sudden steps damaging the Kremlin's image abroad all considerably diminished Moscow's leverage over Wagner as the Russian presidential elections approach in 2024.

The process of luring Wagner fighters into the ranks of PMCs loyal to the government was stalled by mercenaries' belief that their director would somehow be able to negotiate financing and protect them from prosecution for any misdeeds committed in Syria or Libya or for their refusal to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry. Prigozhin managed to keep some of his business in Russia after the mutiny and maintain Wagner's branches in Russia's peripheral regions, such as Perm, showing that the group, as a entity, had the resources to sustain its operations. 

However, this could have been an illusion. The Kremlin likely did not immediately touch Prigozhin's foreign projects for fear of creating a power vacuum, since IS fighters remain highly disruptive in Syria. However, work on a large-scale replacement of Wagner was undoubtedly underway. 

During last month’s Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg, the deputy head of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Andrei Averyanov, participated in the official delegation for the first time. The media has named Averyanov as the commander responsible for the poisonings of double agent Serge Skripal and Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev. According to rumors, it was Averyanov who was developing a plan to completely replace Wagner in Africa with a military corps of 20,000 people. "Prigozhin was extremely opposed to this and made every effort to prevent it," reported the Russian Telegram channel VChK OGPU. 

On Aug. 22, a Russian military delegation headed by Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov paid a visit to Libya. Given that Yevkurov supervises combat training in the Russian army and participated in negotiations with Prigozhin during the June mutiny, the real topic of his talks with the leader of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army, Khalifa Hifter, were likely the continued presence of Wagner mercenaries in Libya, rather than the claimed protocol discussion of military ties following the results of this month's international military forum held in Moscow. 

A replacement to Wagner was to be formed by several structures, primarily PMCs such as Redut, Convoy and a number of other groups. The Redut PMC has been working in Syria for a long time. It is associated with the projects of Russian businessman Gennady Timchenko and under the control of the Defense Ministry. Redut drove the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but has recently restructured to operate in other regions of Wagner's presence with the financial backing of businessman Oleg Deripaska. 

The situation with Convoy, another PMC, is more complicated, because until recently it was an ineffective company that included many people without significant combat experience. Against the background of the war in Ukraine and the Prigozhin rebellion, Moscow grew desperate and pumped money into this force, which turned out to be useful. 

The decapitation of Wagner is effectively dismantling the group, because its command council is unable to be effective without Prigozhin, Utkin and Chekalov. 

A source who previously served in the Russian military intelligence told Al-Monitor that while Wagner did have a plan of action in place in the event of its leader’s death, it is temporary in nature and did not at all imply full autonomous operation. The source stressed that without Prigozhin, it would be impossible to operate a business that is “in confrontation with the state structures that created this business.” 

Yet Moscow does not necessarily have to completely replace Wagner's mercenaries abroad with others. The commanders and fighters of Wagner’s foreign branches are frustrated, facing the prospect of either working for the Defense Ministry’s PMCs or engaging in conflict with the military without sufficient resources or the support of local authorities, as well as the prospect of criminal prosecution in Russia if they return home. The Wagner detachments withdrawn from Ukraine and Russia to Belarus are also virtually locked in training camps and depend on agreements between Moscow and Minsk. 

Prigozhin's death looks like a logical outcome of the rebellion and a symbolic warning to his sympathizers within the Russian political, economic and military elite. In this regard, the possibility discussed in the Russian media of a staged death would be equivalent to his real death for the future of the Wagner Group. But given the known cool character of the businessman and the circumstances of his mutiny, it is difficult to imagine that Prigozhin decided to self-destruct or transfer his business to the Defense Ministry in such a cunning way. 

But there is another possibility that should still be considered. Dozens of employees of Prigozhin's companies told the media that the reason for Prigozhin's mutiny was his "mental state." While the Wagner boss had always had a "particular propensity for violence,” according to media reports he explained to his subordinates the motive for his mutiny in one phrase: "I was freaking out."

Nevertheless, given the notable silence of Russian officials on the plane crash for nearly 24 hours, punctuated by Putin's brief commentary, so far it looks like Prigozhin, who had become inconvenient, was eliminated. 

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