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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the presence of mercenaries in key countries, in addition to maintaining in Belarus the 5,000-strong contingent withdrawn from Ukraine and Russia and building new logistical routes for the group in Syria, Libya and the Sahel.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. 

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