What next for Russia’s Wagner mercenaries?
7 Sep 2023|

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner private military company, joined the long list of Russian oligarchs who’ve died since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. From ‘tripped while smoking’ to ‘falling from a window’, challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin has proved fatal. Prigozhin’s death came just two months after his 23 June march on Moscow. In the aftermath we’ll see a struggle for Wagner’s resources and authority, and the rise of small private military companies that will align with the Russian military, primarily engaging in grey-zone warfare to serve Russian interests.

The former restaurateur and entrepreneur founded the Wagner Group in 2014 and soon became involved in the war in the Donbas. Officially, private military companies are illegal in Russia but Wagner was well funded by the Kremlin and Prigozhin was a long-term Putin ally. Wagner was an irregular warfare tool to exploit instability, providing plausible deniability for Putin while pursuing the Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives and extending Russian influence in Ukraine, Syria and Africa.

Prigozhin had a fierce rivalry with Russian military commanders and posted extensively on Telegram criticising figures including General Valery Gerasimov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. The use of Telegram enabled Prigozhin to circumvent government censorship. He declared his mutiny in response to what he said was a Russian missile strike on a Wagner camp.

The rebellion was short-lived, but Prigozhin captured the Southern Military District headquarters in Rostov and advanced to within 200 kilometres of Moscow. It ended with a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko under which Prigozhin and his troops were exiled to Belarus. Prigozhin was soon seen travelling to and from Moscow and meeting Putin in July. In August he uploaded a Telegram video, ostensibly filmed in an unnamed African country, in which he spoke of freedoms Wagner troops were bringing to the region.

On 23 August Prigozhin was travelling on his private Embraer-135 jet, an aircraft with a good safety record, when it tumbled out of the sky. Witnesses reported hearing explosions. On board with him was Valeriy Chekalov, one of Prigozhin’s closest friends who had been with Wagner since the early 2000s. Chekalov provided logistics and ran subsidiary companies for Prigozhin. Also killed was Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian intelligence officer described as Prigozhin’s right-hand man. US intelligence assessments point to a deliberate killing to decapitate the Wagner Group.

Prigozhin’s attempted rebellion exposed his many supporters in the Russian military and the civilian population. The Kremlin has rounded up those close to him, including General Sergei Surovikin, who previously led Russia’s invasion forces and disappeared after the attempted rebellion. The day before the crash, Russian media said that Surovikin had been moved to a new position and was on vacation. While the Wagner Group has been greatly reduced since the attempted rebellion, thousands of its members remain in two bases in southern Belarus. Prigozhin’s supporters present a significant risk to Putin but his crackdown has been brutal and effective and these loyalists will find it hard to present the threat they did two months ago.

The more than 5,000 Wagner troops in Belarus are much needed by the Russian military. The Kremlin has imposed conscription and voluntary enlistment campaigns to boost Russian force numbers and the military is struggling to fill officer and NCO roles with experienced and capable soldiers. Most of the instructors in training establishments have been deployed to Ukraine. The Wagner troops are unlikely to be amalgamated happily into a system they blame for killing many of their number, and Prigozhin. Reports indicate that the demolition of the Wagner cemetery in Nikolayevka coincided with Putin’s directive for all Wagner troops to pledge loyalty to Russia. Putin is actively dismantling the loyalties Prigozhin established to neutralise the Wagner threat.

A significant rival for Wagner’s resources is the Redut private military company established in 2008 by Putin-linked oligarch and former KGB agent Gennady Timchenko to safeguard his gas empire. It enjoys complete backing from the Russian Defence Ministry and has been active mainly in Syria. Redut played a major role in the Ukrainian invasion, suffering substantial losses. Leveraging Prigozhin’s unsuccessful rebellion, the company has recruited former Wagner members. Redut is now the Russian military’s preferred private army, emblematic of the evolving complexity of its grey-zone operations. It highlights the growing ties between the oil and gas sector, conflict and Russian foreign policy. The company will use grey-zone tactics to extend the influence of Russia.

So, who now will lead the Wagner Group, managing its significant resources and global influence? Putin has previously redistributed resources from deceased or incarcerated oligarchs to strengthen other allegiances. But given Wagner’s potency and power, its controller could potentially challenge Putin, so he’s likely to allocate most of its resources to other entities. The individual assuming control of what remains must be loyal and skilled at maintaining intricate connections, particularly within Russia’s intelligence community. This community has strongly supported Putin and remains a pivotal force in post-Soviet society, with former intelligence personnel assuming influential roles in various spheres.

Whoever takes over the group will require large financial backing to maintain it and fund its operations. Wagner’s activities in Africa have allowed it to secure mining contracts, generating an estimated US$250 million since the beginning of 2022. Putin admitted to financing the group to the tune of US$1 billion since May 2022. Prigozhin’s wealth allowed him to pay his troops above the average Russian military salary, which helped thwart the army’s attempts to convert Wagner soldiers’ contracts into Russian military contracts this year. Wagner personnel offered these significant pay cuts have refused and chosen exile.

Prigozhin’s death has highlighted Putin’s political vulnerability as he strives to regain control and enforce consequences for what he labels Prigozhin’s ‘serious mistakes’. Having seen the danger of consolidating power under a single private military leader, Putin won’t permit another to command 50,000 troops, as Prigozhin did during the Battle of Bakhmut. Instead, Russia will favour multiple smaller companies overseen by Putin-aligned oligarchs. These companies will align with the military, acting as grey-zone tools to expand Russian control and influence, especially in Africa.