Can Wagner survive, even if Prigozhin didn’t?

Analysis by Ivana Kottasová and Stephanie Busari, CNN

CNN  —  Yevgeny Prigozhin turned the Wagner Group from a shadowy band of mercenaries into a feared military powerhouse operating across multiple countries on three continents. Now that he is gone, the future of the group is anyone’s guess.

The warlord is presumed dead after aviation authorities said he was on board a jet that crashed near Moscow on Wednesday, exactly two months after he launched a short-lived rebellion in Russia.

Most security experts doubt Wagner can survive without Prigozhin, posing major questions about what will happen to the group’s fighters, weapons and operations.

They said the Kremlin may seek to further absorb the group into the Russian military, or try to replace the Wagner chief with an ally, but it’s unlikely there will be much appetite for that among Prigozhin’s men. What’s clear is that the fallout will be felt far beyond Russia’s borders, especially in African countries where Wagner has been employed to help prop up leaders and suppress rebellions.

“My guess is that (Wagner) is going to fall apart without him because he led the group in a very personalized manner, in a way where loyalty was to him over any other entity or person,” said Natasha Lindstaedt, a professor at the University of Essex who researches authoritarian regimes and violent non-state actors.

The kind of clear chain of command that is common in traditional military does not exist in Wagner, which makes Prigozhin’s demise a potentially existential problem for the group. “It’s really all about him and once he is gone, it will be more chaotic. It’s not clear where the loyalties are going to go to,” Lindstaedt told CNN.

The leadership vacuum is even more acute given that two of Prigozhin’s trusted lieutenants – Wagner field commander Dmitriy Utkin and logistics chief Valeriy Chekalov – were also on the plane, according to the authorities.

Utkin in particular is a major loss; reportedly a former Russian intelligence officer who went by the call-sign “Wagner,” he was described as the founder of the group by the United States when it sanctioned him over his role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2017.

“Full backing of Russia”

Wagner wielded an unusual amount of power for a mercenary group, and a lot of that was down to Prigozhin and his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nicknamed “Putin’s private army,” Wagner was used to boost Russia’s influence across the world.

“They have been deployed to many countries in Africa and Middle East and also initially to the Donbas in Ukraine, and they’ve done a great job of promoting Russian foreign policy through very shadowy and illegal means of controlling political actors, extracting fossil fuels and other resources from these countries,” said Huseyn Aliyev, lecturer at University of Glasgow who researches non-state armed groups in Russia and Ukraine.

Wagner’s influence rose further over the course of Russia’s war on Ukraine, especially after the group took a leading role in the assaults on Soledar and Bakhmut, showing little regard for the lives of its troops in the process. The capture of those cities – at a huge human cost – was a rare Russian gain in Ukraine.

But with its growing influence, Wagner quickly became a headache for the Kremlin. “It started to get out of the Kremlin’s control because they were given green light to do a lot of things … to recruit prison inmates, to get almost unlimited access to weapons from the Ministry of Defense in order to achieve things in Ukraine, but instead, they became, especially Prigozhin, very powerful and influential,” Aliyev said.

The success on the battleground emboldened Prigozhin. “He started to see that he had his own following, and that the loyalty from his own following was getting greater and greater and he felt the Wagner Group was by far the most effective Russian fighting force,” Lindstaedt said.

Prigozhin and his troops in Bakhmut in an image taken from a video released on May 20, 2023.

Military takover

Now that Prigozhin is no longer in the picture, the Kremlin will need to decide what to do next with the group – whether to legalize it and make it part of the Russian armed forces, or let it continue on in some other form.

The Russian Ministry of Defense tried to swallow the Wagner Group earlier this summer, announcing in early June that “volunteer units” and private military groups would be required to sign a contract with the ministry.

Aliyev said the Kremlin was trying to reduce Prigozhin’s sway as he became bolder and more difficult to control.

Prigozhin refused to obey the order and continued to criticize the military leadership. This culminated in late June, when Prigozhin ordered his troops to take over a Russian military base in Rostov-on-Don and began a march on Moscow before pulling back.

“The fact that he was so brazen, taking on this mutiny, that is a sign that, to some extent, he was delusional,” Lindstaedt added.

While Putin has called Wagner’s actions “treason” he has floated around the idea of the group being incorporated into Russia’s military. In the wake of the uprising, Putin told the Russian business daily newspaper Kommersant that he had offered Wagner commanders the option to continue to fight for Russia.

Now, with the troublesome warlord gone, Putin is likely to want to keep Wagner outside the formal structures, Aliyev said.

“I would expect that Kremlin will try to keep it as this kind of non-registered, officially non-existent private military company in order to use it in these different enterprises overseas. It can put someone more loyal in charge, someone closer to Kremlin … but it obviously will not be the same type of group because a lot of things in Wagner were absolutely fixated on Prigozhin,” he said.

The UK Ministry of Defense said in its intelligence update on Friday that Prigozhin’s demise would “almost certainly” have a “deeply destabilising effect on the Wagner Group.”

“His personal attributes of hyper-activity, exceptional audacity, a drive for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor.”

Lindstaedt said it was unlikely Russia will be able to gain full control over the group. “What I see as more likely is splintering. And Russia won’t have full control over this and I think you’re gonna see quite a bit of chaos and that’s very dangerous because these types of groups once they splinter, they get more bold and they pose a huge threat to regional security,” she said.

Members of Wagner group sit atop of a tank in a street in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023.

Security fallout in Africa

But Wagner’s influence goes way beyond Russia. The mercenary group has fought alongside Russian troops in Syria and has been engaged in a wide range of activities in Africa, with some experts estimating it operated in more than a dozen countries.

There were indications that Prigozhin was planning to refocus Wagner’s operations on the continent following the failed mutiny.

Last month he was spotted meeting African dignitaries at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg. Earlier this week, before his apparent death, video emerged of Yevgeny Progozhin speaking from desert surroundings in what analysts said was likely Mali. In the video, Prigozhin claimed to be “making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even freer.”

Wagner’s operations gained momentum after Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, when Russia began to eye the continent’s riches as an avenue to circumvent a slew of Western sanctions. A number of CNN investigations have established Wagner’s involvement in and complicity with atrocities against civilian populations across number of countries.

Wagner got involved in the Central African Republic in 2018, when the Russian government provided military assistance and weapons in exchange for mining concessions. When CAR’s security deteriorated ahead of elections in late 2020, the situation worsened and Wagner switched from training to combat missions. Wagner’s involvement in Mozambique in 2019 was also aimed at battling violent Islamists.

A July 2022 CNN investigation exposed deepening ties between Moscow and Sudan’s military leadership, who granted Russia access to the east African country’s gold riches in exchange for military and political support. In recent months, Wagner had been supplying Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces with missiles to aid their fight against the country’s army, using Libya, where a Wagner-backed rogue general Khalifa Haftar controls swathes of land.

There are growing signs that the Kremlin is trying to tap into some of the lucrative Wagner operations. A Russian military delegation went to the Libyan city of Benghazi this week to meet with Haftar, who has been supported by Wagner for several years.

Reuters cited a Libyan official with knowledge of the meeting as saying that Yevkurov told Haftar that Wagner forces in eastern Libya would report to a new commander. CNN could not verify what was discussed in the meeting and has reached out to two LNA spokespeople for confirmation. A statement by the Russian defense ministry added that the visit aimed at discussing “the prospects for cooperation in the field of combating international terrorism, as well as other issues of joint actions.”

Oluwole Ojewale, Regional Coordinator for Central Africa at the Institute for Security Studies, told CNN Prizgozhin’s death should send a resounding message to leaders across the continent that relying on foreign mercenaries for security sector reform comes with a large risk.

He said the cracks in the foundations of West African and Central African countries that have leaned on the Wagner Group for support could begin to emerge now. “If Wagner collapses, there’s going to be a lot of fallout, a lot of consequences in terms of security relapsing in those countries,” he said, adding that these countries will need to make “critical investments in their own security sector reform.”

Prigozhin talks about making "Africa freer" in unverified video shared online

But Christopher O. Ogunmodede, a foreign affairs analyst and associate editor at the World Politics Review, told CNN the influence of Wagner in some of the countries it reportedly operated in might have been overplayed. “Its operations were just in a handful of countries. It’s not exactly marching across all of Africa’s 54 countries,” he said.

On top of that, Ogunmodede said some countries have already been looking to send Wagner packing.

“That was already in discussions before Prigozhin died. We could see a swapping out of Wagner’s presence. Already in Mozambique, they were forced to leave, they took a beating there and couldn’t put up a fight, in Mali … there has been some realization there that the junta there made a mistake getting in bed with those guys,” he said.

CAR, where Wagner’s presence is most prominent, the attention could turn to Russia instead, Ogunmodede said. Speaking to Russian state TV channel RT after the Wagner rebellion in June, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov alluded to that possibility and said Russian fighters’ presence in CAR will continue.

CNN’s Mostafa Salem, Tim Lister, Sarah El Sirgany contributed reporting.

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