By Sergey Sukhankin
The end of September and early October brought several important developments concerning the Wagner Group and its future. On September 27, a press officer for the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), Illia Yevlash, confirmed the presence of Wagner mercenaries in the war zone of Ukraine. He noted that 8,000 personnel were deployed to Belarus. Since then, some of these mercenaries have been deployed to Africa, and about 500 men have signed contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defence (MOD) to take part in the war against Ukraine. Yevlash also noted that the remnants of the Wagner Group sent to Ukraine, despite remaining the most well-trained and best-prepared force within the Russian military, are not a gamechanger and do not pose any serious threat to the AFU (Unian.net, September 27).
Meanwhile, Russian sources stated that members of the Wagner Group are now operating near Bakhmut and approaching Kharkiv and Zaporizhian. Sources have also stated that once the Russians go on a large-scale offensive to ensure “the Ukrainian counter-offensive has failed completely,” the expertise and experience of the mercenaries will be “invaluable” (Ria.ru, October 1). At the Valdai Summit, Vladimir Putin implicitly mentioned Russia’s potential usage of Wagner fighters in the upcoming operations. He stated that “thousands of fighters from [Wagner] have signed contracts with the armed forces” (Ria.ru, October 5). These developments indicate that the Wagner Group will not disappear, and the Russian state will continue to use it for its shadow missions abroad.
Perhaps the most critical harbinger of the upcoming changes occurred on September 28, when Putin personally met with Andrey Troshev, reportedly one of the founders of the Wagner Group, and Yunus-bek Yevkurov, the Russian Deputy Defense Minister.
Less is known about Andrey Troshev, who, according to Russian sources, has always been in charge of the “military side” of the Wagner Group (Kp.ru, September 29). A Colonel (retired) of the Special Rapid Response Unit, he is said to have taken part in the wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria, for which he received the title of Hero of the Russian Federation for the capture of Palmуra in 2016. He was also decorated with two Orders of Courage, three Orders of the Red Star, and a medal of Order “For Merit to the Fatherland.”
Until now, he has been tightly involved in organizing cooperation between the Redut Private Military Company (PMC), the Volunteer Corp, and the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. In Saint Petersburg, he in charge of the “League for the Protection of Interests of the Veterans of Local Wars and Military Conflicts” veteran paramilitary organization (BBC.com,September 29). Based on his functions performed to date, his knowledge of all leaders and commanders of the Group, and his solid military background, Troshev’s role in the Wagner Group is likely to boil down to facilitating ties and engagement between the mercenary formation and the MOD.
Deputy Defence Minister (since 2019) Yunus-bek Yevkurov is much better known to the public than Troshev. Most likely, in the re-emerging Wagner Group, he will be put in charge of the organization’s “foreign ties” with Russia’s external partners and clients (Ria.ru, October 1). Yevkurov’s recent tour across the Middle East and North African (MENA) region and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, including Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Central African Republic, could support this argument. During his tour, he emphasised Russia’s strategic interest in collaboration with these countries in, among others, military-technical, economic, and atomic industries (Rusfact.ru, September 3).
During the meeting on September 28, Putin revealed some important information. He stated that “during our last meeting [which took place at the end of June, following Yevgeny Prigozhin’s unsuccessful coup attempt], we talked about [Troshev] committing to forming voluntary formations that could perform various combat tasks, primarily in the zone of the special military operation.” According to Russian sources, during the June meeting, Putin reportedly offered Wagner commanders the opportunity to continue their service under the leadership of Troshev, who, as Putin states, “has been their real commander all along” (News.rambler.ru, September 29). Though the Russian authorities have not officially confirmed this information, Troshev would coordinate effective communication between the Group and the MOD. Allegedly, Prigozhin spoke strictly against the arrangement and, incidentally, he later (reportedly) died under mysterious circumstances.
According to an ultra-conservative Russian military expert, Colonel (retired) Victor Litovkin, the Wagner Group is now being restructured. Its name, officially called “PMC Wagner,” will likely forfeit the letters “PMC,” and the structure will be directly subordinated to the MOD. Litovkin also argued, based on numerous Telegram channels, that the Wagner Group could be divided into three parts, each headed by a separate commander, yet “collegiality in decision-making is likely to be preserved.” Troshev will most likely be charged with operations in Ukraine, and Anton Elizarov (“Lotos”) and Pavel Prigozhin (the son of Yevgeny) could be deployed in Africa or the MENA region (Svpressa.ru, October 2).
While these forecasts are tentative and yet to be proven by concrete facts, three Wagner-related trends are visible. First, the Group has already become a de-facto part of the MOD, which will continue performing “delicate” missions for the Russian state, enjoying its full support and protection. Second, the Group has undergone a major restructuring and internal transformation. Instead of its former non-military leadership, its new official leadership will consist of MOD-subordinated former regular military with substantial military background and expertise. Third, the operational geographic area of the Wagner Group is unlikely to shrink. Most likely, the African continent will remain its primary focus.
About the author: Dr. Sergey Sukhankin is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics (Washington, D.C.). He received his PhD in Contemporary Political and Social History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. His areas of interest include Kaliningrad and the Baltic Sea region, Russian information and cyber security, A2/AD and its interpretation in Russia, the Arctic region, and the development of Russian private military companies since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. He has consulted or briefed with CSIS (Canada), DIA (USA), and the European Parliament. His project discussing the activities of Russian PMCs, “War by Other Means,” informed the United Nations General Assembly report entitled “Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights and Impeding the Exercise of the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination.” He is based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Source: This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 157