By Colin P. Clarke
(FPRI) — The future of the Wagner Group is in doubt. Less than a week after Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin launched his march on Moscow on June 23, which was then aborted mid-coup, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Wagner fighters who participated in the rebellion the option of relocating to Belarus. Putin also reportedly met with Prigozhin in the days after the mutiny, perhaps to press the mercenary boss on the details of the operation and to force him to lay out the inner workings of Wagner’s global enterprise.
Wagner’s lightning-quick advance into Russia brought its fighters close to a nuclear site, previously unreported details that further demonstrate the severity of the incursion. Prigozhin’s current whereabouts are unknown, although he was expected to accept exile in Belarus. A revived military base in Belarus that was expected to host Wagner troops that took part in the mutiny remains empty.
Those Wagner forces that did not join Prigozhin’s coup were eligible to join the Russian military and sign contracts under the command of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the very issue that prompted Prigozhin’s mutiny in the first place. Clearly, the balance of power between Wagner and the Ministry of Defense has shifted, with Prigozhin confident enough to call for the dismissal of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov.
In a period of several days, the thin veil obfuscating Moscow’s relationship with Wagner was obliterated. Putin even publicly admitted what everyone already knew—from the start, Wagner was a Kremlin-operated and financed conglomerate, designed to carry out Russia’s foreign policy objectives and project influence abroad. There are now reports that Wagner is being forced to disarm, at least in part, handing over heavy weapons to the Russian military.
Disbanding Wagner altogether won’t be simple. Its forces are widely regarded throughout Russia, obvious by the hero’s welcome on display in Rostov-on-Don and other towns during the rebellion. Local Russians brought food and water to the fighters and chanted Wagner’s name. Wagner is, arguably, the most recognizable mercenary brand in the world, a source of pride for many Russian nationalists. And even more importantly, Wagner serves as a force multiplier for the Kremlin, conducting operations that are essential to projecting Russian influence abroad.
Removing Prigozhin and installing a new Wagner leader more pliant to the Kremlin might not be a quick fix. Command-and-control of the so-called private military company (PMC) is complex, with units dispersed throughout the globe, maintaining various relationships with leaders and heads of state, military officials, and rebel commanders. Prigozhin also appeared to be beloved by many of Wagner’s rank-and-file, who appreciated his fighting for more resources. Would mid-level commanders and Wagner foot soldiers be as loyal to a new leader? There may also be concerns that Wagner could emerge as a parallel power structure in some countries where it operates, at times working at cross purposes to the objectives of the Russian state.
There is the possibility that Wagner could fracture, splitting into several smaller groups, or having its forces absorbed into already existing Russian PMCs, which still technically remain illegal under Russian law. The number of Russian PMCs has proliferated in recent years, largely predicated upon the success of the Wagner Group. There are now dozens of Russian PMCs, and companies like Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, have fielded their own private military units. Still, none of these PMCs has the cache of Wagner, which despite the ban on mercenary groups, recruited openly throughout Russia, purchasing billboards and maintaining a sophisticated social media presence.
Over the past decade, Russia has grown increasingly reliant on PMCs to function as the tip of the spear of its foreign policy. The Wagner Group has been the most successful of these mercenary outfits, deploying to more than a dozen countries and securing highly lucrative contracts for oil, gas, diamonds, gold, and other valuable commodities. These commodities have helped Moscow weather the storm of crippling Western sanctions levied in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Without continuous revenue streams from overseas privateering, the Russian economy will feel the pinch, which could lead to further discord in the ranks of the oligarchs and other Russian elite.
Without Wagner, Russia would be challenged to achieve the same level of influence abroad, especially because Prigozhin’s men function akin to a Swiss army knife—carrying out a range of activities, from offensive combat operations to orchestrating disinformation campaigns. In Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Syria, Wagner has provided regime security, propping up military juntas, warlords, and strongmen. But leaders in some African countries have made it clear that their agreement is with the Russian state, not with Wagner per se.
There are also major complications for Russia’s war in Ukraine, where Russian morale has been low since the earliest stages of the conflict and is undoubtedly reaching a nadir after recent Russian infighting. Kyiv has demonstrated skill and alacrity in information warfare and is likely working to find ways to leverage the fissure in Russian command-and-control to benefit its ongoing operations.
There are also interesting implications for countries that were beginning to find the Wagner model exceptionally attractive. The PMC provided a degree of plausible deniability, at least for some time, and allowed the Kremlin to operate both officially and unofficially in failed states and conflict zones. China has no equivalent to the Wagner Group at present and may not be interested in developing one, given the risks. While many see PMCs as the wave of the future, countries like China may now see the blowback generated by the recent mutiny and think twice.
Whether Wagner is disbanded, rebranded, or largely left intact, the United States and its allies are not simply sitting by idly and waiting to find out. Washington moved forward with new sanctions against Wagner equities in Africa. Beyond continuing to target Wagner, NATO countries should be buoyed by how events unfolded over the past several weeks in Russia. Russian fratricide is a sign that Western support and cohesion are having an impact, bolstering Ukraine at the same time that Moscow is floundering. Sweden’s accession to NATO, announced at the Vilnius Summit, will further strengthen Western resolve. Meanwhile, Prigozhin will continue to be a distraction, offering Kyiv opportunities to leverage its information warfare capabilities to sow further confusion and panic on the Russian side.
What remains clear is that Russia was heavily dependent on Wagner. Without the PMC or its close equivalent carrying out the Kremlin’s foreign policy, Russia will be far less capable of projecting influence abroad. But until Putin can figure out how to deal with the fallout from Prigozhin’s aborted coup, Moscow will remain vulnerable, offering Ukraine its best chance to date of breaking the military stalemate and bringing Russia to its knees.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
About the author: Colin P. Clarke is a non-resident Senior Fellow in the National Security Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is the Director of Policy and Research at The Soufan Group and a Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center.
Source: This article was published by FPRI