By Altaf Moti
The Wagner Group, a notorious private military company that has been involved in conflicts and controversies around the world, is facing an uncertain future after the now confirmed death of its founder and leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash near Moscow on Wednesday.
Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was widely seen as the mastermind behind Wagner’s operations which served the Kremlin’s interests in places like Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Venezuela and several African countries. Along with Prigozhin, two other key figures of Wagner were also on board the doomed flight: Dmitry Utkin, the field commander and former GRU officer who gave the group its name, and Valeriy Chekalov, the logistics chief who oversaw the supply of weapons and equipment to Wagner’s fighters.
The loss of these three men leaves a huge leadership vacuum in Wagner which has already been weakened by Prigozhin’s failed attempt to stage a coup against Putin in June. The so-called “march on Moscow” was a bold move by Prigozhin to challenge Putin’s authority and assert his own influence in Russia and abroad. However, the plan backfired when Putin’s loyal forces intercepted and crushed the Wagner convoy that was heading to the capital.
Prigozhin and his allies managed to escape, but they faced severe consequences for their rebellion. Wagner’s role in Russia’s military operations in Ukraine was drastically reduced and its assets and contracts in Africa were put under scrutiny and pressure by the Kremlin. Prigozhin tried to salvage his reputation and business by releasing videos and statements from Africa where he claimed to be recruiting new fighters and investors for Wagner. But his efforts were too little, too late.
Now that Prigozhin is gone, what will happen to Wagner? Will it survive without him? Will it find a new leader or a new patron? Will it disintegrate or be absorbed by other groups? These are some of the questions that analysts and observers are asking in the aftermath of the plane crash. There are no clear answers yet, but some possible scenarios can be envisaged.
One scenario is that Wagner will fall apart without Prigozhin, who was the glue that held the group together. Prigozhin was not only the financier and strategist of Wagner, but also the personal leader who commanded loyalty and respect from his men. He had a charismatic and authoritarian style of leadership that suited the nature of a mercenary group that operated outside the law and under the radar. Without him, Wagner may lose its cohesion and direction and its fighters may defect or desert to other groups or countries. This scenario is more likely if there is no clear successor or heir apparent to take over his role.
Another scenario is that Wagner will survive without Prigozhin, but with a different leader or a different patron. This scenario assumes that there is someone within or outside Wagner who can fill Prigozhin’s shoes and take charge of the group. This could be someone from Prigozhin’s inner circle such as his son or his deputy or someone from another faction within Wagner.
Alternatively, this could be someone from outside Wagner who can offer protection and support to the group, such as another oligarch or a foreign power.
A third scenario is that Wagner will be absorbed by another group or by the Russian state. This scenario implies that Wagner will lose its autonomy and identity as a private military company and become part of a larger entity that can control its activities and resources. This could be another private military company that can merge with or acquire Wagner, such as Redut, a rival group that is controlled by Russian intelligence and has been seen as a potential successor to Wagner after Prigozhin’s death. Or this could be the Russian state itself, which can incorporate Wagner into its official military structures or covert operations units. This scenario is more likely if the Kremlin decides to intervene and take over Wagner’s affairs.
Whatever happens to Wagner after Prigozhin’s death, one thing is certain: the world will not see another group like it anytime soon. Wagner was a unique phenomenon that emerged from the complex interplay of Russia’s domestic politics, foreign policy and security interests. It was also a reflection of Prigozhin’s personality and ambitions which made him one of the most influential and controversial figures in Russia and beyond. His end marks the end of an era for Wagner Group and for Russian mercenarism in general.