Despite the recent death of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who previously led a mutiny against Putin, the mercenary group is unlikely to go anywhere. It will continue to serve Russia's interests, especially in Africa and Syria, argues Emad Moussa.
A member of private mercenary group Wagner pays tribute to Yevgeny Prigozhin. [GETTY]
From a series of foul-mouthed Telegram rants against Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, to a mutiny that jeopardised Russia’s national security and challenged Putin’s authority. These were some of the events that took place during the last months of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and, speculatively, the trajectory that triggered his recent demise in a plane crash north of Moscow.
Footage circulated showing Prigozhin’s Legacy Embraer jet plummeting down toward the ground in a haze of smoke with its tail falling apart and one of its wings missing. This has presented the possibility that the plane suffered a mid-air explosion and not a technical defect. To that effect, the incident is believed to have been purposely executed to eliminate Prigozhin who had increasingly become a political and logistical headache for the Kremlin.
By aborting his mutinous march on Moscow last June, some say Prigozhin dug his own grave.
''The mercenary group in Africa helped put Russia on a track to rebuild some of its diminished post-Cold War influence in the region at a minimal cost. It has provided the Kremlin with a breathing geopolitical space and expanded its network of allies fed up with Western interventionism and exploitation, all boosting Moscow’s bid for a multipolar world.''
In the eyes of several assessors, the evidence was in Putin’s alleged record of punishing those whom he deemed ‘traitors,’ an epithet that the Russian President used in a televised address to describe Wagner’s mutineers. However, the Kremlin said the allegations that it was behind the plane crash “an absolute lie.” Meanwhile, Putin eulogised Prigozhin as a “talented businessman” who had made some “serious mistakes.”
The true circumstances surrounding the plane crash are likely to remain within the realm of speculations. Particularly as there are several other parties who would benefit from (and be pleased with) Prigozhin’s death, and for good reasons. Ukraine is one of them.
But in the grand scheme of things, such speculations may be irrelevant. Not least because the incident is an internal Russian affair reflecting, inter alia, some of the inter-elite disagreements within Moscow’s power hierarchy regarding the Ukraine war and other related domestic issues.
Yet, potentially, what is more pressing for Moscow at the moment - much to the concerns of others - is managing Prigozhin’s legacy, namely his Wagner mercenaries.
With the June mutiny still casting long shadows on the Kremlin, one can only assume that the revamping of the group is in order. To that end, and only two days after Prigozhin was confirmed dead, Vladimir Putin signed a decree obliging everyone operating on behalf of the Russian military in Ukraine to swear a formal oath of allegiance to Russia and strictly follow the orders of commanders and senior leaders.
Some analysts like to think of the mercenary group as a single-man-led cult whose constitution will crumble without Prigozhin’s leadership. Since the mutiny, arguably, hundreds of Wagner fighters relocated to Belarus, some are declaredly dissatisfied with their low pay, while others moved to West Africa where mercenary gains are more lucrative. Within Russia, the group has since been seeking almost ‘new shadow roles’ to avoid inflaming the already-displeased Russian leadership.
However, there are very few indicators that bringing the mercenary group under the direct command of the Russian armed forces will see any meaningful resistance, if at all. Chances are the Russian Ministry of Defence and, possibly, private military contractors associated with the Kremlin will step in - if they have not already - to take over Wagner’s military operations and financial networks.
For the Ukrainians, Prigozhin’s absence is a positive development, at least as a retrospective schadenfreude, considering the man was the ruthless force that led to the fall of Bakhmut. But in practice, Wagner has not been operating in Ukraine since June, and soon after the mutiny, they handed over a base to Russia's regular military and relocated to army camps in Belarus, effectively putting most of the group’s fighters out of action.
Wagner’s return to Ukraine’s battlefield is unlikely in the foreseeable future. The Russian forces are currently holding their defence lines effectively and there are no signs that the Kremlin is in a rush to initiate a full-scale offensive where Wagner fighters might be utilised.
In Syria - where Wagner helped prop up the Assad government and bolstered Russia’s military presence in the country - the group’s influence had already been curtailed. As the June mutiny unfolded, Syrian and Russian military and intelligence officials moved in swiftly to isolate Wagner Syria troops from their network in Russia and Ukraine. The mercenary operatives were forced to sign new contracts with the Russian defence ministry, or else leave Syria.
That said, nowhere is Wagner’s effectiveness greater than in Africa. Nearly five years ago, several African nations seemingly entered the Faustian pact with Wagner: military help for influence, raw materials, and money. From Libya and the Central African Republic, expanding to Sudan, Mali, and -briefly - Mozambique.
Mere days before his death, Prigozhin said in a video - believed to have been shot in Niger which just saw a military coup - that he was recruiting for operations in Africa, signalling that Wagner’s range of operations in the region was expanding. He also invited Russian investors to pour money toward that goal.
From what we know, Wagner fighters are now integrated into the defence infrastructure of some of West Africa’s Sahel countries. And also thanks to the group’s close-knit ecosystem, decentralised command, and multi-channelled resources, their operations on the continent may continue unhindered by Prigozhin’s absence.
The mercenary group in Africa helped put Russia on a track to rebuild some of its diminished post-Cold War influence in the region at a minimal cost. It has provided the Kremlin with a breathing geopolitical space and expanded its network of allies fed up with Western interventionism and exploitation, all boosting Moscow’s bid for a multipolar world.
Economically too, the gold and other sources extracted - legally and otherwise - by the Wagner and Wagner-associated firms across the continent have helped cushion the Russian economy against Western sanctions.
Moscow is seemingly poised to capitalise on Prigozhin’s legacy and this makes it highly unlikely that Wagner will cease to exist as a tool for Russia’s foreign policy. Albeit, the group may go through some refurbishments like a new name, and definitely be subjected to a higher level of accountability under leadership loyal to the Kremlin.
Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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