Head of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin left the Southern Military District headquarters on June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
Stringer | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Russian mercenary force Wagner Group may have suffered a “final nail in the coffin” with the presumed death of leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash, analysts suggest.
Two months after leading Wagner fighters in a March on Moscow as part of an attempted mutiny against the Russian defense forces, Prigozhin and senior Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin were believed to have been killed along with eight others on Wednesday evening when a private aircraft came down in the Tver region northwest of Moscow.
NBC News has not confirmed that Prigozhin, a former close friend and ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was on the plane, but Wagner-affiliated social media accounts have seemingly confirmed his death. The Kremlin has yet to confirm or comment.
Wagner-backed Telegram account the Grey Zone announced that Prigozhin had died “as a result of the actions of traitors to Russia.”
“But even in Hell he will be the best! Glory to Russia!” it added.
Yet the group also appeared to call for peace, with the Wagner Group Telegram channel on Thursday calling for its members and supporters not to “take any measures” within Russian territory.
A view of site after a private jet, allegedly carrying Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin and other passengers crashed in Russia’s northwestern Tver region, Russia on August 23, 2023.
Wagner Telegram Account | Handout | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
“Due to the great loss for everyone who supported and supports all the commanders and musicians, we ask you not to engage in amateur activities, do not take any measures within the country while there is an external threat, the First-Ninth would not approve of unconsidered decisions on our side,” a post on the Wagner Group Telegram channel said Thursday morning, according to a Google translation.
Uncertainty surrounds the future of the world’s most infamous mercenary force, which alongside its notoriously brutal frontline military efforts in Ukraine, has prominent operations in a number of politically unstable nations such as the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Sudan and Syria.
‘Not much left of Wagner’
The Russian Defense Ministry said last month the Wagner Group was completing a handover of thousands of tons of weaponry to the Russian military, while mercenaries were being urged to sign new contracts with the Russian Armed Forces and other Kremlin-affiliated private military contractors, including Redut PMC.
Mercenaries’ refusal to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry despite pressure from Moscow was a key source of the discontent that led Prigozhin and Wagner to launch its ill-fated revolt in June.
Though a camp of around 4,000 fighters remains in Belarus, while its operations as a praetorian guard service for various African regimes and governments have remained active.
“What’s been happening in Africa is that the Russian government has been trying to replace those Wagner operations with official government-controlled ones,” Jason Bush, senior analyst at Eurasia Group, told CNBC on Thursday.
“They’ve been persuading Wagner personnel to sign new contracts with the Russian military — that’s what has been happening in Syria and certainly parts of Africa.”
Given the depletion of its forces, through both massive losses in Ukraine and systematic dismantling by the Kremlin, Bush said “it’s not really that clear that there is much left of Wagner,” adding that the world’s most infamous mercenary force has become a “pale imitation” of its former self.
“There’s something left and Prigozhin was trying to preserve it, but certainly not much compared to what it was and the trend was clear that it has been pushed out of the picture,” Bush said.
“This is like the final nail in the coffin. I don’t think it’s practical now for them to revolt against this. They lost it. Whatever chance they had to stage some sort of uprising, they decided to squander it and not to follow through with it, and I don’t think there’s any serious possibility of them trying something similar now.”
Along with the thousands of remaining fighters, Prigozhin had also built a significant groundswell of popular support in Russia on account of his hardline military strategy in Ukraine, and criticism of what he perceived to be incompetence and corruption among the Kremlin’s defense apparatus.
Some analysts had cited his massive political influence as a key reason he was not immediately prosecuted or killed after the mutiny. In its immediate aftermath, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko brokered a deal that would see Prigozhin exiled to Belarus, though he soon returned to Russia and resumed regular trips back and forth to Wagner positions in Africa.
A member of private mercenary group Wagner pays tribute to Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin following their apparent deaths in a plane crash on Aug. 23, 2023.
Vladimir Nikolayev | Afp | Getty Images
Bush suggested that in light of the June mutiny, Putin “bided his time” in initially disarming and disbursing Wagner close to home while slowly facilitating a transfer of power in the contractor’s security operations in Africa and the Middle East.
“He didn’t want to cause complications with the African leaders who’d hired Wagner thinking they were government-backed Russian mercenaries only to discover that they weren’t, so he had to organize that transition. I think two months later, he felt in a very much stronger position to exact his revenge,” he said.
The Kremlin has not commented on the mercenary leader’s apparent fate and the Russian Embassy in London did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.
Social media channels linked to Wagner have blamed Moscow for orchestrating the deaths.
New leadership and rebranding
Catrina Doxsee, associate director with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said if confirmed, the deaths could mark the “first major step toward reimagining Wagner operations” after the mutiny.
Doxsee noted that the crash coincided with the official removal of Prigozhin ally Sergei Surovikin from his post as commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces. Surovikin allegedly knew about the June mutiny in advance and was detained after it failed in late June.
“Although Wagner’s — and Prigozhin’s — future has been in question for the past two months, it remains unlikely that Russia would abandon its PMC [private military contractors] model altogether given that it provides significant benefits at relatively low financial or political cost,” Doxsee said in a Q&A on Thursday.
“Without a clear successor organization, Moscow is unlikely to dismantle Wagner’s operational infrastructure in host countries, as it would be difficult to rebuild the same relationships, knowledge, and systems that Wagner personnel have established over the years.”
Members of the Wagner Group prepare to depart from the Southern Military District’s headquarters and return to their base on June 24, 2023 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
She also noted that there is evidence to suggest Wagner has expanded its activity in Mali since the mutiny as Moscow sought to reassure African partners that security assistance would be undisturbed.
“Instead of a dissolution or replacement of Wagner, Russia is likely to install new Wagner leadership — with stronger loyalty to the Kremlin and kept under tighter supervision than Prigozhin — while maintaining as much continuity as possible at the operational level,” she said.
“This process may also involve rebranding, and companies within the Wagner orbit may divide into separate entities based on functional area, which may be nationalized or maintained as quasi-independent entities.”
Allowing the power and responsibility for the entire Wagner network to be concentrated on one man is not a mistake Putin will likely repeat, Doxsee suggested.
“Although Russia is likely to seek to continue its PMC model for foreign policy and security assistance, it is likely that the marketplace of PMCs will diversify away from Wagner’s monopoly to prevent repetition of Prigozhin’s challenge to the regime.”
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