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Hanging by a thread: Can Wagner survive the post-Prigozhin era?

August 25, 2023 at 1:44 pm

People lay carnations to a memorial as they pay tribute to Yevgeny Prigozhin who died in a plane crash, in Moscow, Russia on August 25, 2023. [Pelagiya Tihonova – Anadolu Agency]

Private Military Company (PMC), Wagner, may carry on without its charismatic founder and leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, but many experts believe it will never restore its former glory.

A controversial plane crash

Rumours are rife about the plane crash that claimed the lives of Wagner’s top brass. Many pundits believe that the incident was no accident. For them, this was very much a premeditated killing, one that was part of the Kremlin’s retaliation for the events that unfolded exactly two months ago.

The plane crash decapitated the Wagner group, which lost its top leader and influential executives, such as Dmitry Utkin and Valery Chkalov. The Wagner group has not yet issued a conclusive statement due to the hasty change management and the magnitude of the loss.

The emergence of Wagner PMC

The Wagner mercenaries have long impacted battlefields worldwide, from Syria to Libya and Centrafrique. But the battlegrounds of Ukraine put them in the limelight for Russian audiences.

Despite its vast superiority, the Russian army failed to take Kyiv after launching an all-out attack on Ukrainian territory at the war’s onset. Later, the Russian troops had to evacuate many areas. Wagner’s high combativity on the ground became a beacon of hope and restored morale within the army.

General Sergei Surovikin facilitated the private military group’s emergence on the frontlines, and the results were swift.

For many months, Bakhmut was in a stalemate. The Russian Regular Army suffered significant casualties without breaking the gridlock. The Wagner mercenaries managed to do so after incredibly intense and bloody combat, which witnessed numerous war crimes. However, Wagner deemed any action justifiable if it led to victory, disregarding the laws of war.

A turning point

However, following changes at the helm of the Russian Ministry of Defence, relations between the PMC and the top military hierarchy reached their lowest ebb. There was no love lost between Prigozhin and the Shoigu-Gerasimov duo. Prigozhin asserted that this tandem could not provide sufficient support to the battlefront and failed to understand the troops’ situation at the front. A flurry of accusations followed, highlighting the sheer incompetence of the army’s top brass. This tension eventually escalated into a mutiny on 23 June, 2023. Afterwards, Lukashenko took on the role of mediator and diffused the situation.

An infographic titled 'From restaurant manager to paramilitary group leader: Wagner's rebellious head' [Kemal Delikmen/Anadolu Agency]

An infographic titled ‘From restaurant manager to paramilitary group leader: Wagner’s rebellious head’ [Kemal Delikmen/Anadolu Agency]

The post-mutiny period

At that juncture, many believed that the Kremlin had two options: either to purge the Prigozhin-led Wagner or choose a conciliatory approach and believe in the sincerity of Prigozhin’s patriotism, with whom Putin had once been closely associated. In the end, a pardon was issued to Prigozhin for the duration of the war, misleading observers that the Russian leadership chose the second option.

Even Prigozhin went along and thought the second alternative was on. Subsequently, Wagner’s forces surrendered their heavy weapons to the Russian army, following which up to 10,000 Wagner personnel were deployed on Belarusian territory near Suwałki. During this period, Prigozhin and Putin met at the Kremlin. Nonetheless, the arrest of Strelkov, a right-wing nationalist who held critical views on the army’s war tactics, one month after the rebellion, should have alerted the “Mercenary in Chief”. This arrest conveyed that dissenting voices against military decision-makers would not be tolerated.

Meanwhile, rumours circulated that Wagner’s personnel had left their positions in Belarus and relocated to Africa. The day before the plane crash, Prigozhin shared a video from Africa, conveying that Wagner would again play an active role on the African continent.

The following morning, unsubstantiated information spread about the removal of General Sergei Surovikin, who had close ties with Prigozhin. Like a pawn on the chessboard, eager to ascend to the role of a Queen, Prigozhin was dismissed a few moves later, that same evening, alongside other high-ranking Wagner executives.

Not your usual mercenaries

The Wagner faction, led by Prigozhin and Utkin, was motivated by more than material gain. Slavic nationalism was a wellspring of motivation for them, and Prigozhin emerged as a leader who stoked this nationalism with his bravery and personal involvement on the front. The Wagner leader sought to rekindle Slavic nationalism through military triumphs in Ukraine. However, bureaucratic realities have tempered his ambitions, putting him at odds with the Ministry of Defence.

In the meantime, Wagner became a significant tool within Russia’s hybrid warfare framework. For the Kremlin, Wagner is crucial in executing Russia’s African operations. The “balancing” of Wagner to ensure the smooth progression of these operations hints at a forthcoming collaboration with a discreet, low-profile individual who will harmonise with the Ministry of Defence. Notably, some Wagner personnel who participated in the war in Ukraine have already entered contracts with the Ministry of Defence. Prigozhin’s successors will likely continue business as usual.

The makeshift memorial in front of the Wagner headquarters in St. Petersburg bears witness to Prigozhin’s memorable significance among Russian nationalists. However, street cleaners will soon gather these bouquets, signalling the end of an era. It is now up to the Kremlin to determine the fate of whatever is left of the Wagner Company.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.