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POLITICS

Traveling “musicians.” What awaits Wagner PMC after Prigozhin and Utkin assassination

The crash of the plane with Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin (“Wagner”) has put in question the existence of Russia's largest private military company (PMC). The mercenaries are scattered across Belarus, Russia, Syria, and Africa. The Ministry of Defense has already begun the gradual “absorption” of the Wagnerites, and while in Russia and Belarus, it seems they will face complete disbandment, in Africa, one can expect the existing structures to be subordinated to new leadership.

Content
  • Collapse of the Prigozhin Empire

  • The Belarusian Maneuver

  • What's in store for the Wagnerites?

  • Bottom line

Collapse of the Prigozhin Empire

As a result of the crash of the Embraer business jet in the Tver region on August 23, both the owner and key public representative of the Wagner PMC, Evgeny Prigozhin, and the military leader of the organization, Dmitry Utkin (as it was revealed after his death, probably the only person in Russia to hold six Orders of Courage), were recognized as the victims.

If 10 years ago, when Prigozhin was just starting his “private military company” (an explanation of why this definition deserves quotation marks can be found in the article dedicated to myths about the Wagner PMC), he looked like just one of many contractors of the Russian Ministry of Defense, by the beginning of the war, he had gained his own subjectivity and significant influence through activities not directly related to Kremlin interests, primarily in Africa.

Initially, Prigozhin's mercenaries worked in close coordination and often directly under the command of GRU officers (Dmitry Utkin served there until retirement), and also used the infrastructure and resources of Russian military intelligence. But as Prigozhin's activities expanded in scale and geography (from the online “troll factory”, attacks and provocations against Russian opposition figures and journalists to interference in the US elections), the “Wagnerites” essentially transformed, on the one hand, into a true privately-owned instrument of force, and on the other hand, into a reliable machine for tapping into state funds.

This image appeared on the “Wagner Orchestra” Telegram channel
This image appeared on the “Wagner Orchestra” Telegram channel

In general, the scheme worked as follows: under the pretext of protecting or promoting Russia's national interests, Evgeny Prigozhin would send political technologists, consultants, geologists, and mercenaries to yet another troubled country. In case of success, official Moscow received political and diplomatic dividends, while Prigozhin gained economic preferences and the opportunity to exploit natural resources.

But even in case of failure, the conglomerate was financed from the state budget through contracts for feeding soldiers and schoolchildren. In an open letter to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Prigozhin himself wrote that from 2006 to May 2023, his catering companies invested 147 billion rubles ($1.6 billion) from their profit into “promoting the interests of the Russian Federation” in Africa, Syria, and other Arab countries.

The overall scale of Prigozhin's business, if the television presenter Dmitry Kiselev is to be believed, was estimated at almost 2 trillion rubles ($21.2 billion) (over the entire period of operation), of which 858 billion rubles ($9.1 billion) was received by the Wagner PMC alone. Now, the Prigozhin Empire will no longer have unique access to state funds — the process of rearranging the market, previously dominated by the Concord conglomerate, began immediately after the failed coup attempt.

The Belarusian Maneuver

The Wagner PMC ceased carrying out combat missions in Ukraine even before embarking on the “Campaign of Justice” toward Moscow, following the capture of Bahmut in May 2023. The agreements to halt the insurgency directly involved not only specific personal guarantees for Prigozhin but also his “departure to Belarus.” This was followed by the suspension of new recruitments, the ceremonious removal of the Wagner PMC flag from the flagpole near its main base in Molkinо (Krasnodar Krai), and, most importantly, the transfer of equipment and weaponry to the Russian Ministry of Defense.

In short, the Wagner PMC was winding down its operations in Russia, but there was no clarity regarding its prospects in Belarus. Maintaining such a force was costly; Vladimir Putin revealed that from May 2022 to May 2023, approximately 200 billion rubles ($2.1 billion) had been spent solely on the PMC's personnel. Belarus itself lacked such funds, and such a force was unnecessary for the country. Officially, the “Wagnerites” were supposed to become instructors for the Belarusian army, but it was planned to send as many as 10,000 fighters to Belarus – a number apparently excessive for mere “training.”

However, those 10,000 never arrived in the republic. Local monitoring resources recorded the arrival and accumulation of approximately 4,000-5,000 PMC members, and shortly thereafter (even before Prigozhin's demise), satellite images confirmed the dismantling of roughly one-third of the tents in the field camp established near Osipovichi. Lukashenko commented on this rather ambiguously, acknowledging on one hand that only a “core” would remain in the country, and it made no sense to keep them all there. On the other hand, he estimated their numbers at up to 10,000 people:

“Wagner lived, Wagner lives, and Wagner will continue to live in Belarus, whether someone likes it or not. We, together with Prigozhin, have built a system for how Wagner will be located here. As for those satellite images from space showing that we're dismantling something... Why are we removing extra tents – we don't need that many. The core is still here; some have gone on vacation, some have decided to live elsewhere. But the phone numbers, addresses, passwords, and access codes for this core are known. Within a few days, everyone will be here, up to 10,000 people. There's no need to keep them here right now. So, they're not running away. We will have as many as we need, and this unit will live and work with us.”
Prigozhin in the Wagenr PMC camp near Osipovichi
Prigozhin in the Wagenr PMC camp near Osipovichi

The true purpose of the “Wagnerites” in Belarus has remained unclear. Lukashenko made evidently provocative statements about the “Wagnerites” wanting to stroll into Poland:

“We started to be bothered by the 'Wagnerites.' 'We want to go west. Allow us,' they say. I ask, 'Why do you need to go west?' 'Well, to take an excursion to Warsaw, to Rzeszow <the main logistics hub for supplies of military aid to Ukraine - The Insider>.”

However, few took Lukashenko's threats seriously, and serious considerations of plans to advance on Kyiv from the north or attack the Suwalki Corridor were not entertained. Such endeavors would require vast material and technical resources (military equipment, ammunition, fuel, supplies, warehouses, repair facilities, and more), which the group currently lacks. Thus, using them for a second front in the near future would not be feasible.

Graffiti featuring Ramzan Kadyrov, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. May 2023 / August 2023
Graffiti featuring Ramzan Kadyrov, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. May 2023 / August 2023

It remains unknown why the Kremlin needed this Belarusian maneuver, but it cannot be ruled out that its sole genuine purpose was to rid itself of the “Wagnerites” under a seemingly favorable pretext. During the June uprising, Putin needed to find a way to persuade Prigozhin and his fighters to compromise. Presumably, “Putin's chef” agreed to halt the march on Moscow and redeploy to Belarus in exchange for “forgiveness” and the retention of at least some of the funding, particularly for African campaigns. It can be assumed that at the time of such an agreement, Putin already knew that Prigozhin and Utkin would not survive for more than two months. In this case, the entire point of the deal for Putin was to disarm them under the guise of redeployment, implying that there was no genuine intention for the PMC to continue its activities from Belarus.

Most likely, Putin deceived not only Prigozhin but also Lukashenko himself. He probably did not disclose his plans to eliminate Prigozhin and Utkin to the Belarusian dictator. More likely, the Kremlin found arguments convincing enough to persuade Lukashenko that having a Wagner PMC base in Belarus was a good idea. Among these arguments, there may have been promises of financing and the use of the Wagnerites to create a private military company controlled by Lukashenko. A year ago, reports in the press suggested that such a PMC was planned to be created based on the Belarusian private security company GardService. However, it is highly unlikely that the Kremlin could have liked this idea. Paradoxically, by moving to Belarus, the Wagnerites found themselves almost twice as close to Moscow as before - a distance of 720 km compared to the previous 1,370 km (if measured from the Molkinо base). It would have been much easier to reach the capital from there via a direct route, posing a constant serious threat to Putin if such a base were established.

Not only Prigozhin and Lukashenko but also the West took seriously the idea of creating a Wagner PMC base in Belarus. For Poland and the Baltic states, the presence of Prigozhin's mercenaries in a neighboring country is an incredibly irritating factor. They are preoccupied with troop movements toward the border and appeals to Lukashenko (which is significant considering Minsk's diplomatic isolation). They have some valid reasons for concern. Although satellite images clearly show the Wagner PMC camp being dismantled, no significant departure flights or columns of personnel have been reported yet. The “Wagnerites” themselves also have an uncertain future. But the main scenarios of events are already understood.

What's in store for the Wagnerites?

Two days after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Vladimir Putin signed a significant decree requiring all individuals “assisting in the conduct of the special military operation” to take an oath. The word “individuals” described numerous volunteers, members of territorial defense, and employees of state security enterprises. Many saw in the document a transparent hint at plans regarding the “Wagnerites.”

However, if Prigozhin's fighters end up in the area of the “special military operation,” it is almost certain they will not be there on their own but as part of units that are required to take the oath without separate decrees, i.e., as regular army personnel. It is currently difficult to imagine under what circumstances the Kremlin would decide to issue heavy weapons again to people who had threatened to attack it with tanks.

An advertisement board at one of the bus stops in Shebekino.
An advertisement board at one of the bus stops in Shebekino.

The easiest option would be to simply disband the Wagner PMC so that the remaining idle fighters would sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense. Such a scenario has already begun to be implemented in Russia. But for Africa and Syria, other scenarios are possible - from there, the Wagnerians cannot pose a threat to the Kremlin, and instead of complete disbandment, they may simply be subordinated to the structures of the Ministry of Defense.

Africa: control shifts to other entities

According to assessments from U.S. intelligence that have leaked online, the Wagner PMC has established a stable presence in eight African countries and has conducted various operations in another 13. There are approximately 5,000 Russian mercenaries on the continent, providing security cover for an impressive array of Prigozhin's business projects, ranging from vodka sales promising to reveal the “secrets of Russian strength” to smuggling gold, timber, and diamonds.

In reality, the “Wagnerites” have managed to truly entrench themselves in only four countries, all of which are experiencing internal armed conflicts and closely resemble “failed states.”

  • In the Central African Republic, Prigozhin provided personal protection to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in exchange for concessions on any business he fancied.
  • In Sudan, Prigozhin's structures are involved in gold mining and smuggling, while the “Wagnerites” back the so-called “Rapid Support Forces” fighting against the central government. According to American data, Prigozhin was supplying Sudanese partners with ammunition at the same time he was accusing Defense Minister Shoigu of a shortage of ammunition.
  • In Libya, the “Wagnerites” assist Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who opposes the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. There, they were not much involved in independent business but rather were intentionally blocking the export of local oil.
  • Finally, in Mali, Russian mercenaries are fighting alongside the military junta against jihadists. The Wagner base in Mali, judging by satellite images, has only expanded after the failed coup.

However, nowhere in Africa has the Wagner PMC demonstrated itself as a decisive military force. On the contrary, violence levels in the Sahel region are rising and are expected to continue increasing after the departure of French and other international forces. The terrorist threat has also increased with the arrival of the “Wagnerites.” Moreover, Prigozhin has not succeeded in establishing a sufficiently profitable business that would offset the cost of military activities (although the prospects were there, and significant).

A group of Central African Republic residents wearing “Je suis Wagner” T-shirts
A group of Central African Republic residents wearing “Je suis Wagner” T-shirts

Nevertheless, the African projects of the Wagner PMC seem to be an attractive asset, not in and of themselves, but as a means of obtaining and utilizing state budgets for the restoration of “geopolitical greatness,” which fits well with the concept of “returning to Africa.” This is likely why the Kremlin decided to transfer them to other individuals even before Prigozhin's death.

The Wagner PMC's African projects seem to be an attractive asset as a means of obtaining and utilizing state budgets for the restoration of “geopolitical greatness”

The first sign supporting this version was the appearance of General Andrey Averyanov from GRU, the commander of military unit 29155, at the Russia-Africa Summit. This unit has been implicated in various incidents, including explosions at ammunition depots in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, an attempt to assassinate Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury with the “Novichok” nerve agent. Shortly before the crash of Evgeny Prigozhin's business jet in the Tver region, Yunus-Bek Evkurov, the Deputy Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, who also has a GRU background, went on a tour of Africa and Syria. Evkurov was the person Prigozhin had been lecturing in the Rostov-on-Don headquarters captured by the Wagner PMC, asking, “Who are you to address me informally?”

Following this, information emerged about a project by former head of Roscosmos and current head of the military consulting group called the “Tsar's Wolves,” Dmitry Rogozin. This project aimed to replace the Wagner PMC in Africa with a military security company named Konvoy, led by former Prigozhin employee Konstantin Pikalov, with the alias “Mazai.” (The Insider wrote about his activities in Africa) The funding for Konvoy reportedly comes through VTB Bank and companies affiliated with Arkady Rotenberg. Rogozin allegedly presented his proposals to Anton Vaino, the Chief of the Presidential Administration of Russia.

Subsequently, job recruitment announcements for work in Africa were shared on social media, not only on behalf of Konvoy but also from the private military company Redut (more information about this company and its associated conflicts can be found in an article by The Insider).

After the death of the owner of the Wagner PMC, several publications appeared in Russian and foreign media outlets, suggesting that during his last trip to Africa, Evgeny Prigozhin had attempted to resist a “hostile takeover” by securing the support of local partners. However, his plane crashed on his way back to St. Petersburg. As a result, the most likely scenario for the African contingents of the “Wagnerites” appears to be subordination to structures chosen by the Kremlin.

Syria: from beginning to end

In Russian top military-political leadership, there has been a practice of sending to Syria people who are deemed undesirable or have made certain transgressions. This includes figures like former Eastern Military District Commander Alexander Chaiko, ex-Head of the Airborne Troops (VDV) Andrei Serdyukov, former Commander of the 1st Tank Army Sergei Kiselyov, and former Commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army Ivan Popov, who gained notoriety after an audio message with vivid descriptions of problems in the army became public. In this context, being sent to Syria seems to be the most logical fate for Wagner mercenaries, especially since it was in Syria that the Wagner PMC evolved into a cohesive combat organization, the creation of the mercenary media image began, and the practical implementation of military-economic exploitation of occupied territories was first tested.

However, in organizational terms, it is likely that the Wagner PMC will face liquidation in Syria.

Firstly, in Syria, Prigozhin's mercenaries have demonstrated their complete helplessness when faced with a truly serious adversary. This became evident in February 2018 when U.S. aircraft inflicted a devastating blow on Wagner PMC assault units in the vicinity of the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. According to various estimates, the “musicians” suffered losses ranging from several dozens to several hundreds killed, while the U.S. forces suffered no casualties.

Secondly, the Syrian war which is largely ignored in Russia remains a crucial tool for the Kremlin's interaction with Turkey, Iran, and, most importantly, the United States. Deploying to Syria large groups of armed people whose loyalty raises legitimate doubts would only decrease predictability and control over the situation on the ground, which is not a wise move.

The Syrian war remains a crucial tool for the Kremlin's interaction with Turkey, Iran, and, most importantly, the United States

Thirdly, there is already a Russian military force deployed in Syria with established logistics, supply, and rotation systems. According to known data as of 2018, approximately 70,000 servicemen had been to Syria and gained combat experience. While allocating additional forces and resources to Syria in the context of the conflict with Ukraine may not be straightforward, replacing the Wagner PMC structures with those already present in Syria can be done relatively smoothly.

Telegram channels close to the “Wagnerites” reported that even before the Prigozhin plane crash, the Russian Ministry of Defense managed to block military logistics to Africa (all flights go through Syrian airfields) and, at the same time, cut off local mercenaries from supplies. Rumor has it that they are supposed to surrender their weapons and equipment by September 20th.

Bottom line

Currently, there are approximately 9,000 to 11,000 mercenaries outside of Russia, including 4,000 to 5,000 in Belarus and 5,000 to 6,000 in Africa and Syria. Additionally, around 10,000 individuals are “on leave” within Russia. In Belarus, the “Wagnerites” have very little equipment and weapons, and in Africa and Syria, they cannot operate independently without logistical support from the Russian Ministry of Defense. Gathering all these people under the auspices of a single organization without Evgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin is an unattainable task.

In other words, the once-unified military-economic entity known as the Wagner PMC is facing a fundamental restructuring, driven by the specific conditions on the ground and the balance of interests among various players in Russia and the countries where mercenaries are present. Without funds from the budget, which were previously secured through Prigozhin's personal connections, without a military leader, and without the protection of influential figures in the Russian Ministry of Defense and/or the Presidential Administration, it will not be able to maintain its current form.

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