CIPHER BRIEF REPORTING — The news was perhaps as unsurprising as it was shocking: Russian officials say that a plane that crashed northwest of Moscow on Wednesday had on board Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner.
Of the reported seven passengers and three crew members, there were no survivors. Top Wagner commanders and Prigozhin associates Dmitry Utkin and Valeriy Yevgenyevich Chekalov were also on the ill-fated passenger list.
The incident occurred exactly two months after Prigozhin led a brief and ultimately aborted rebellion against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule, revealing deep cracks in the Kremlin’s war apparatus.
So, what happens to Wagner from here?
“Prigozhin commanded particular loyalty and had a wider following, which is the main reason why Putin had to eliminate him after the mutiny but the Wagner structure, logistics and, most importantly, payroll, remain intact,” Edward P. Joseph, Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), told The Cipher Brief. “Let’s remember, by definition, mercenaries operate for money. Wagner can roll on, albeit with the same constraints due to the catastrophic invasion of Ukraine.”
Nonetheless, taking out the leadership will feasibly bring further complications for Putin, who for almost a decade, has relied on the notorious private military company (PMC) for military and material gains around the world.
Once an organization steeped in obscurity, the Wagner Group – long accused of mass human rights atrocities against civilians in the countries where it operates – emerged from the shadows to become a frontline force following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, complete with Telegram channels and a social media presence. While the Russian military fumbled and flailed in the war effort, Wagner proved much more combat-ready and productive, making the outfit pivotal to Russia’s mission.
“Prigozhin was the heart and soul of Wagner, and his loss, especially coupled with the reported loss of founder and operational commander Dmitry Utkin, can’t help but be a significant blow to the organization. How serious, or whether fatal, will only be known in time,” said Daniel Davis, Senior Fellow and Military Expert at Defense Priorities. “But many pro-Wagner Telegram channels were reporting yesterday that Prigozhin always knew he was a target for assassination and thus already had an organizational leadership transition plan in place should he be killed.”
Other potential outcomes could be that the Kremlin maneuvers to keep Wagner intact with a more controllable chief, bolsters another PMC for international operations, or folds what remains of the force under the Russian MoD. Alternatively, Wagner could rise as a lateral power to the Russian State or splinter into several smaller bands scattered in various hot spots across the globe, diminishing the group’s firebrand stature.
However, such scenarios all pose problems for Wagner’s heavy footprint abroad. This footprint generates immense wealth and influence for the Russian Federation, procuring highly profitable contracts for prized commodities such as oil, gas, gold and diamonds. Such profits have helped Putin’s government push back against painful Western sanctions.
Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow Chief-of-Station and a Cipher Brief Expert, pointed out that this week’s events are very interesting for the intelligence community to keep track of but are unlikely to ignite any major schisms.
“Ultimately, they (mercenaries) are carrying on the fight. They’re getting paid, and there aren’t many other options for them. If you turn around, you will get shot in the face,” Hoffman stressed. “Russians, historically, are going to carry on. They did the same thing when they were fighting for Uncle Joe Stalin. That is just what they do. Putin did this (presumed assassination) because he needed to show he is still in charge. But he needs (Wagner) in the Central African Republic, Syria and Libya. So, for them to keep fighting the wars, he had to orchestrate a purge.”
First appearing in 2014 amid Russia’s swift annexation of Crimea, the PMC is broadly perceived to be the creation of Russia’s military intelligence service GRU, with the leadership and financing heralded by St. Petersburg-born convicted criminal turned Putin’s private caterer and businessman, Prigozhin, as a means to ensure Russia’s deniability of covert operations undertaken on foreign soil.
Over the past nine years, the group has cemented a solid presence far beyond Ukraine. Wagner entered the Syrian war theater in late 2015 to bolster Bashar al-Assad’s rule in a trade for a portion of the proceeds gleaned from production fields taken back from ISIS’s territorial control and the ability to establish a strategic base for recruitment and extended regional operations.
According to a recent report by analysis and crisis mapping non-profit The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), Wagner mercenaries have solidified a vast existence backing warlords, military factions and despots across Africa, from the Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique and Libya, to Mali and Sudan. This is in addition to an unconfirmed habitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, extensive logistical and smuggling associates in the United Arab Emirates, and commodity extraction and shell companies in numerous more locations.
“If (the Wagner Group) is taken over by a more compliant and pro-Russian leader, it will likely sustain the types of activities for which it gained initial infamy,” noted David Ucko, a Professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University (NDU). “In Africa, this will involve supporting desperate governments and shadowy warlords against internal security threats, typically in return for lucrative concessions and loot. This helps the Russian government dismantle Western influence in these countries, something that remains a global aspiration for the Kremlin.”
Some analysts have also indicated that while several states employ Wagner to cripple and dispel Islamic militant groups in the Sahel, its merciless reputation has only led to higher recruitment levels and more instability, spelling even greater security concerns for the United States and its allies.
However, Wagner’s most visible impact has emanated over the past eighteen months amid the ongoing war in Ukraine. With Russian soldiers and conscripts struggling with morale and shockingly high casualty rates, Wagner proved a pivotal lifeline for Putin, which included Wagner leading the charge to capture the eastern city of Bakhmut in late May.
“Wagner provides a service to the president in far-flung areas, and that’s why I think he wants to keep it,” said Kamran Bokhari, Senior Director for Eurasian Security and Prosperity at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy. “Now the question is, can the leadership be replaced to where Wagner is effective infectivity?”
Bokhari pointed to the U.S.-ordered assassination of Qasim Soleimani, the leader of the shadowy Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in early 2020. The wing did not collapse and goes on under a new commander, but without such a “strong personality at the top,” its gravitas appears diminished.
And inside Russia, Wagner’s downgrade or collapse could cause even bigger headaches for the President. Purporting to dismantle or rebrand the Wagner Group could also induce sizeable domestic consequences. The PMC, perhaps in a similar vein to Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces militia units, are highly revered in Russia as victorious fighters and a source of pride for patriotic nationals as the most famous – or infamous depending on where you stand – mercenary tradename on the planet.
There is also a scenario in which mercenaries aghast at Prigozhin’s demise take revenge on the Kremlin. According to some Ukrainian officials tracking Wagner-linked social media accounts, calls for reprisal immediately ignited after news of the crash broke, which could unleash more unrest and inner turmoil for Putin to contend.
In the weeks following Prigozhin’s nullified dissent, scores of exiled Wagner fighters reportedly already defied Putin’s orders by departing Belarus, where they were supposed to remain – with many seemingly headed to seek work in known areas such as Africa.
ACLED data also shows that skirmishes between Russian units and Wagner militants are nothing new, with clashes breaking out in the days before the June 2023 march to Moscow. Moreover, in 2018, long-simmering tensions between Wagner and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) hit a high point after the U.S. bombed Wagner mercenaries in Syria, which led to the group’s leadership pointing fingers at the Russian forces for deliberately “throwing them under the bus.”
Nonetheless, Bokhari emphasizes that it is not so much a cause for concern if Wagner mercenaries retaliate but what happens to critical figures who work directly for the President.
“The people that Putin has been removing from within the Ministry of Defense, people who are formally part of the Russian state, what happens to them? We can’t rule out the possibility that Putin faces potential trouble within his own ranks,” he conjectured.
Yet from Ucko’s lens, Prigozhin’s presumed assassination is likely a robust deterrent.
“In Ukraine, where the Wagner Group has relied less on former soldiers and more on recently released prisoners, it may continue to provide cheap infantry – cannon fodder, effectively – to withstand the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” he surmised. “This far less attractive role, for far less capable fighters, has the potential to cause renewed tension between Wagner and the Russian state, but the attack on Prigozhin will likely deter any renewed attempt to challenge Putin’s writ.”
But Day also warned that outside officials and analysts should only be so quick to assume Putin took down his newly perceived enemy with formidable proof.
“The biggest reason to doubt Putin as the killer is that Prigozhin was doing lots of work that benefitted Putin, such as training Belarussian soldiers for possible Kremlin employment later and expanding Russian influence in Africa,” he explained. “It doesn’t seem probable that Putin would have rejected the easier paths to killing Prigozhin in a quiet and easy way, done so messily over Moscow airspace, and cost himself the use of one of the most effective military and foreign policy tools he had.”
And if Putin wasn’t behind the plane crash, that signals a new level of Russian instability.
“If Putin were not the culprit, he might be more concerned because someone was able to breach Russia’s security at the highest levels,” Day emphasized.
However, whether Prigozhin’s death and the uncertain future of Wagner impacts U.S. policy remains to be seen.
“The Prigozhin killing seems to have confirmed the accurate U.S. perception of Putin as the leader of a criminal regime reliant on institutionalized corruption,” Joseph asserted. “The whole Wagner mutiny-jet ‘crash’ episode is a reminder of the inherent instability of the Putin-fear-based regime, revealing Putin’s own fears. That, potentially, can influence U.S. policy.”
The U.S. Treasury Department deems Wagner a “brutal” transnational criminal organization and has sanctioned it under the umbrella of a global criminal organization. The Biden administration has thus far resisted bi-partisan calls to slap the PMC with a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation, putting it on the same footing as the likes of ISIS and al Qaeda.
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The news of the eponymous plane crash was met with a unified shrug in Washington on Wednesday. President Biden told reporters, “there’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind.” For weeks, top officials have emphasized Putin’s perchance for payback, with Biden cautioning last month that he would “be careful” what he ate if in Prigozhin’s shoes.
Nevertheless, whether Wagner is demobilized, rebranded or left to resume business as usual, it will matter to Moscow. Without a PMC capable of taking its place, Putin’s objectives in Ukraine and worldwide remain questionable, along with its ability to bring vital liquidity to Putin’s heavily sanctioned regime. The FSB and the GRU also line their pockets and keep their institutional budgets afloat, courtesy of Wagner wheeling and dealing. Hence, there is a lot at stake for many inside and outside Putin’s shrinking inner circle.
“The true mark of a leader has nearly always been whether an organization or entity can continue to thrive after the founder has moved on,” Day added. “We will have to wait to see how Wagner does in the coming weeks and months to get an idea how prepared, or brittle, Prigozhin made Wagner.”
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