Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin died while still the head of the most famous private military company (PMC) in the world.
He died in a plane crash on 23 August, 60 days after he led the Wagner Group PMC in a mutiny that marked another turning point in Russia’s tumultuous history from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 through the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1989 to the ongoing war in Ukraine in 2022.
After the Wagner uprising on 23 June, Progozhin and his followers opted to go to Belarus, thanks to the mediation of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. They thought this preferable to the other options presented by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which were either to join the official Russian army or to return to their families.
In a way, the choice was an acknowledgement of the mistake the Russian command had made in engaging a company of this sort without formally integrating its members into the official armed forces.
Prigozhin’s death raises many questions. What will become of Wagner? How will his death affect the many open fronts on which Wagner forces are stationed?
In addition to Ukraine, Wagner forces are in Belarus near that country’s border with Poland and in an area that could be considered to be an extension of the Ukrainian front. In addition, there is the growing Wagner presence in Africa at the expense of the former European colonial powers that still maintain a presence in several African states.
President Putin has now begun the process of restructuring Wagner to bring it into line with Russian federal law and incorporate its members into the Russian armed forces. Even prior to this, several legislative actions have attempted to regulate the establishment and operations of Russian private military companies.
The first occurred in April 2012 and then again in 2014 and 2016. In March 2019, the Russian government, specifically such authorities as the Ministries of Defence, Justice, and Finance, the National Guard, the Federal Security Agency, the Foreign Intelligence Agency, and the Public Prosecutors Office, refused to consider legitimising Wagner or similar firms on the grounds that their mercenary character violated the Russian constitution.
The state is the sole authority responsible for matters of security and defence, they said.
One of the reasons behind the Wagner rebellion was Prigozhin’s opposition to the merger of his company into the Russian armed forces. In a recorded message that he posted on his Telegram channel on 26 June, he explained that this would diminish the group’s outstanding combat capacities.
After the failed rebellion, Putin made another effort to “legitimise” private military companies like Wagner when he gave them three choices, one of which was to continue to serve their country and require them to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defence. As he stated in his televised address on 26 June, those who refused this proposal would have no place on the fields of battle alongside the members of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine.
On 25 August, two days after Prigozhin’s death, Putin issued an executive order requiring all members of irregular armed groups to take the military oath as is required by law of all other military units and troops. According to the text of the oath, soldiers swear allegiance to the Russian state and pledge to strictly obey the orders of their commanders and senior officers.
The foregoing events could be said to have ushered in a new phase in the formation of the moral foundations of Russian national defence. Until this point, Wagner and other PMCs and their operations in Ukraine and elsewhere have functioned outside the official administration of the Russian military establishment, helping to explain some of their harmful behaviours, such as the use of landmines in residential quarters in Tripoli in Libya.
Such weapons have been condemned by international rights organisations because they do not discriminate between combatants and civilians. Wagner also supports the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan and new regimes in Africa against their predecessors, as has occurred in Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Central African Republic (CAR).
In addition, Wagner and other groups like it have not always followed the orders of the Russian military command, including in areas where they have worked alongside Russian forces, as has been the case in Ukraine.
Evidence of this has been found in their determination to fight their battles in their own ways and in their complaints that they were not being supplied with sufficient equipment and ammunition to do so. This gave rise to mounting animosity between the Russian military command and Prigozhin, who at one point during his mutiny proclaimed that the heads of the Russian military command would be arrested.
Prigozhin’s dismissal of the idea of integrating Wagner forces into the Russian armed forces was one of the reasons for his mutiny and for his subsequent decision to take up Lukashenko’s offer of going to Belarus instead of submitting to the Russian military command.
In Prigozhin’s opinion, the Russian military is shackled by excessive bureaucracy and legal restrictions that contradict Wagner’s combat creed and methods. He was also unwilling to sacrifice his absolute authority over his forces and to be demoted to just another military officer required to follow the orders of his superiors.
Putin’s executive order of 25 August thus came at a time when the Wagner group lacked a clear successor to Prigozhin. Virtually guaranteed to be received without objections, the decree reflects Putin’s desire to bring the group under control to avert future crises like those Prigozhin created.
On the other hand, the move is also a sign of the extent to which the Russian military needs Wagner forces in Ukraine. The sieges of Soledar, Bakhmut, and other battlefields testify to these forces’ indispensable combat skills and expertise. Now that Putin is laying the ground for their merger with the Russian armed forces, some Western sources have speculated that Andrey Troshev, who had acted as liaison between Prigozhin and the Russian Defence Ministry, will be among the candidates to replace the former Wagner commander.
The rhetoric that Putin used in addressing the Wagner troops epitomises the current juncture. While he courted them with such terms as “patriots,” his language was not devoid of veiled threats when he gave them the choice of an official contractual relationship with the armed forces or demobilisation outside Russia.
The follow-up came in the form of the executive order of 25 August informing them that their only alternative was to join the official army or disarm. Prigozhin’s sudden death reinforced that message, or at least it was interpreted as a means to intimidate the Wagner rank and file into subordinating to the Russian military command.
Paradoxically, the day after Putin announced the executive order, Belarus President Lukashenko affirmed that Wagner forces were still stationed in his country near the Polish border. Speaking to reporters on 26 August, he said that his government would continue to abide by the agreements it had signed with Prigozhin.
As a result, Wagner lives on in Belarus, and it will continue to perform the tasks it has agreed on with Minsk, such as training Belarus forces. It will also continue as a discrete entity despite the death of its famous leader, although it will probably undergo some significant administrative and hierarchical changes to bring it into line with Russian law and the military chain-of-command. As for its combat creed, that could remain the same.
Although the Russian government is asserting its authority over Wagner to ensure that it does not deviate from the bounds set by the Russian military command, it is unlikely that Wagner’s branches abroad in Africa and elsewhere will function as normal military units subject to the normal chain-of-command.
This would undermine the very purpose for which Wagner and PMCs like it were founded, which was to pursue the Russian government’s goals overseas while enabling it to deny responsibility for their actions.
The Russian leadership should devise a formula that would enable Wagner to continue its operations in Africa in the manner it has been conducting them, but with guarantees that it will remain under government control.
Wagner’s future in Africa
Speculation is rife on how the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin will affect the future of the Wagner group and Russian influence in Africa,
writes Karam Said
On 19 July, or over a month before the plane carrying Yevgeny Prigozhin crashed en route from Moscow to St Petersburg, the late Russian Wagner Group leader stated that his private military company was getting ready for a new phase in Africa.
A week later, he welcomed the coup in the West African state of Niger and said that his forces would be willing to help defend the country. He then made a widely covered appearance at the Russian-African Summit in St Petersburg on 27-28 July.
Africa had risen in Wagner’s priorities after the group’s failed mutiny against the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He and his Deputy Dmitry Utkin decided to strengthen their presence in Africa where the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, and other countries had engaged their defence services.
There have also been rumours that Wagner is involved in the Sudanese crisis, backing the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in its battle against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).
In addition to the special military and security support services it provides to some African nations, Wagner has also established an extensive network of relations elsewhere. It is said to have around 4,000 fighters stationed in different parts of the continent tasked with protecting the ruling authorities and guarding gold, diamond, and uranium mines, sugar or rare wood plantations, and other areas where Africa’s abundant natural resources are being harvested.
Wagner’s presence has increased in tandem with the uptick in the activities of terrorist organisations and insurgent groups. This helps to explain why Fidel Gwandjika, a political adviser to the president of the Central African Republic, mourned Prigozhin’s sudden death, describing the news as “very sad” because his men had “helped to save democracy” by helping the CAR Government in the Civil War.
Speculation is now rife on how Prigozhin’s death will affect the future of the Wagner Group and Russian influence in Africa. Some experts have suggested that it will begin to operate independently of Moscow. Others challenge this, arguing that it would be risky for Moscow to allow this as the group might then pursue goals or actions that are incompatible with official Russian policies.
Various possibilities include for Wagner to be dissolved or, alternatively, taken over by another security firm to ensure its continued presence in Africa. Some have speculated that the group might withdraw from the continent.
Such scenarios are unlikely for several reasons, one being that Moscow is keen to keep Wagner operating at full capacity. Africa is too important to Russian foreign policy for the group to withdraw, as it is part of the strategic depth that gives Moscow greater manoeuvrability and diplomatic assets to countervail the strategies of its adversaries in Washington and NATO.
According to various sources, Wagner has also acquired vast economic interests in Africa. With support from Moscow, it has developed an extensive economic network that includes around a hundred companies spread across many countries.
In recent months, Wagner has concluded a broad array of contracts, with African governments awarding it exclusive franchises in mining sectors in countries where its forces operate, such as Libya, Sudan, Mali, Mozambique, the CAR, and Burkina Faso. Some reports allege that Wagner has smuggled an estimated 32.7 tons or $1.9 billion worth of gold out of Africa.
Moreover, Wagner serves as a means for Moscow to strengthen its military/security influence in Africa against the backdrop of the decline of French influence in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and other countries in the Sahel region, most recently Niger.
Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to detract from Russia’s growing economic and military penetration of Africa, with Wagner being only one way of doing so. During the Russian-African Summit in July, Putin stated that his country was ready to supply the neediest African countries, such as Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the CAR, and Eritrea, with up to 50,000 tons of grain for free in the coming months, for example. He also offered to pay for the shipment of the grain to its intended recipients.
Lastly, the Sahel countries are currently in no position to dispense with Wagner forces in view of the withdrawal of French forces and the spectre of a resurgence in terrorism. Terrorist groups would be quick to exploit a vacuum resulting from a decline in Russian influence or a spillover of the crisis in Niger in the event of a possible military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to reinstate the recently deposed president Mohamed Bazoum.
Most likely, Moscow will restructure the private military company in a manner that serves the state’s goals and interests abroad. A sign of this is to be found in Putin’s executive order of 25 August requiring all members of irregular armed forces in Russia to take the military oath of allegiance to the state, as is required of all other military units and troops according to Russian law.
According to the oath, the text of which is published on the Russian Government Website, all troops are required to strictly obey the orders of their commanders and senior officials.
Although Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to influence the Russian presence in Africa where the opportunities for it have been growing, challenges remain. Not least are the attempts on the part of Washington and its allies to claim that the Kremlin itself was responsible for his death.
One possible purpose behind doing this is to drive a wedge between the Kremlin and the Wagner forces in Africa, with an eye to persuading the group’s fighters to switch sides and lend their services to the Western countries instead or at least to avoid encroaching on Western interests.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly