The head has been cut off the snake but what’s next for Wagner?

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The leaders of the most notorious mercenary group in the world are believed dead, downed in a suspicious plane crash over Russia exactly two months after staging a failed coup against the country’s military.

But, the fate of the Wagner Group itself, and its sprawling global apparatus of shell companies and guns-for-hire, is even less clear.

In June, Russian media aired video and photographs of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s luxury home, showing bundles of cash, weapons, fake passports, and wigs used for disguises.Credit: AP

After Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s shocking and shortlived coup attempt against Russia President Vladimir Putin’s regime in June, Kremlin-watchers attributed his relatively long survival to the power of the mercenary group. Wagner had not only propped up Putin’s bloody and costly war in Ukraine, it had re-established Russia’s old foothold in Africa, including seizing lucrative diamond and gold mines.

Though Putin – notoriously unforgiving of traitors – had denounced the Wagner march on Moscow as a “stab in the back”, Belarus brokered a remarkably generous deal for Prigozhin. His Wagner fighters were to stand down and accept exile in the neighbouring Kremlin-ally Belarus, and, in return, the oligarch would remain a free man, presumably still in charge of Wagner’s operations.

A makeshift memorial sprung up near former PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg on August 24.Credit: Reuters

In the weeks since, he was regularly spotted in Russia, mixing with dignitaries, even as others in the military suspected of collusion in the coup plot were arrested. Many analysts thought his grip on the Wagner apparatus might just keep him alive. Days before his suspected death, Prigozhin popped up in a recruiting video in a desert presumed to be Africa to promote Wagner’s operations on the continent.

Now it appears Putin may have been biding his time to bring Wagner under his heel.

“This is not the first Kremlin-backed outfit to spin out of control that Putin had to crush and then relaunch under much stricter conditions,” says Russia expert at Latrobe University Robert Horvath.

Wagner forces took over a Russian military headquarters and town before marching on Moscow in the June coup.Credit: Reuters/Alexander Ermochenko

Still, Wagner was perhaps the ultimate “Frankenstein’s monster” for Putin. Once an elite and shadowy force that carried out the Kremlin’s unofficial dirty work around the globe, Prigozhin’s own rise as a figure in the Ukraine invasion made it morph into a real alternative to Russian forces, and perhaps to Putin himself.

Now, even with the head of the snake cut off, it’s unclear whether Wagner mercenaries will accept Kremlin control.

It was a push to fold Wagner into the Russian military that sparked the coup in the first place. And its founding commander, the neo-Nazi and former Russian military intelligence officer Dmitry Utkin was also among the 10 believed dead in the plane crash.

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Prigozhin was known as Putin’s chef after gaining lucrative Kremlin catering contracts and creating Wagner and the St Petersberg troll farm.Credit: AP

Utkin’s call-sign “Wagner” (after Hitler’s favourite composer) gave the group its name. He has been at the top since it emerged in the 2014 seizure of Crimea and war in the Donbas.

A Wagner-linked Telegram account, Grey Zone, has accused Russian forces of deliberately shooting down Prigozhin’s private jet, recounting witness reports of “bursts characteristic of gunfire” and vapour trails in the air. Earlier, the channel had warned Prigozhin’s death would have “catastrophic consequences”.

“The people who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army and the morale at all,” a post read.

Wagner researcher Isabella Currie says “there’s always a possibility that there may be a violent retaliation … The Kremlin are clearly taking threats quite seriously”. The question now is whether there is enough influence and resources left among Prigozhin’s followers for revenge.

Certainly, there is not much love lost for the hotdog seller turned warlord in Russia’s rank-and-file army, whom he had often criticised. But Prigozhin still had his own connections in the security services, Horvath says.

Who else is believed dead in Wagner plane crash

  • Dmitry Utkin, 53, a former special forces intelligence lieutenant who helped found Wagner with Prigozhin and lead forces in Syria, Ukraine in 2014 and elsewhere.
  • Valeriy Yevgenyevich Chekalov, 47, a business tycoon in the upper ranks of Prigozhin’s empire and reportedly his other right-hand man who helped move weapons and run Wagner operations around the world.
  • Evgeniy Makaryan, a reported long-time Wagner fighter and former police officer
  • Sergey Propustin, another mercenary who reportedly served among Prigozhin’s personal guards.

Little information is available about the remaining crash victims, named as Alexander Totmin and Nikolai Matuseyev. The crew members were identified as Captain Alexei Levshin, co-pilot Rustam Karimov and flight attendant Kristina Raspopova. The Telegraph, London

Of course, he adds, Wagner is no longer one group. The war transformed it from a seasoned force to a group of mostly storm troopers recruited straight from Russian prisons for “meatgrinder” offensives in Ukraine. And those prisoners may not have the same loyalty to their old bosses Prigozhin and Utkin, he says.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theories are running wild that Prigozhin, who was known for having disguises and using doubles to conceal his movements, may have faked his death. Some have even claimed he will re-appear to lead a second march on Moscow.

Experts think it unlikely the crash was staged. The theatrics likely belong to Putin, whose enemies have succumbed to a string of macabre poisonings, shootings and falls down the years, and who was pictured, smiling, at an event shortly after news of the crash broke, having earlier demoted a Russian general suspected of colluding with Prigozhin.

But there may be some performance in the reactions of Russia’s elite online.

A closely Putin-aligned oligarch Konstantin Malofeev is among those now releasing statements lionising Prigozhin as a hero and “true patriot” of Russia, even as they “thank God” the coup was unsuccessful. This could be a sign the Kremlin is attempting to smooth over the death of Prigozhin, Horvath says, or it could just be Malofeev himself hedging his bets and appealing to his right-wing Wagner-friendly audience.

“There’s a disturbing trend in these posts to lament the fall of a necessary evil for the nation,” he says. “That Russia somehow needs these terrible men ready to do the dirty work. It doesn’t bode well.”

Whatever happens, Currie says the group is at a turning point. “With Prigozhin gone, Wagner will certainly change. ”

Since the coup, its numbers have fallen, and it has reportedly handed back weapons to the Kremlin.

While some mercenaries are believed to still be in Russia, many are now in Belarus, training in military camps offered by the Belarussian government as part of the deal with Moscow. Wary neighbouring countries have been sending troops to their Belarussian borders, including Poland which has said Wagner forces are moving towards it in the north-west.

At the same time, Wagner has stepped up its existing operations in Africa, particularly in the Central African Republic, Mali, and now Niger during a coup against the country’s democratically elected government.

Russia expert Stephen Fortescue thinks the end of Prigozhin could well be the end for Wagner. “It’s an organisation that has outlived its usefulness,” he says, though it may survive in Africa if the Kremlin does not want to send its own troops.

Horvath thinks there is likely still value for the Kremlin in the mercenary model. “An African government calling in mercenaries is one thing,” he says. “Calling in a foreign government makes the politics much more complicated, particularly when their supposed narrative is fighting European imperialism.”

Even pro-Kremlin nationalists laud the Wagner mythology, he says. They are feared all over the world, linked to a string of war crimes in Syria, Africa and  Ukraine. One Russian military blogger said Wagner was the second most famous Russian brand after the Kalashnikov rifle.

“You either keep that brand or you lose it and risk the people fighting against you taking it up,” Horvath says.

It all depends, he thinks, on the conclusions the regime has drawn from the aborted coup, whether Putin has now decided that a private army under the control of someone else is a failed experiment.

Still, he can see Putin installing a “more trustworthy” oligarch in Prigozhin’s place, someone perhaps to fund it, such as Malofeev, who financed the early Donbas war in Ukraine’s east, but who would stay out of the spotlight.

While it may no longer be such an attractive job, Currie says there have been rumours for weeks that two different private military outfits “more closely aligned with the Russian state” may already be replacing Wagner in Africa: Convoy and Redut.

Still, she expects governments around the world who have been using Wagner to help “coup-proof their regimes” to be concerned by the oligarch’s apparent murder.

But back on Russian soil, Fortescue doubts anyone will be surprised about Prigozhin’s fate.

“Of course it’s Putin cleaning house.” He’s sending a clear message to his elites. “And that message isn’t new.”

As for how far the purge will go, Fortescue thinks Putin will temper his revenge with the need to restore stability. But all these bursts of “excitement”, they add up, he says. “At some point maybe the place collapses, but it doesn’t feel like that yet, even if there are signs of strain”.

Horvath says it’s hard to know how the Russian people will view the latest “excitement”. While some came out to cheer Wagner’s march on Moscow, others were terrified by the spectre of civil war it raised.

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