Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and nine other Wagner Group members are dead and gone, victims of a mysterious air crash with only theories as to what happened.
But even if the circumstances of Prigozhin’s death are yet unknown, it is becoming clear that President Vladimir Putin intends to continue the use of non-government military forces to perform sometimes violent foreign policy chores.
The only question for the Russian leader is how to keep Wagner successors both useful and under control.
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There’s no indication that the apparent rift between Prighozhin and Putin that preceded the air crash will result in the disbanding of either Wagner or other similar, if much smaller, paramilitary organizations.
Known as private military companies, or PMCs, the units have become key instruments of Moscow’s four-decade effort to establish Russia as a feared and present global actor.
Rather than dissolution, a Wagner revamp is in order. Putin is treating the Prigozhin affair as simply a management problem of an errant franchise operation.
When he offered condolences to the families of Prigozhin and his dead lieutenants, Putin simply described the Wagner leader as “a talented businessman” who made some “serious mistakes.”
That description belies a long evolution rooted in a campaign by Russian intelligence services to restore Moscow’s global influence. Giving up on that effort is apparently unthinkable, observers say.
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Putin and Prigozhin at the latter’s food processing plant during happier times. Photo: Asia Times files
“Parts (of Wagner) may be folded in under command of the Ministry of Defense, Russian intelligence or to other oligarchs and leaders found more compliant,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a Russia intelligence expert at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “But none of those assets will wither at the vine.”
Putin has already said that all Wagner “volunteer units” should sign new contracts with other paramilitary organizations, of which there appear to be plenty.
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Molfar, a Ukrainian intelligence company, has tracked 37 non-Wagner mercenary contractors operating in 19 African countries and 10 in Asia and the Middle East. Like Wagner, these groups provide training, arms and even combat forces to an array of governments and shadowy clients.
One of the larger is Convoy. It was established late last year by Sergei Aksyonov, who previously headed the Kremlin-backed administration in Crimea. Another is Redut, a military contractor employed by Russian natural gas producers in Syria, which also sent fighters to take part in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Wagner was by far the biggest and most prominent of the PMCs. Currently, Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, heir of the KGB, is trying to transfer 25,000 Wagner combatants who fought in Ukraine to other existing PMCs.
Intelligence agents are also reportedly trying to place 5,000 Wagnerians operating in Africa with other PMCs.
Wagner’s African customers include governments in the Central African Republic, where about 2,000 Wagner agents labor; Mali (1,500); and smaller contingents in Sudan, Madagascar, Mozambique and Burkina Faso.
Supporters of a new coup-born government in Niger have called for Wagner troops to come and replace French soldiers stationed there that back the ousted government.
Further afield, Wagner agents are busy trying to recruit fresh mercenaries in Central Asia to fight in Ukraine. In Kazakhstan, posters promise recruits the equivalent of US$5,000 if they join the group and stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Russia in Ukraine.
Clandestine recruiters in Kyrgyzstan have employed a bait-and-switch tactic to lure volunteers. They first offered security jobs in Russian, but then said that “a change in priorities” required the volunteers to take up “tasks in the special operation zone in Ukraine.”
In June, the BBC reported that at least 93 fighters from Central Asia at the service of Wagner have died in Ukraine: 19 from Kyrgyzstan, 34 from Uzbekistan and 40 from Tajikistan. Wagner agents also recruited women from Tajikistan to work with Iranian engineers at a drone factory in Russia because they could more easily communicate with the foreign supervisors.
PMCs originally emerged as a response to post-Soviet military decline. State and private enterprises working abroad hired private security operatives to protect their businesses. Plenty of recruits were available: the Red Army had shrunk and civilian jobs at home for veterans were scarce.
While not their primary function, employers and their armed hired hands served Russian interests by maintaining Moscow’s foreign economic and armed presence abroad, especially in the oil-rich Middle East and mineral-laden Africa.
Wagner Group mercenaries wearing the logo patch show their muscle in Sudan. Photo: Agenzia Nova / Facebook
Wagner, formed in 2014, went a step further. Rather than labor on behalf somebody else, Prigozhin cut direct security deals for itself with political clients. He provided protection, arms and lethal muscle to fend of enemies of autocratic regimes and did the same for rebels, so long as they could pay.
Take Syria, for example. In 2018, Prigozhin fighters liberated oil and gas fields from Islamic rebels and in return received 25% of earnings over the next five years. By 2020, a Wagner-associated company had earned $134 million off the deal, dissident Syrian investigators reported.
Wagner, named in homage to the German composer Richard Wagner, also backed Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar with 2,000 armed men as he tried to unseat a Western-supported government in Tripoli. Most of those combat troops have since been transferred to fight in Ukraine.
In the Central African Republic, Wagner was awarded a 25-year lease on a gold mine in return for protecting its autocratic government from coup attempts, according to the investigative intelligence company Grey Dynamics. Wagner’s gold shipments out of the country pass through M’Poko Airport near Bangui, the country’s capital.
Wagner also runs a gold processing plant in Sudan, according to the New York Times.
At home, Prigozhin did big business with the Kremlin. The former chef has catered meals for Russian security forces, for which Wagner was paid $3 billion from 2011 to 2020, according to Belingcat, an investigative journalism organization.
Prigozhin’s expenses included hefty salaries for his troops. In Ukraine between 2015 and 2019, Wagner personnel made up to the equivalent of $2,900 a month, much more than Russian army soldiers could earn.
During the months of heavy combat in Ukraine this year, salaries for combatants have reportedly risen to $10,000 monthly. Last year, families of fighters killed in action received $48,000 in compensation. This year, due to heavy casualties, that insurance policy was eliminated from contracts.
Merging Wagner with Russia’s armed forces thus may not be easy. In both Syria and Ukraine, Prigozhin complained that Russian generals withheld ammunition while Wagner forces were in the heat of battle. Moreover, the army doesn’t offer Wagner-sized salaries to its troops.
A makeshift memorial has been created near the Novosibirsk office of the Wagner mercenary group in Siberia, after news that Russia’s most powerful mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin was on board a plane that crashed. Photo: Screengrab / NBC
Instead, other PMCs, none with Prigozhin’s track record, will have to step in, though presumably under tighter controls than Putin was able to exercise over Prigozhin.
In effect, Putin is playing a Russian version of the main protagonist in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s novel about a scientist who created a rather rough human being out of inanimate objects.
Frankenstein’s “creature,” feeling aggrieved by his creator, turned on him. So too did Putin’s creation, Prigozhin. Eventually, Shelley’s Frankenstein refused to cobble together a second model. Not so Putin, apparently.