On 23 August 2023, Russian authorities announced that a private jet had crashed during a domestic flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg. There were ten people on board the plane, including three pilots. The Russian Federal Air Transport Agency stated that Yevgeny Prigozhin had been on board the jet that crashed, along with other leaders and affiliates of the private Russian military company known as the Wagner Group. The Wagner founder was killed alongside his right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin. This incident has sparked many questions about how and why the plane went down, and whether this was the Russian president’s retribution for the Wagner rebellion two months ago. In addition to questions about the killing of the Wagner leader, there are key concerns about what lies ahead. It remains to be seen how Prigozhin’s death will affect the Wagner Group and its activities at the international level.
In the wake of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion in June 2023, many questions have been raised about the future of the Wagner Group concerning its ties with the Russian regime. How might the Kremlin regain its hold on Wagner after this private military wing rose up against the Ministry of Defense and against the Kremlin itself? With Prigozhin gone, the Russian government has sought to reassert control over the Wagner Group, including through the following methods:
1. Moscow likely involved in the killing of Prigozhin and Utkin: Fingers have been pointed at the Russian Kremlin and Ministry of Defense for downing the jet carrying the Wagner leaders, and most reports support that version of events. However, the Russian government’s motives went beyond punishing Yevgeny Prigozhin for leading his military company’s uprising against the Russian regime and threatening the Russian minister of defense, the chief of the general staff, and the president of the Russian Federation himself. There is another reason that the Russian government wanted to target Wagner leaders, particularly founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and deputy Dmitry Utkin.
This is related to the Kremlin and Ministry of Defense’s interest in taking over control of the Wagner Group since the company’s previous leadership no longer answered to the Russian regime. It had become difficult to ensure the company would remain loyal to the Kremlin and Russian army under Prigozhin’s leadership. As a result, Moscow tried to remove Prigozhin and Utkin from the group’s helm, so that the Russian government could gain greater control over the group or come to an understanding with new leaders who were not vying for power with the Kremlin and Ministry of Defense. This antagonism spiraled out of control as tensions mounted between Prigozhin and the Russian minister of defense, chief of the general staff, and the Kremlin during the Ukraine war, especially given Prigozhin’s full control over the company’s fighters.
2. Install new pro-Kremlin leaders for Wagner: Media and intelligence reports indicate that the Kremlin has been thinking about appointing a Russian general or other governmental official to succeed Yevgeny Prigozhin as Wagner’s new leader. It has also been suggested that the Kremlin will not allow the group to choose its replacement leader. According to many reports regarding potential successors for Prigozhin, one name that has been put forth is Andrei Troshev, the Wagner Group’s chief of staff and one of its founding members. He was previously a colonel serving with the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and was the main point of contact between Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defense during the Russian military operation in Ukraine.
Some Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels indicated that Troshev had been expelled from the group and was said to have "betrayed" Prigozhin after the failed uprising. His willingness to sign a deal with the Ministry of Defense makes him a potential candidate for bringing Wagner back under governmental control. According to some reports, Putin had hinted during a 29 June 2023 meeting with Wagner leaders and Prigozhin that he would be happy to see Troshev lead the group, a move that Prigozhin opposed. Prigozhin’s death could help Putin implement his vision to have Troshev take command of Wagner. In this scenario, a Kremlin decision to allow Wagner fighters to continue to operate under the regime’s auspices would be conditional on Troshev’s appointment.
Regardless of who might be under consideration to lead the Wagner Group in the post-Prigozhin era, the Russian government wants to appoint a pro-Kremlin figure in order to ensure the continued allegiance of Wagner fighters. It aims to restructure the group according to Russian interests and to facilitate governmental control of the military company.
3. Discussions about Wagner’s legal framework: Andrey Kartapolov, chair of the State Duma’s defense committee, called for passing a law to regulate the operations of private security companies, including the Wagner Group. Meanwhile, Andrei Klishas, chair of the Federation Council’s committee on constitutional law and state building, stated that ratifying that law was not an urgent matter at the moment. The irregular status of private military companies enables the Russian government to maneuver around the question of its own responsibility for what those companies do. This is important in light of major Western and international criticism of the Wagner Group on various levels, particularly with regard to human rights.
After the Wagner rebellion, discussions emerged on how to develop legal frameworks to govern the operations of these companies to prevent these groups from becoming anti-state or anti-government forces. Even without a law on the operations of private military companies, Moscow will try to establish regulatory frameworks for its ties with the Wagner group. Moscow wants to ensure that Wagner will remain loyal and abide by the orders of regime leaders, and to prevent another conflict or rebellion against the Ministry of Defense.
4. Oaths of allegiance to the Russian state and its leaders: On 25 August 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree stating that all Wagner Group fighters, Russian military contractors, and anyone who had been involved in the Russian military action in Ukraine, assisted the army, or served in regional defense units were required to pledge allegiance to the Russian state and swear to follow their commanders’ orders, especially the orders of senior leaders.
Although taking an oath is a routine procedure in military institutions and armies, in the case of Wagner, this is really a declaration of shifting loyalties, and therefore a screening step for the group’s affiliates. Wagner fighters will be monitored to ensure they keep their oaths, marking a new regulatory framework for the company in the post-Prigozhin era. This framework is based on allegiance to Russian state leaders as the basis for the fighters’ work with the group. The decree stated that this oath was a step towards forging spiritual and moral foundations for defending Russia. Even if this was only symbolic, it was a clear step towards placing Wagner fighters under the control of the Russian state and its leaders.
5. Broaden contractual mechanisms for Wagner fighters: After the failed Wagner rebellion and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s mediation, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Wagner fighters two options: They could sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense or they could leave to Belarus. Some Wagner fighters opted to concede to the Ministry of Defense and signed on as military contractors. Prigozhin’s death could lead to the expansion of these contractual mechanisms for Wagner fighters. Larger numbers of fighters could be driven to sign the requested contracts with the Ministry of Defense. Wagner fighters could become involved in the mechanisms that the Ministry of Defense prefers, especially in the case of more distant Wagner groups in African countries.
6. Likely to consider gradually eliminating the group: Some reports indicate that Russia is likely thinking about gradually eliminating the Wagner Group because the company was largely dependent on Prigozhin himself and his networks. Moscow could try to end the rebellion once and for all and bring the Wagner era to a close while holding on to the important work it had done. This could go beyond changing the commander to also modifying the group’s, gradually eliminating it and establishing alternate military companies, or moving and integrating Wagner affiliates into other security companies. Some Western intelligence sources have observed that some companies are currently competing to absorb Wagner fighters. In another scenario, the larger Wagner Group could be dismantled in favor of smaller companies and entities structured around specific geographic areas or functions. Smaller groups would pose a lesser risk to Russia as a whole and would be easier to control. Russia aims to use all of these approaches so that the Wagner Group can continue its work, without necessarily keeping the Wagner entity itself in its current form and structure, or even its current name.
An International Presence
In addition to uncertainties about Wagner’s organizational structure and what its ties with the Russian regime could look like, there are questions about the future of Wagner’s important foreign policy functions. Wagner developed an international reputation as one of the top private military companies in the world. It achieved major victories for Russian interests, especially in African countries and Syria, prior to the group being used in Russian military operation against Ukraine. The future of the Wagner Group’s foreign policy functions in the post-Prigozhin era and Russia’s vision for the group’s involvement abroad can be summarized as follows:
1. Moscow’s continued reliance on contractors for foreign security: There are various potential scenarios for the coming period, including the dismantling of Wagner, the appointment of new pro-Kremlin leadership, or having fighters sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense. However, the common denominator is that the Russian regime will continue to rely on contractors as a security arm for Russian defense and foreign policy. Although the Wagner rebellion provoked tensions and fears, Russia never proposed getting rid of private military companies entirely, due to the significant dividends that Moscow reaps in the economic, political, and military spheres. However, there have been discussions about mitigating risks and reducing the likelihood of a similar incident happening again.
It remains to be seen what official name the group will adopt, or which legal and regulatory structures will be developed for the company’s operations and ties with the Ministry of Defense. Regardless of those details, the Kremlin wants to secure Wagner’s loyalty and the group’s fighters will likely continue to protect Russian interests abroad. Wagner has fighting experience and networks in the countries in which it operates, which means that it will continue to function as an important security arm for Moscow.
2. Wagner’s gradual return to the Ukrainian battlefield: The Russian military operation in Ukraine will not be negatively affected by the killing of the Wagner Group’s leader. The group’s fighters have not been on the ground in Ukraine for two months, since Prigozhin’s failed military uprising against the Russian regime. At that point, conflict erupted with the Ministry of Defense leadership. This means that the Russian military operation in Ukraine will not experience any disruptions as a result of the Wagner leaders’ deaths.
However, if the Kremlin should succeed in imposing full control over the group in the absence of previous Wagner leadership, Wagner fighters would likely gradually return to the Ukrainian arena. The regime would work to ensure their allegiance and obedience to the orders of the Russian military operation’s leadership. The fighters would work under the command of the Ministry of Defense, which needs the Wagner forces to support Russian forces in Ukraine in light of the Ukrainian escalation against Russia.
3. Working under the command of the Russian army in Syria: Wagner played a key role in backing the Syrian regime. Although Syria seems to be less in need of the group’s fighting support in recent years, Russia continues to view its military presence in Syria as a crucial strategic presence in the region. According to various reports, Moscow will therefore do its best to secure the allegiance of Wagner fighters in Syria and to ensure they continue to operate there as proxies for the Russian Ministry of Defense and cooperate with the allied Syrian regime. Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Yunus-bek Yevkurov called on Syrian military leaders to inform Wagner fighters that they needed to either withdraw from the country or join the Russian army in Syria. Syrian Ministry of Defense Ali Mahmoud Abbas met with the Wagner leadership about this matter and asked Wagner fighters to either surrender their arms and withdraw from the country within a month or join the Russian army in Syria and operate under its command.
4. Wagner’s crucial role in protecting Russian interests in Africa: The Wagner Group has played a key role in supporting Russian political, security, and economic interests in Africa. At least for now, Russia does not have the luxury of giving up the Wagner Group’s involvement in Africa on its behalf. Russia is particularly keen to proceed with its activities in Africa now that concerns about Prigozhin’s role have been resolved. Moscow benefits from the group’s involvement in African countries on various levels, including the economic sphere. Africa’s rich natural resources make these countries particularly important for Russia in light of Western sanctions. Russia also wants to expand its geopolitical influence on the African continent to erode French and Western influence in the region.
Moscow will therefore endeavor to secure the allegiance of Wagner fighters in Africa as they continue to be active in various areas including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Sudan, and Burkina Faso. Russia will try to expand the scope of Wagner’s involvement to other countries which could give Russia an opportunity to expand its regional clout and reduce Western influence in Africa. For example, Russia is looking to make inroads in Niger following the recent military coup that toppled President Mohamed Bazoum. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov affirmed this strategy in statements made in the wake of the Wagner rebellion. Lavrov tried to reassure African leaders that the group would continue to operate in their countries and that Moscow would not abandon them. Moscow is aware of Wagner’s significant strategic importance in Africa and will seek to maintain that role. Russia indicated that it would be important to ensure Moscow’s control over various Wagner groups in African countries.
5. Wagner infrastructure in host countries is hard to dismantle: Some reports have suggested that one option under consideration is dismantling the Wagner Group and its subgroups abroad. However, this would be difficult since Moscow has spent years building Wagner’s operational infrastructure in its host countries. Russia has benefitted from Prigozhin’s capabilities and the networks he developed in these countries on Moscow’s behalf. Rebuilding all of this would be very challenging, given the networks and expertise of Wagner fighters in the countries in which they operate, as well as the ties and arrangements that the group has pursued with regimes and security institutions in these countries over the years. Russia will therefore try to impose its control on Wagner affiliates abroad without losing the infrastructure that Wagner has developed.
In conclusion, there are still uncertainties about whether the future Wagner Group will be as effective or engaged after its leader Prigozhin was killed. Wagner has lost the charisma and influence that Prigozhin wielded with Wagner associates. The group’s former leader also played a central role in the group’s activities and networks abroad, which has raised concerns about whether Wagner will be able to continue to operate there without Prigozhin. Reports indicate that much of Wagner’s foreign influence was tied to networks that Prigozhin had built and developed himself through the force of his persona. Some predict that the loss of Prigozhin will create a major vacuum in the group’s structure and operations, which will have implications for Wagner’s involvement abroad. Others have even gone as far as to suggest that the killing of Prigozhin marks the end of Wagner, given how strongly the group was associated with its former leader. In this reading of events, Wagner and Prigozhin were the same, and so the private military company would find it hard to survive without its commander.
It also appears that the Kremlin might not be able to take control of the group and that some cadres loyal to Prigozhin could assume the leadership of Wagner. This would result in continued hostility between Wagner and the Russian regime. For example, it has been suggested that Anton Yelizarov could assume leadership of the group; Yelizarov has been described as being "anti-Putin." If a figure hostile to the Kremlin should take control of Wagner, or if the group splits in two, Moscow will try to encourage other countries to cooperate with pro-Russian groups and expel anti-regime factions.