Days after an aborted rebellion in Russia, much of the world’s attention has shifted to what’s next for the mercenary Wagner Group and its high-profile founder Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Publicly, the negotiated deal between Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin involved the Wagner chief’s exile to Belarus and the dropping of terrorism charges against him.
Yet experts say Prigozhin is far from safe, as Putin publicly fumes over the mutiny. And it’s unclear what the deal means for the future of Wagner, which has extensive holdings and influence across the world, particularly in developing countries in Africa, as well as ongoing operations in the Middle East and Latin America.
In televised addresses this week, Putin said the “majority of Wagner Group soldiers and commanders are also Russian patriots” and offered them a choice: either sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense or other Russian agency, return home or go to Belarus.
“Everyone is free to decide on their own,” Putin said.
Those options will likely allow the group to remain intact — for now. However, Prigozhin’s continued involvement, or further acts of provocation, could change Putin’s equation.
David Salvo, the managing director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at George Marshall Fund, said it was “hard to imagine” Prigozhin remaining in control, predicting he would either be assassinated or left to wither in exile.
“I don’t see how he retains influence without the company,” he said. “And it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Putin allows him to retain control over this massive operation because of how much influence and power he accrued.”
Salvo expects Wagner to be ”stripped for parts” and broken down into several different private military companies headed by Putin loyalists.
That could be in motion already as the Russian Defense Ministry said Wagner Group will begin to hand over its heavy weapons to the Kremlin’s military, per the agreement struck with Prigozhin.
Breaking apart Wagner would enable the Russian president to continue benefiting from Wagner operations across the globe — including on the frontline in Ukraine — and prevent the concentration of too much power under one figure, as happened with Prigozhin, Salvo added.
“One of the reasons why he was so quick to strike a deal, rather than jail or kill Prigozhin, is because the Russian military relies on the mercenaries. They need these guys as cannon fodder on the front lines. And not only that, they’re elite-performing cannon fodder,” he said.
“It’s to Putin’s advantage to get as many of these guys back to the front under a different flag as possible.”
Prigozhin’s short-lived uprising erupted after a long-festering feud between him and Russian military officials. The Wagner army rumbled unopposed for hundreds of miles from southern Russia toward Moscow before abruptly calling off the march.
Putin has since sought to reassert his control, calling the aborted mutiny “a stab in the back of our country and our people” during Monday’s address. “They wanted Russians to fight each other,” he said, without naming Prigozhin.
Prigozhin’s move into exile also calls into question his vast involvement in Russian commerce and politics, from natural natural resource exploitation, propaganda operations and a catering business with millions worth of Kremlin contracts.
“Prigozhin is most likely going to take steps now to shore up his control of this entire business network,” Catrina Doxsee, an expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill.
She said Wagner and its related shell companies have been instrumental in expanding Russia’s influence and providing clear economic gains to the country, particularly in Africa.
The Wagner leader will not let go of his empire easily, setting the stage for a fight with Moscow and potential splintering, Doxsee said.
Putin may already be laying the groundwork to bury Prigozhin on corruption charges, as he has with other perceived rivals.
The Russian president held a meeting with defense leaders on Tuesday at which he admitted funding Wagner Group, with Moscow paying nearly $1 billion to support the company from May 2022 to May 2023 alone.
Putin also said Prigozhin’s Concord catering company would be investigated for charging the government while being funded with another roughly $1 billion.
As for Prigozhin, he appears to have arrived in Belarus as part of the deal brokered by Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko over the weekend, though he hasn’t been seen since he left a southern Russia military headquarters on Saturday.
Lukashenko on Tuesday announced the mercenary chief’s arrival. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Tuesday the U.S. doesn’t “have any reason to doubt the announcement made by the government of Belarus.”
The consensus among Russian military bloggers, war analysts and officials appears to be that Wagner Group is too important to give up, but tighter regulation and a change in leadership might be necessary.
Andrey Kartapolov, chairman of the State Duma defense committee, told the newspaper Vedomosti that lawmakers were working on legislation to exercise greater control over private military companies.
However, Kartapolov noted the Wager company is the most “combat ready” division of Russia’s fighting forces and that dissolving the company would be disastrous and benefit the western security alliance NATO.
He also said Prigozhin’s soldiers “did not do anything reprehensible” and were following orders, arguing it was best to “change leadership.”
“The one who raised the rebellion, he must answer,” Kartapolov said, while admitting that installing “someone there who will be more loyal, more specific, but whom the participants will respect and perceive is a difficult job.”
Experts have also speculated that Putin is unlikely to let Prigozhin leave the scene in peace.
“In terms of long-term safety, I think he does have a lot to worry about,” she said. “I don’t think that we’ll see him assassinated in the short-term. I think that would be yet another sign of weakness for Putin to back down over the weekend, only to covertly assassinate Prigozhin shortly after.”
Instead, Doxsee predicted Russia could be setting Prigozhin up for a criminal case and show trial, using him as an example for Putin to assert his power over Wagner and deter any others who might look to challenge his power.
While Prigozhin has claimed wide support for the march on Moscow, it has also angered some hardliners who previously supported his bloody efforts in Ukraine.
Prominent Russian blogger Alexander Kots wrote angrily that Prigozhin’s forces downed seven aircraft during the march.
“Six downed helicopters and one plane is not justice. Blocking Russian cities is not justice. Capturing military airfields is not justice,” Kots wrote. In another post, he predicted the downfall of Wagner. ”It is a pity that the story of the legendary military unit ends just like that.”
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