April 19, 2024

BEIRUT — Of the many questions raised by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death in a suspicious small plane crash last month, perhaps the most consequential relates to the fate of Wagner, the mercenary group he built and honed to become an essential instrument in the Kremlin’s overseas adventures.

Under Prigozhin’s direction, Wagner grew from a band of “little green men” — so named because of the uniforms worn by self-proclaimed volunteers fighting alongside separatists in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 attack on Ukraine — to a far-flung military and business empire. The organization has trained and fought alongside the militaries of pro-Russia governments in Eastern Europe, West Africa and South America. It has signed lucrative oil, gas and mining contracts. And it has run a media conglomerate with a troll factory and a movie studio as well as catering, restaurant and hotel businesses, not to mention a carwash.

At its heart, the mercenary force comprising more than 50,000 former soldiers and convicts offers Putin deniability for Russia’s foreign meddling. Until Prigozhin’s aborted June mutiny, in which he launched and then halted a rapid advance toward Moscow, Wagner was everywhere the Kremlin wanted to be without saying it was.

Prigozhin’s death, for which Putin has not claimed responsibility but which he is widely believed to have engineered, has left the Kremlin with the delicate task of replacing Wagner’s restive commander with more pliant leadership while preserving the group’s gains in the places it has fought.

First and foremost, that means Ukraine. Soon after the Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Wagner deployed several thousand of its fighters to spearhead some of the most brutal assaults.

“In the initial part of the war they were a brigade-size element — in the full scope of things not huge,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia program.

Then Prigozhin began to recruit from prisons, bolstering Wagner’s ranks with tens of thousands of convicts.

“That decision to tap into convicts made them into a larger force, and they became much more important,” Lee said.

In July, a senior commander nicknamed “Marx” said in a post on the messaging app Telegram that about 78,000 Wagner fighters had participated in the Ukraine war, almost three quarters of them convicts.

Prigozhin used those cadres to deliver Moscow’s sole major victory this year when it took over Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine where both sides deployed tens of thousands of men and huge amounts of military equipment in a nearly yearlong battle. In that same post on the Wagner-affiliated channel, Marx said the group had lost 22,000 men, with about 40,000 others wounded.

At the same time, there were growing tensions between Russia’s military leadership and Prigozhin, who complained in profanity-laced diatribes on social media that his fighters were being denied logistical support. Earlier in the year, the Russian Defense Ministry had already taken over Wagner’s prisoner pipeline for its own recruitment, Lee said.

After Bakhmut, Wagner’s role in Ukraine abruptly ended, with Prigozhin announcing his forces were withdrawing and handing over territory under their control to the Russian army. Then word came in June that Wagnerites would have to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry, in effect stripping Prigozhin of autonomy — a decision that pushed him to launch a revolt along with 5,000 of his men. When it was stopped after an eleventh-hour deal involving Putin, Prigozhin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Wagner surrendered its heavy weaponry and its fighters redeployed to Belarus.

Taken together, those moves make Wagner a less indispensable force for the Ukraine fight, Lee said.

“It’s still a question of size. Wagner’s ability to fight in Bakhmut as a lead force was because of a massive number of convicts,” he said. “If the Defense Ministry was taking that away, then Wagner might contribute a regiment-sized element — not insignificant, but not as significant as people make it out to be.”

In any case, he added, Wagner was more suited for offensive operations than the defensive posture Russia has taken to thwart Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive.

Observers say there has been no sign of Wagner redeploying to Ukraine. Last month, neighboring Belarus, a strong ally of Russia, appeared to be dismantling a camp in the village of Tsel thought to house thousands Wagner fighters, according to observers citing images taken by Planet Labs.

Potentially more disruptive are Wagner’s activities — and its vast business holdings — in the Middle East and Africa. The latter was a particular focus of Prigozhin. In a video he released from Mali the week before his death, he said “Wagner is making Russia even greater on every continent — and Africa even more free.”

The expectation, analysts say, is that the services Wagner provided to Kremlin clients will live on under new ownership or less abrasive leadership.

“Parts may be folded in under the Ministry of Defense, Russian intelligence, or to other oligarchs and leaders found more compliant, but none of those assets will wither at the vine,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a Russia intelligence expert at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. She added that Russia’s use of private military contractors is likely to continue.

“My sense is that the private military contractor model isn’t going to go away,” she said. “We’ll just see a fragmentation of the space.”

That may already be happening. A March investigation released by Molfar, a Ukrainian open source intelligence company, tracked 37 such contractors operating in 19 countries in Africa and 10 countries in Asia and the Middle East.

One of the larger groups is Convoy, which was established late last year by Sergei Aksyonov, head of the Russian-backed administration in Crimea, the Ukrainian region Putin illegally annexed in 2014. Run by a onetime Prigozhin ally named Konstantin Pikalov, Convoy has since received hundreds of millions of rubles in donations, including from VTB, a mostly state-owned Russian bank, and from an oligarch friend of Putin’s, Arkady Rotenberg, according to an investigation from the Dossier Center, a nonprofit that aims to combat corruption and promote democratic values in Russia.

Another is Redut, a private military contractor that was involved in protecting Russian gas facilities in Syria but was also one of the first to participate in the Ukraine invasion in 2022, according to Meduza, an independent news outlet based in Latvia.

But it would be difficult for Convoy or Redut — both minuscule compared with Wagner and nowhere near as experienced — to take over the group’s duties, said Anton Mardasov, a military affairs expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“The operations of Wagner in Africa were often of a delicate nature and simply replacing them with a mass of people with different levels of training is not a good option,” he said.

It is unclear whether Wagner recruits would be willing to sign up under a new organization, said a researcher for “All Eyes on Wagner,” which monitors the group’s activities.

“Wagner was more than a private military contractor. It was a cult,” said the researcher, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety. “They had lots of supporters even in the regular army. Some will not accept Wagner being controlled by the Russian government.”

Besides, those other companies don’t have Prigozhin, a peripatetic hustler whose connections opened avenues few could access, the researcher said.

“He was a super-organizer, able to bring more than 300 private companies around Wagner. He was the reason why the company was that big.”

Others believe Russia will find some way to continue the brand under Kremlin-approved leadership, said Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigerian policy analyst at the Beijing-based consulting firm Development Reimagined.

“Why is Russia popular in Africa today? It’s not aid or a trade relationship. It’s Wagner,” he said, adding that even during the Ukraine war, though there were reports of Wagner cadres redeploying, there was no collapse of relationships on the African continent.

“The success of Wagner is proof of concept, and Russia won’t let go of that.”

©2023 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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