Wagner’s Future Uncertain in Post-Prigozhin Era
Weeks after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the future of the mercenary operations led by Russia’s notorious Wagner Group remains uncertain.
Prigozhin’s death “represents an inflection point in Russia-Africa relations,” according to Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
Can Russian President Vladimir Putin maintain the Wagner Group in Africa without Prigozhin and the network he built? Does the military seek to command the group, or will Wagner simply be absorbed by another existing Russian mercenary company led by a different oligarch?
Leaders in Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali and Sudan continue to wait for answers.
“Nobody’s going to take them over, because you need Zhenya [Prigozhin] for that,” a longtime acquaintance told the Financial Times newspaper. “He was the only one crazy enough to make it work.”
After Wagner’s aborted mutiny against the Russian military in June, Prigozhin thought he had “more or less sorted things out with Putin” and had turned his attention to Africa, the source said.
“They were starting over, and if [Prigozhin] survived, he would have come up with some way eventually to get in front of Putin again and say, ‘Look what I did in Africa.’”
Prigozhin’s flights across Africa just before his death might have been a sign that he was scrambling to protect his Wagner operations from being taken over by the Russian military’s foreign intelligence service, the GRU.
In late August, a Russian delegation that included GRU Gen. Andrei V. Averyanov and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov visited Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army, who controls the east of the country and hosts a Wagner base.
Averyanov’s and Yevkurov’s mission was to reassure Haftar of Russia’s continuing support. They also visited the military juntas in Burkina Faso and Mali with the same message.
Averyanov is one of Russia’s top spies, “known for having led an elite unit specializing in subversion, sabotage and assassination abroad,” the New York Times reported. He has been rumored to be Putin’s choice to replace Prigozhin, as Russia has moved quickly to assert control over the Wagner Group.
The day after Prigozhin’s death, Putin ordered all Wagner mercenaries to sign an oath of loyalty to Russia, promising that they would not disobey orders. Some were forced to sign contracts with the Russian military.
Siegle questions whether Russia’s military has the capacity to run Wagner given its poor showing in Ukraine.
“Russia needs soldiers in Ukraine,” he wrote. “So, Russia may not have experienced fighters to spare in Africa. It is also an open question whether Wagner troops will agree to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense given the way their leader was dispatched.”
Since 2017, Wagner has provided African autocrats with personal security, military training, counterterrorism operations, misinformation campaigns and election interference — all while giving the Kremlin the cover of plausible deniability.
“Prigozhin referred to this interlocking set of influence operations as ‘The Orchestra,’ which he conducted,” Siegle wrote. “None of these objectives are about making Africa more prosperous or stable. Rather, Africa is primarily a theater to advance Russia’s geostrategic interests.”
Russia’s desire to undermine democracy and law and order is why Wagner has been linked to all of the recent coups on the continent.
In Mali, Prigozhin pushed military junta leaders to kick out the United Nations peacekeeping mission. In its place, about 1,000 Wagner fighters remain unable to secure vast territories in northern and central Mali that have been overrun with militant extremist groups.
“Wagner was the option of last resort for these countries,” Cameron Hudson, a senior associate in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa program, told the Financial Times. “They’re in bed with Russia now, whether it’s Putin or Prigozhin. They can’t switch.”
Wherever Wagner operates, civilians pay a steep price in the form of human rights violations. They also lose the revenue that Wagner generates from its tax-free extraction of natural resources such as gold, diamonds and timber.
Enrica Picco, Central Africa project director at the Crisis Group think tank, said that with Prigozhin gone, new leaders will emerge.
“We will see changes in the chain of command among the main officers and the most visible faces of Wagner operations in the continent,” she told the Financial Times. “This will take time and will be part of a larger takeover from Russia’s ministry of defense. The Kremlin may also move on to the businesses and ownership of companies related to Prigozhin in CAR.”
With so many aspects of Wagner in flux, Siegle believes Russia is headed for a reckoning on the continent.
“There is a growing awakening on the continent of how little Russia actually brings to Africa in terms of investment, trade, jobs creation, or security,” he wrote. “Its deployment of mercenaries, polarizing disinformation, political interference and opaque arms-for-resources deals means Russia is actually an amplifier of instability on the continent.”