16 August 2023

4 min read

Vol 6, 2023 | Wagner after Prigozhin: what’s next?

GRB V.6, 2023
Vol 6, 2023 | Wagner after Prigozhin: what’s next? placeholder thumbnail

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death, two months after his failed mutiny against the Russian state, poses yet another setback for the Wagner mercenary group. While likely to see significant change closer to home, the impact on the group’s operations in Africa will not be immediate, writes Saif Islam.  


As the private jet of Yevgeny Prigozhin – the head of Russian private military company Wagner Group – crashed in Russia’s Tver Region, killing him and nine members of his inner circle, the group’s decline became all the more certain. Founded in 2014 by oligarch Prigozhin and former Russian army officer Dmitry Utkin, who also died in the plane crash, the private military company has been deployed around the world as a shadow arm of the Russian government. It has been an active participant in conflict zones including Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), in addition to providing a wide range of security services in these countries. The group has also been linked to numerous lucrative business operations both at home and abroad, including the illicit exploitation of minerals and other resources, becoming a significant Russian player on the global stage.

Although private military companies are illegal under the Russian constitution and Russian authorities denied any involvement with Wagner until recently, it has long been alleged that the latter received political, military and financial support from the Russian government. It played a crucial role in pushing Russia’s foreign policy interests abroad while its opaque status gave the Kremlin a veneer of plausible deniability. And, given repeated accusations of gross human rights violations in many of the conflicts Wagner has been engaged in, it served Russia’s interests to keep the group at arm’s length publicly.

Good deal gone sour

The success of the Kremlin-Wagner arrangement, however, came undone amid Russia’s battlefield struggles in Ukraine. These losses exposed deep divisions between Prigozhin and the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and other senior commanders. Prigozhin accused the military establishment of undermining Wagner, including withholding weapon supplies to his fighters and leaving them vulnerable in Ukraine. Tensions escalated further when Shoigu ordered Wagner fighters to sign new contracts directly with his ministry, a move supported by President Vladimir Putin but one that would essentially isolate Prigozhin. Enraged by the prospects of being marginalised from the very organisation that he built, Prigozhin launched his “march of justice” from the frontlines in Ukraine to Moscow.


GRB volume 6 2023 Graphics2

Prigozhin's alleged support for coup in Niger

On 26 July, Abdourahamane Tchiani, the commander of the presidential guard, arrested President Mohamed Bazoum and declared himself president. Following these developments, on 30 July, hundreds of supporters of the coup marched through the capital Niamey, waving Russian flags and denouncing France, former colonial power. In a voice message on Telegram app channels associated with Wagner, Prigozhin expressed support for the coup. In the message, Prigozhin described the coup as a "struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers." While Western countries widely denounced the coup, and Russia officially expressed concern at the development, there remains a possibility of Wagner - which has a presence in neighbouring Mali - ingratiating itself with Tchiani. Even if Wagner fighters are not on the ground in Niger, seeking close ties  with Tchiani would fit the Kremlin's playbook of expanding its influence in Africa at the expense of Western countries, including France. In fact, Western countries recently announcing that they would cut funding to Niger will likely make Russia an even more attractive partner to the military junta.

The downward spiral

The mutiny was short-lived. Following a flurry of likely backdoor dealings, President Putin and Prigozhin reached a deal within hours, just as a Wagner-linked convoy was within 200 km of Moscow. In a surprise move, the terms of the deal included amnesty for Prigozhin and his fighters, provided they moved to Belarus, signed contracts with the Defence Ministry, or retired from service.

In the weeks that followed, Prigozhin sought to convey a sense of normalcy publicly, but his apparent renewed commitment to operations in Africa, as conveyed in a slew of videos he released, poorly concealed how far he had been pushed out of Putin’s cadre. Just as workers were publicly removing Wagner’s signs and logos from its former headquarters in St. Petersburg, the Defence Ministry was overseeing the transfer of heavy weapons from Wagner to the Russian military. The ministry also cancelled what was a long-term, lucrative contract for Prigozhin’s catering company, amid a government investigation into Wagner’s finances.

What's next for Wagner?

Now, with the group’s leadership removed under such circumstances, the future for Wagner is uncertain. It is feasible that Putin, who will be eager to avoid another mutiny, will seek to replace Prigozhin and his associates with even closer allies that are likely to be less ambitious. But the absence of such personal ambitions among a new leadership group cannot be guaranteed by the Kremlin. Similarly, the bulk of Wagner’s personnel and assets could be incorporated into the military. This is also improbable, in spite of some Wagner fighters signing contracts with the Defence Ministry. The appearance of distance between Wagner and the Kremlin has long been advantageous and an arrangement the Kremlin would seek to preserve, at least in some form. Instead, the group could be split or absorbed into smaller entities, such as Patriot and Redut that offer a similar degree of autonomy from the Russian state and are just big enough to be effective but not a threat. 

So, business as usual in Africa?

The uncertainty surrounding Wagner’s future will raise questions about Russia’s ability to continue protecting its strategic interests in Africa, but the Kremlin is eager to convey a message of business as usual. Several days after the mutiny, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that private military contractors would remain in the CAR and Mali, without mentioning Wagner by name. Around the same time, a Russian envoy flew to Benghazi, Libya, to meet with Khalifa Haftar, a major militia leader who has been supported by Wagner for several years. The envoy reportedly assured Haftar that there may be “some changes at the top” but not much will change on the ground.

Indeed, Prigozhin and Wagner’s myriad challenges in Ukraine contrast what appears to be the group’s uninterrupted operations abroad. These commanders, who have largely escaped any reprisals from Putin since the fall-out with Prigozhin, continue to enjoy significant operational freedom and the mechanisms to generate lucrative revenue channels alongside their security operations. And, if the death of Prigozhin, who had used his vast financial resources and political contacts to build Wagner, has left a void, the Kremlin could be ready to fill it.

Loyalty may be the most precious currency in Russia, but it is hard to test on matters relating to professional mercenaries. With or without Wagner, the days of shadowy Russian operatives traversing conflict zones across Africa will persist, even if their employment contracts, colours and badges change.



Saif Islam
Saif Islam
Associate, Strategic Intelligence
Saif Islam
Saif Islam

Associate, Strategic Intelligence

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