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Brady Knox, Breaking News Reporter

NextImg:How Yevgeny Prigozhin's death affects the Wagner group and Russia's war effort

With the death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner private military company now faces an uncertain future.

Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, the likely true military head of the group, were killed when their plane crashed last week, killing all ten people onboard. Following its June mutiny, Wagner left Ukraine but remains a powerful force with thousands of fighters scattered across Belarus and Africa. With August's plane crash essentially decapitating the group, speculation remains as to what comes next for Russia's most infamous mercenary group.


FILE - In this photo released by Belarus' Defense Ministry on Thursday, July 20, 2023, Belarusian soldiers of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) and mercenary fighters from Wagner private military company pose for a photo while the weeklong maneuvers that will be conducted at a firing range near the border city of Brest, Belarus. (Belarus' Defense Ministry via AP, File)

Prior to its famous mutiny in June, Wagner had a near untarnished record of loyalty to the Russian state, carrying out Moscow's interests in Syria, Africa, and Ukraine.

As Stephen J. Blank, a Russia expert with the American Foreign Policy Council, explained, the kinds of missions Wagner performs extend far beyond those typical of mercenary groups, covering a wide variety of sectors.

Wagner "may try to continue the kinds of missions abroad that they used to do, which are far-reaching and as much economic or political as they are military," Blank told the Washington Examiner. "Wagner performed what could be called government in a box services abroad, e.g., information warfare in Africa."

The number of benefits accrued from Wagner is so beneficial to Russia that President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to completely liquidate it, according to many experts.

“Putin got his power projection on the cheap and with some veneer of deniability in Mali and the CAR through Wagner. It’s not in his interest to give that up,” a senior Eastern European official told Foreign Policy.

Rama Yade, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, further stressed the importance of Africa to Putin's wider strategy, in which Wagner plays a central role.

“Africa is key in Putin’s strategy in Ukraine: to prove he is not isolated, to circumvent Western economic sanctions, and rebuild his forces via Wagner,” she said. “Prigozhin’s uprising required a clarification on the nature of Russia’s partnership with African countries. It’s done.”

As for the short-term future of Wagner, Blank believes that Russian military commanders will take over the positions of Prigozhin and Utkin and attempt to subordinate them to the Russian Army.

"The Russian army will attempt to take over Wagner and incorporate it into the regular Army under state leadership for missions in Africa and elsewhere so that those commanders can now pocket the funds that used to go to Prigozhin and the Kremlin; this was always at bottom a struggle over control of largely foreign-based assets," he said.

If taken over by the military, Wagner fighters will be presented with the dilemma of whether to stay or leave the group, possibly torn between loyalties toward their old leaders and the new. Blank imagines that many may leave but that those who stay will likely be loyal to the new leadership.

As for a return to Ukraine, Blank believes that it could only occur on the condition that they will be subordinate to army commanders.

One point that nearly all experts seem to agree on is the blow to the effectiveness of Wagner with its leaders' deaths. Blank believes that the deaths constitute a decapitation and have made the organization unable to function on its own. A number of United States and European officials are in agreement that without the leadership of Prigozhin, Wagner will be much less effective in the short term. An absorption into the Russian military will likely be unable to recreate the resource network through which Prigozhin was able to create such an effective fighting force.

The mercenary group appears to have a future in Belarus, where many were exiled after their failed June mutiny. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko denounced Polish and Baltic calls to expel the group as "stupid" and pledged that they would stay.

Some Russian analysts have interpreted recent foreign trips by the Russian Defense Ministry into African countries with a known Wagner presence as evidence that the government is looking to replace Wagner with its own formations under the complete control of the military.

Wagner's own official media outlets, affiliated outlets, and own fighters have largely been either silent or focused entirely on mourning their leaders since the plane crash. Notably, few appear to be speculating on who could have been behind the crash, if anyone, despite widespread speculation that it was the Kremlin.


Prigozhin's own press service released a statement announcing the former mercenary leader's funeral with no further elaboration.

Whatever the future for Wagner, many Russians continue to show affection toward it, with impromptu memorials sprouting all across the country. One pro-Wagner outlet reported that a school in Balashikha, a city near Moscow, was renamed after a Wagner fighter killed around Bakhmut in December.