The fate of the Wagner Group, the mercenary company behind Vladimir Putin’s murkiest operations from Africa to Ukraine, is in doubt after Russian authorities said that its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was on a private jet that crashed, killing all aboard.
(Bloomberg) — The fate of the Wagner Group, the mercenary company behind Vladimir Putin’s murkiest operations from Africa to Ukraine, is in doubt after Russian authorities said that its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was on a private jet that crashed, killing all aboard.
The crash over Russian territory occurred exactly two months after Prigozhin led his fighters on an abortive mutiny that posed the greatest threat to Putin’s near quarter-century rule.
Here’s what you need to know about Wagner and its role since the mutiny.
What is the Wagner Group?
Founded by Prigozhin in 2014, Wagner is a private military company that supported Kremlin objectives on battlefields in Ukraine, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, where it’s been accused of committing human rights abuses.
At its peak, Wagner had about 50,000 mercenary recruits — many of them ex-inmates recruited directly from prison — fighting in Ukraine.
The US designated the group as a transnational criminal organization earlier this year, and Wagner has been sanctioned by Australia, Canada, Japan, the UK and the European Union.
Wagner has a murky legal status, and mercenaries are technically illegal in Russia. The group operates independently of the nation’s official armed forces, and had recently sought to rebuff Moscow’s demands that its recruits sign formal contracts with the military. The issue was a driving force behind the mutiny, which was directed at Russia’s military leaders rather than Putin himself.
The group is also linked to lucrative oil, gold and other businesses in some countries where it operates outside Russia.
What’s happened to Wagner since the mutiny?
The Wagner fighters that came within 200 kilometers (124 miles) of the Kremlin and killed at least 13 Russian pilots on their march avoided punishment under a deal that saw them dramatically turn back. Some, including Prigozhin himself, then relocated to neighboring Belarus, whose leader helped broker the deal to end the mutiny. It wasn’t clear how many took up an offer to sign up with the Defense Ministry’s forces.
But Prigozhin popped up in Moscow within days of the failed mutiny, attending talks in the Kremlin with Putin in a shock to observers who’d predicted the Wagner founder’s exile. In another apparent affront to Putin’s authority, Prigozhin was pictured mingling with African leaders at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg last month.
The mercenary group was also allowed to keep most of its extensive and profitable operations in Africa, where it played a key role in extending the Kremlin’s influence on a shoestring, sometimes offering military services in return for access to mineral resources.
What will happen to the Wagner Group now?
It’s unclear because some of Prigozhin’s top lieutenants were also on the plane, leaving a major void at the top of the organization.
Those men include Dmitry Utkin, a former military intelligence officer who has been a key figure in Wagner since its founding in 2014 to support a Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which laid the groundwork for the current conflict. Valeriy Cherkaskov, who ran Wagner’s sprawling business operations in the Middle East and Africa, was also on board, authorities said.
There have been indications that Wagner’s business empire might be taken over by other Russian groups or government agencies, but that hasn’t been confirmed.
What will this mean for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
The impact on the conflict is likely to be muted because Wagner had lost or withdrawn most of its forces from Ukraine before the mutiny following months of bloody fighting around the city of Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials said only about 2,000-3,000 Wagner fighters remain in the country, down from a high of nearly 50,000. It’s unclear if those will be absorbed into regular Russian forces.
Where else are Wagner forces operating?
The group has operatives in Syria, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo and they appear to be staying put, at least for the moment. There were some indications that the Kremlin would seek to take over control of the units but those were never confirmed.
The company’s nominal independence from the government gave the Kremlin a fig leaf of deniability that was useful diplomatically.
(Corrects spelling of Prigozhin in third section of story that was first published on Aug. 24)
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