The plot against the Kremlin led by the leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and his subsequent death in a plane crash at the end of August 2023, opens multiple hypotheses about the future of the Wagner Group. In this analysis, the security consultant and student of the LISA Institute’s Intelligence Analysis Expert Course, Andrés González, exposes the challenges after the death of Prigozhin and which Russian military companies in Africa could compete or replace the Wagner Group in the African continent.
The death of Prigozhin and his commanders represent a worrying setback in the influence and operation of the PMC in Africa. Russian presence and influence in Africa without Prigozhin’s charisma and influence is a serious setback for Russian interests on the continent. The probability of dissolution or absorption of the group, given the disappearance of its leadership and the refusal of many of its components to be absorbed by other PMCs, create a high possibility of disappearance.
The death of Prigozhin, determinant proxy in the internal stability of the PMCs, opens the door to imminent internal conflicts between various rival political, business and military factions existing in Russia today. Wagner’s replacement on the Russian national and international scene has several PMCs as probable successors to the group. The Silovikis increase their power and elevated influence with the death of Prigozhin.
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The influence and brand of the Wagner Group
It used resources from the Russian Ministry of Defence to train volunteers in order to prepare them to fight on the different war fronts opened by Russia. The group’s sign of identity is the cruelty and terror strategies used on the fronts where it has operated. The instability “through violence and corruption”, intervention in the internal politics of the countries where it operates, gave the group great power on the continent.
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The group cannot be compared with the rest of the PMCS currently existing in the Russian Federation, its organization and way of acting is similar to an ecosystem in continuous evolution, a hydra with many heads and diverse interests in Africa. Prigozhin personally controlled most of the group’s activities, from operations in Ukraine and Africa to finances and the general organization.
The group’s commanders, stationed in Syria, the Central African Republic or Mali, have their structures established, enjoying full autonomy when it comes to acting. Prigozhin’s death does not directly affect local commanders, since their operations are compartmentalized, separated and enjoy autonomy, with human resources “men continue to be recruited” and materials according to their needs. Many members of the group refuse to enlist in the Russian army, “do not share their way of proceeding”.
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Reasons and challenges of Prigozhin’s uprising and death for the Wagner Group
General Andrey Averyanov, head of the covert operations unit of the Central Intelligence Department (GRU), attempted to replace the group’s leadership in Africa, running head-on into Prigozhin’s opposition.
Prigozhin with the June uprising, exposed the weaknesses that currently exist in the Russian government. On many occasions, Prigozhin affirmed the existence of hostile movements towards his group, perpetrated by groups like Potok, having a clear purpose of dismantling the group and assuming leadership. The possibility of support from different military factions and their commanders for the uprising perpetrated by Prigozhin leaves Russia with insurmountable security cracks and a climate of mistrust among the Russian military leadership, with the consequent weakening of Putin’s control over the country.
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Who is behind the death of Prigozhin and the leadership of the Wagner Group?
Members of the group point to the Kremlin as the author of the assassination of their leader and high command. Despite having pointed to the Kremlin as responsible for the assassination of the group’s commanding leadership, there is a tense calm among Wagner’s components.
Prigozhin’s death has worryingly weakened the Russian economy and military power in Ukraine and Africa. The group’s autonomous power complicated Putin’s leadership, reducing his authority and control over Russian forces. Russian Federal Agency for Air Transport announced last August that 7 passengers and 3 crew members on board the plane with the Moscow-Saint Petersburg flight route had suffered a plane crash caused by an attack, all of its members perishing.
During his life, Prigozhin made many enemies from different Russian social classes, “businessmen, generals, top security officials and politicians”. Many leaders firmly believed that Prigozhin was dangerous to the regime and its interests, from the technocrats to the FSB itself. Prigozhin’s death today is a direct threat to all those who remained with him until the end or openly supported him.
Putin made a terrible mistake by dismantling the command leadership of the Wagner, 25,000 fighters with combat training and experience capable of maintaining balance in the extensive list of Russian PMCS currently in existence. The way in which Prigozhin was eliminated makes African leaders reflect on their trust in Putin.
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The influence of Prigozhin and the Wagner Group in Africa
After the failed uprising, Wagner made Africa one of his priorities. By leaving Ukraine, Wagner is able to act on the continent, safeguarding and administering the different concessions it manages, including uranium exports in Niger. Income from mining operations in the Central African Republic and Sudan alone generates billions of dollars. Wagner still possesses heavy weapons – tanks, planes, air defence systems and howitzers – equivalent to that of some small armies existing today.
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Wagner’s activities extend to Mali, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Chad, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Prigozhin effusively celebrated the coup d’état in Niger, going so far as to forcefully declare that he had the situation in the African country under control, despite the lack of support from the Russian government.
In the Central African Republic, Wagner guarantees government security in exchange for control of gold and diamond mines. Wagner, with hundreds of men, supports the military junta of the country favourable to Russian interests. The Prigozhin revolt has led to the urgency in the supply of tanks and long-range artillery to the Russian National Guard, creating the possibility of acquiring a new role in the defensive functions “previously performed by Wagner” in the face of future mutinies.
Prigozhin had no competitors, he was considered by Russian society “a man of the people” fresh, charismatic, and free of self-censorship. In a survey by the Lavada center, conducted at the end of May, 4% of respondents named Prigozhin as a political figure they trusted, ranking fifth, behind Putin, Mishustin, Lavrov and Shoigu. Prigozhin’s relationship with the Ministry of Defence provided a network of quite influential contacts between senior officials and law enforcement agencies.
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His agenda included prominent members of the different military, police and political bodies of the state, where contacts were continuous.
Inhabitants of the Central African Republic, feel great esteem for the Wagner group and its leaders. The government of the Central African Republic recognizes the valour of Wagner members by awarding them the Cross for Military Valor, the highest recognition bestowed by the country on its military.
In many parts of Africa where Wagner has intervened, many people compare Prigozhin to the second “white” Nelson Mandela.
What Russian military companies could compete with the Wagner Group?
Many analysts point out that other groups of military contractors can profit from Prigozhin’s death and Wagner’s uncertain future. The different existing Russian PMCS will take advantage of Wagner’s void to take its place, although none of them have the qualities “size, operability, and experience” to completely replace it. The probability of replacement of the Wagner group by other PMCS in Africa is weak. After Prigozhin’s death, different sources claim that General Andrey Averyanov will be his replacement in African leadership and operations.
There are rumours that claim that some members of Wagner could move to other Russian PMCS such as Convoy or Redut, a movement that is difficult to carry out in places like the Central African Republic since the Wagner group is not only composed of combatants, there are also mining engineers and engineers in its ranks.
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Before Prigozhin’s death, the Russian Defense Ministry began recruiting fighters in Africa through its PMCS Convoy and Redut. Currently, there are several companies with the possibility of competing with Wagner in Africa and absorbing all of its financing on the continent, as we can see in this image:
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadirov, already has a militia of about 12,000 fighters, announced in mid-February his intention to create his own military company. The interest of various actors in the management of the Wagner group is significant. There is a possibility that the Russian authorities “if they manage to control the group” will divide the group into several small subgroups, but easy to control in case of future rebellions.
What will happen to the Wagner Group and what role does civil society and Russia play?
The recent uprising perpetrated by Yevgeny Prigozhin represents a before and after in the concept of Russia as a nation. The image of weakness shown by Putin, with totally corrupt and distanced institutions in a notable internal struggle for power. Where the only existing balance in the country was the Wagner group, whose influence different PMCS want to inherit, running as the most recommendable and closest to the power and interests of the Kremlin.
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The Patriot group, under the command of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, considered a declared enemy of the Wagner group and participated in the death of its leader. It creates the possibility of a new uprising of the different self-sufficient and charismatic commanders of the group, possessors of a self-sufficient and independent structure in their units, with independent operational capacity, with constant self-supply of human, material, and weapons resources. These conditions can create counterproductive situations in the short term for Russia and its interests, such as:
- A direct confrontation with groups Patriot, Redut and the rest of PMCS that arrive in Africa on behalf of the Russian government.
- Suspension of the supply to Russia of raw materials “gold, diamonds, wood, gas, oil, iron, copper and precious stones” necessary for the self-financing of the military campaign in Ukraine.
- Align with the West in the fight against existing terrorism in the regions where they operate, counteracting Russian influence on the continent.
These mentioned points in case they occur they will revive internally old quarrels, where old friends have fought, parents and children no longer speak to each other, long-married couples no longer trust each other, teachers, and students denounce each other, creating increasingly radicalized polarized views over time, pointing to an increased possibility of social conflict in Russian society.
With a weak, confrontational and totally defragmented Russian society, they will lead to an increase in the creation and development of “semi-state” shadow armies that, unlike those that existed in the 90s, are made up of battle-hardened professionals.
The possible preventive reaction of the Russian government to the hypothetical situations mentioned will lead in the short term to massive purges, where African countries will see destabilization in their cities and some coup d’état favourable to the new status quo created by the new order.
In Russia, generals, police officers, politicians, and businessmen involved or with slight suspicions of having collaborated or supported the Wagner group and its leader, will fall from windows or suffer surprise poisonings in what will be called massive purges of all those directly involved With the Wagner group, until its absorption or disappearance from the current Russian scene.