(The Hill) – Wagner Group’s fate is hanging in the balance after leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and top field commander Dmitry Utkin were both presumably killed in a fiery plane crash.
The private military company — a once wide-reaching empire that has helped prop up authoritarian regimes in several African countries and played a significant role in Russia’s invasions of Ukraine — will increasingly come under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s control, analysts told The Hill.
Putin and his military officials must decide what parts of the group to keep, what to discard — and how to keep the mercenaries in line.
John Hardie, the deputy director of the Russia Program for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Wagner will be easier for Moscow to control “with Prigozhin, Utkin, and other top figures out of the picture.”
“But without its core commanders, it won’t be the same organization,” he wrote in an analysis sent to The Hill. “And their deaths could lead some Wagner fighters to grow disillusioned with service altogether.”
The Kremlin could also seek to disband the mercenary force, which includes thousands of fighters across the globe. However, Catrina Doxsee, a program manager and research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said major changes were unlikely.
“It’s really in Russia’s best interest to allow all of that operational infrastructure to continue with as little disruption as possible,” she told The Hill. “The wide network that Prigozhin established has basically become the cornerstone of Russia’s foreign policy in a lot of these regions.”
However, Doxsee said in the long-term that Russia would likely seek to scale back Wagner’s independence from the state and reduce its dominance.
“The goal will be to ensure that there is tighter collaboration with the Russian government, tighter oversight,” she said, “and likely a push toward diversifying the general marketplace” for mercenary companies.
Putin’s plans aside, Wagner Group officials and fighters appear extremely upset about the presumed deaths of Prigozhin and co-founder Dmitry Utkin, who was a highly respected battlefield commander within the company. The group is actually named after Utkin’s old call sign when he served in the Russian military.
Telegram accounts associated with Wagner Group have spent the days after the news broke eulogizing both men and blaming the Kremlin for the plane crash.
Russia is still investigating the crash but the U.S. believes an internal explosion forced the plane down and Biden administration officials said the incident is consistent with Putin’s history of silencing critics. The Kremlin denied any role in the crash on Friday.
On Friday, Wagner representatives wrote they were waiting for the word from top officers on next steps.
“Firstly, in such a situation it is important not to act on emotions, you need to formulate a clear plan of action,” they wrote. “Secondly, it is necessary to correctly redistribute responsibilities. Thirdly, we all need time to come to some conclusions.”
There are some reports that Wagner could march on Moscow again, but military analysts say the private company lacks the resources or capabilities to conduct any kind of retaliatory action and is likely more interested in retaining its global operations.
“It’s game over,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t think that Wagner — without its leadership — has the wherewithal, the credibility, the influence, to mount another challenge.”
The United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry wrote in an intelligence update on Friday that Prigozhin’s apparent death would have a “destabilizing effect” on the company.
“His personal attributes of hyper-activity, exceptional audacity, a drive for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor,” it wrote.
The future of Wagner has been up in the air since June, when Prigozhin launched, then quickly abandoned, a mutiny against Moscow. The warlord exiled to Belarus in an apparent truce with Putin, but still reportedly shuttled in and out of Russia.
The uprising threw into question what would happen to Wagner’s network in Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Syria, and Libya, which Russia sees as allies and has benefited from lucrative security, oil, gold mining, and other contracts gained in providing fighters to the countries.
In the two months before Prighozin’s crash, Putin was signaling his intention to wind down the capabilities of Wagner and lay the groundwork for new ownership.
In June, the Russian leader ordered the company to surrender its heavy weapons and announced publicly for the first time that Wagner was funded by the state. He also mentioned Prigozhin’s Concord catering company would be investigated for potentially stealing from Russia’s government.
At the same time, Putin has avoided criticizing Wagner’s fighters, allowing them to go free after the mutiny.
Numerous Wagner fighters have relocated to Belarus, part of a deal brokered by Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko to end the standoff between Prigozhin and Putin as the mercenary chief marched on Moscow.
Lukashenko on Friday said up to 10,000 mercenaries were either in his country or arriving soon and they would stay there “as long as we need this unit.”
“PMC Wagner lived, PMC Wagner lives, and PMC Wagner will live in Belarus despite anyone’s wishes to the contrary,” Lukashenko said, according to Belarusian state-run media outlet Belta. “Prigozhin and I came up with a system of how PMC Wagner will be accommodated in Belarus.”
The Belarusian relocation might end up benefiting Putin, allowing him to keep the troops parked there for time being while the war rages in nearby Ukraine.
Kupchan, from the Council on Foreign Relations, said he ultimately expects the Kremlin to create a hybrid structure in a way that allows the “state apparatus to have much more visibility into what Wagner is doing.”
Mercenary armies “sometimes become sufficiently powerful and autonomous that they turn against the center,” Kupchan said. “Putin has learned his lesson and he’s not going to allow Wagner to continue to exist as a standalone mercenary army.”