On Aug. 23, an Embraer Legacy-600 business jet exploded over Russia’s Tver Oblast. The crash resulted in the deaths of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, co-founder Dmitry Utkin, and logistics head Valery Chekalov. While predictions of Prigozhin’s impending demise were widespread after he launched an abortive mutiny against Russia’s military leadership on June 23, his death — and the dramatic way in which it came about — sent renewed shockwaves across the world and plunged the Wagner private military company’s (PMC) global influence operations into a state of uncertainty.
As the Wagner Group has an entrenched military presence in Syria, Libya, and Sudan (as well as multiple other countries in Africa and potentially beyond), the evisceration of its senior leadership will have serious repercussions for Russia’s influence in the Middle East and North Africa region. The Wagner Group’s military contractors are unlikely to depart, since they guard strategically valuable oil and mining facilities; but they are likely to now be swiftly integrated into the regular Russian Armed Forces. In the areas of the MENA region where the Kremlin will wish to continue carrying out deniable operations, alternative PMCs could capitalize on Wagner’s loss of autonomy. Such rival PMCs are already starting to fill the void, and new ones have been emerging in recent years; but in light of the experience with Wagner, the Kremlin will likely place these new formations under close supervision to prevent any company from accruing the monopolistic control that Prigozhin’s private army once enjoyed in its theaters of operation.
The nationalization of the Wagner Group’s presence in Syria
In the two months following Prigozhin’s failed mutiny, the Wagner Group’s activities in Syria were largely unaffected. According to some, at least partially disputed, reports, Syria’s military intelligence services complied with Russian requests to sever landline and internet access to Wagner mercenaries as the mutiny unfolded. They also allegedly aided the Russian military police’s “precautionary” detentions of Wagner officers at Khmeimim Airbase. While several dozen Wagner fighters reportedly rejected contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense and their resultant salary cuts, the majority of Wagner’s estimated 250 to 450 paramilitary personnel remained in Syria.
Wagner forces are tasked with lower-risk guardianship of oil reserves in Syria’s Badia Desert region, though in recent years, their primary role has been training the Syrian Army. Consequently, Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to lead to their exodus from Syria. Russian defense commentator Andrey Medvedev contended that Wagner’s operatives would remain in Syria, as it has “established connections and authority.” Under Utkin’s command, Wagner began training local Syrian militias in October 2015. Meanwhile, Wagner’s long-term contractual relationship with the Syrian regular armed forces — which by its political, economic, legalistic, and strategic nature cannot be easily or quickly undone — runs deepest when it comes to Syria’s 5th Assault Corps. Namely, Wagner successfully prepared this brigade for the 2016 Battle of Palmyra and instructed it to use heavy equipment such as T-72 tanks and S-300 air-defense batteries. Factoring in these connections Russian war correspondent Alexander Kharchenko claimed that without Wagner, “it would be extremely difficult for the Syrians to interact with our (military),” further arguing, “the façade of the (Wagner) organization needs to be updated but the frame should not be touched.”
While Wagner is unlikely to leave Syria, it will most likely be placed under the Russian defense ministry’s thumb. Shortly before Prigozhin’s death, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov allegedly traveled to Damascus and urged Syrian officials to rein in Wagner’s autonomy. According to this account — shared by the sometimes questionably reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights but echoed by the Wagner Group-aligned “Orchestra Wagner” Telegram channel — Syrian Defense Minister Ali Mahmoud Abbas complied with Yevkurov’s request and asked Wagner forces to operate under the Russian military’s command or leave Syria within a month. In turn, the “Belarusian Silovik” Telegram channel claimed that Yevkurov replaced Gen. Sergey Surovikin as the “curator” of Wagner forces in Syria, and this assertion spread widely on Russian Telegram channels.
Based on reporting by Andrey Zakharov, a prominent Russian investigative journalist, the Russian Defense Ministry has taken steps to make Wagner completely dependent on its support. Using Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian Embassy in Damascus as intermediaries, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu reportedly succeeded in pressuring the Syrian government to deny Wagner access to its bases. To the degree that Zakharov’s account is true, the loss of Khmeimim Airbase access, however partial, would complicate Wagner’s ability to resupply its forces in African theaters, such as the Central African Republic and Mali. Another question concerns the Wagner-aligned Evro Polis company, which generates $90 million in annual profits for protecting Syrian energy assets from the Islamic State. Due to its close ties to Wagner’s former director for logistics, Chekalov, who died in last month’s plane crash along with Prigozhin, it is conceivable that Evro Polis’s possessions could be placed under Kremlin conservatorship.
While the Wagner Group is unable to meaningfully resist the Russian defense ministry’s takeover, concerns persist about the smoothness of the integration process. Russia’s popular “Rybar” Telegram channel warned that Wagner’s antagonism toward the Russian defense ministry could cause the group to hand over its Syrian assets to Iran. To prevent this, “Rybar” argued that a third-party structure inside Russia should oversee asset transfers. It remains unclear if the Kremlin has adequately prepared for this troubling scenario.
Implications of Prigozhin’s death for Wagner operations in Libya and Sudan
Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to result in a sweeping overhaul of Wagner’s estimated 2,000-strong troop presence in Libya. But Russia will probably also place Wagner’s forces there under the control of Shoigu’s Ministry of Defense. After negotiations with eastern Libyan officials at the August 2023 Moscow Security Conference and concurrent Army-2203 expo, Yevkurov met with Libya National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Hifter in Benghazi on Aug. 22. The Russian defense ministry described it as the “first official visit of a Russian military delegation” and pledged to cooperate with the LNA against “international terrorism.”
Prigozhin had reportedly planned to dispatch Wagner’s elite 5th Special Operations Forces to Libya before his death, but this will surely not happen now. Nevertheless, Hifter, whose militia forces had previously been assisted by the Russian PMC, will presumably welcome the formalization of Russia’s regular military presence in Libya. Prigozhin’s later support for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s takeover of Libya likely sowed mistrust with Hifter. Due to Prigozhin’s suspicions of Hifter’s ties to France and pressure tactics to secure a $200 million cash payment from the LNA in October 2022, relations between the two men were further strained prior to the Wagner chief’s death. While the Russian defense ministry might find a willing partner in Hifter, it needs to make sure that its overt support for the LNA does not derail its simultaneous efforts to court Tripoli-based Government of National Unity Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh.
Russia’s access to Sudan’s lucrative gold reserves will also probably not be significantly disrupted by Prigozhin’s death, the ongoing civil war in this country notwithstanding. Since 2017, when then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev witnessed the signing of concession agreements between Sudan’s Ministry of Minerals and the Prigozhin-operated M-Invest Ltd., the Kremlin has maintained oversight over Wagner’s gold mining interests in Sudan. On the other hand, as the Russian state possibly did not sanction Wagner’s alleged shipments of surface-to-air missiles to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, Prigozhin’s death could augment the RSF’s munitions supply chain constraints. These limitations could increase doubts about the sustainability of Hemedti’s offensive operations against Sudan Armed Forces-held military assets.
Outlook for alternative Russian PMCs in the MENA region
So while Wagner’s infrastructure across MENA is likely to remain at least partially intact, Prigozhin’s demise creates opportunities for new PMCs to eventually take its place. Redut PMC, which has close links to the Russian defense ministry, is especially well-placed to replace Wagner in Syria. Redut mercenaries already protect oligarch Gennady Timchenko’s JSC Stroytransgaz’s natural gas facilities in Syria. With state backing, this “private” force could readily extend these operations to Wagner-guarded oil facilities. Gen. Vladimir Alexeyev, who transformed Redut PMC from an asset protection company into a full-fledged private army with 7,000 fighters, won a Hero of the Russian Federation Award in 2017 for supervising military intelligence officers in Syria.
Although the Russian defense ministry has actively encouraged Wagner fighters in Syria to join Redut PMC since July, the presence of Col. Andrey Troshev in Redut’s ranks could complicate this process. Putin attempted to elevate Troshev to head of the Wagner Group after Prigozhin’s mutiny, but these efforts were thwarted by disdain amongst the Wagner rank-and-file for his rumored alcoholism and impetuousness. Troshev’s key role in the February 2018 Battle of Khasham, which saw at least 100 Wagner fighters perish at the hands of United States and local allied forces, could also give potential recruits some pause.
The growing trend of Russian state-owned companies creating PMCs, which was most recently exemplified by space agency Roscosmos’s creation of a private army in Ukraine, presents further opportunities for alternatives to Wagner’s role abroad. As Gazprom resumed oil production in Libya in May 2021 and Russia struck a wide-ranging energy extraction agreement with Syria in January 2018, Gazprom’s PMCs could be deployed to guard energy facilities in the MENA region. RSB Group, which is owned by businessman Oleg Krinitsyn, aided LNA forces in de-mining Benghazi in 2017 and has a long history of operations in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine.
While Prigozhin’s death again raised questions about the future of Russia’s military involvement in Syria, Libya, and Sudan, the Kremlin’s nationalization plans provide a short-term fix, and support for alternative PMCs provides a longer-term solution. An oligopolistic PMC structure will allow Russia to complete a diverse array of services for its security partners, while preventing any individual PMC leader from following Prigozhin’s treacherous path.
Samuel Ramani is a tutor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, where he received his doctorate in March 2021, and an associate fellow at RUSI. His first book, Russia in Africa: Resurgent Great Power or Bellicose Pretender?, was published by Oxford University Press and Hurst and Co. in 2023. Follow Samuel on Twitter @samramani2.
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