Yevgeny Prigorzhin was last pictured alive in a video released on Monday, rumored to be in Mali, in which the camouflage-clad warlord wields an assault rifle and vows to “make Russia a better place on every continent.” stronger and freer Africa”.
Forty-eight hours later, Prigozhin’s private plane mysteriously crashed in an open field northwest of Moscow, killing him and everyone on board.
Prigozhin’s grip on Wagner has been in doubt since a mutiny against Russian troops in June challenged Vladimir Putin’s authority. Now his tragic end has cast new doubt on Russia’s ability to sustain its mercenary deployments in Africa and the Middle East through the network he built, according to people familiar with the matter.
“Everything is going to be a mess in Africa,” said a longtime Prigozhin acquaintance, introducing and referring to Wagner’s business there. “They won’t have any more operations on him and no one will take over them because you need Zhenya,” he added, using Prigozhin’s nickname. “He’s the only one who’s crazy enough to make this thing work.”
Wagner: “The Last Choice”
For a little over five years, Wagner became a vital pillar of Russia’s power projection in Africa. The group has launched election meddling programmes, disinformation campaigns and military campaigns, all while offering plausible excuses to the Kremlin if anything goes wrong.
Whenever there was chaos to sow or anti-Western sentiment to exploit, Prigozhin and his team of ex-soldiers and ex-convicts were regularly spotted carrying out the Kremlin’s orders in various countries on the continent.
The once-obscure Wagner backed juntas, pro-Moscow strongmen and fragile governments from Libya to Mali and the Central African Republic in exchange for mineral exploration concessions and monthly fees.
Since Wagner-backed governments have routinely severed most ties with their Western and sometimes African allies, they have little choice.
“Wagner is the last option for these countries,” said Cameron Hudson, a former CIA official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “They’re working with Russia now, whether it’s Putin or Prigozhin. They can’t switch.”
The June mutiny has thrown all of that into question, though Prigozhin appears to have been forgiven and reintegrated into Russia’s security establishment, not least because of his close ties to African leaders.
He met with African officials on the sidelines of the recent St. Petersburg summit to heap praise on those behind last month’s coup in Niger, and Russian officials assured Wagner’s clients that their services would continue uninterrupted.
However, Prigorzhin’s status as Russia’s quasi-official envoy to the continent, where rivals are eyeing the spoils, has been severely weakened, people familiar with the matter said.
After the mutiny, Wagner’s bosses struck a deal with Putin under which he and his fighters would relocate to Belarus and then eventually to Africa. That convinced the warlord he had “more or less settled the matter with Putin,” the old acquaintance said.
With most of Wagner’s combat troops in Ukraine either joining the Ministry of Defense or returning home, Prigozhin is left with a small force he plans to station in the Central African Republic, the person said.
“They asked him to take as many people as he could to Africa. About 1,000 did, and 500 of them have been redeployed,” said the old acquaintance. “So they’re going to start over, and if (Prigorzhin) survives, he’ll eventually figure out some way to stand in front of Putin again and say, ‘Look what I did in Africa’.”
Changes in the chain of command
CAR represents Wagner’s most established business in Africa. The group has been tasked with protecting President Faustin-Archange Touadera, training troops and taking part in combat missions against insurgent groups plaguing the country.
In return, Wagner-linked companies received gold and diamond mines and timber export rights. At the Ndassima mine, Wagner-linked Midas Resources has a significant gold mining operation that could generate $1 billion in annual profits at full capacity, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable. The company was sanctioned by the United States in June. The Wagner entity also produces beer and vodka.
But according to Prigozhin’s longtime acquaintances, future deployments in Africa may not be very lucrative. “We’re talking tens of millions of dollars a year at the most,” the person said of expected profits.
Enrica Pico, director of Central Africa at the Crisis Group think tank, said new faces could emerge after Prigozhin left. “We will see a change in the chain of command of key officers and Wagner’s most visible face in operations on the continent,” she predicted.
“It will take time and will be part of a larger takeover by the Russian Ministry of Defense and affiliated private military companies from the Wagner-led operation. The Kremlin could also turn to CAR for business and ownership of Prigozhin-linked companies. “
What happens next depends largely on the Russian president. After Wagner’s defection, Moscow suggested starting to dismantle the group, but the Kremlin never provided a public action plan for how those efforts would develop.
“The next move is Putin’s,” said Hudson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What steps did Putin take to rein in and consolidate control over Wagner?”
Yet some kind of plan may be surfacing. According to people familiar with the matter, Prigozhin’s trip to Africa this week may have been aimed at preventing the GRU, the Russian military’s foreign intelligence service, from controlling his operations.
A senior Russian military delegation, including Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, traveled to Libya this week to meet with Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the pro-Kremlin Libyan National Army that controls the east of the country you.
Wagner mercenaries have been fighting alongside Haftar’s forces since Haftar’s failed capture of the capital in 2019. Wagner fighters remain in the North African country to provide weapons systems training for Haftar’s soldiers.
Russian nationalist tycoon Konstantin Malofeev, who praised Prigorzhin before the defection, told the Financial Times that because of widespread anti-Western discontent, “anyone who represents Russia will have stable situation and the full confidence of African leaders”.
“The most important thing for them is that they are Russians, because Russia is more trustworthy than Western colonists. So Yevgeny’s premature death will not affect Russia’s position in Africa.”
Pro-Russian propagandist Hrytil Dohnen, who leads the Pan-African Republican Front movement, called Prigozhin “the friend of the African people in the fight against terrorism and vampires.”
Fidèle Gouandjika, Touadela’s senior adviser, said of Prigozhin’s death: “It’s sad news, he saved democracy, so the whole country mourns.” But for us, it changed absolutely nothing.
“As a result of our agreement with the Kremlin, we will continue to have Wagner on the ground.”
“Intimidating message for African leaders”
Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses in the African countries where he operates, including raping and massacring civilians. A United Nations report this month accused Malian troops and Wagnerian mercenaries of killing as many as 500 people and violating human rights in the town of Mora.
Touadela, a former senior Central African Republic politician, considered reducing Wagner’s influence in his country but rejected the idea after realizing how dependent he was on Prigozhin’s associates. For example, Valery Zakharov, a Wagner employee and former FSB agent, served as Tovadra’s national security adviser last year.
A U.N. official involved in the peacekeeping force in Mali expects Wagner’s operation to remain largely unchanged, in part because the international agency is unable to provide the services Mali wants, which include carrying out attacks against jihadists that do not comply with U.N.-mandated attacks. “It’s like they’re asking us to violate their sovereignty,” the official said.
However, a person close to the Russian Ministry of Defense said that even if the Russian military did take over Wagner’s operation, it was unlikely to fully replicate the operation under Prigozhin. “Putin has more to do than Africa,” the person said. “So it’s either going to the military or it turns into shit. My guess is the latter.”
Crisis Group’s Pico said another lesson from the Wagner boss’s untimely death may be on the minds of those who choose to hire his mercenaries.
“African leaders will be careful to provoke the Kremlin,” she said. “Prigorzhin’s death could be a very frightening message for African leaders.”