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Vol 64 No 19

Published 21st September 2023

Kremlin ponders its post-Wagner options

Moscow must dispose of the remnants of its most famous mercenary outfit and has some hard choices to make

The crash of Yevgeny Prigozhin's jet on 25 August was both expected and full of surprises. It was expected because no one believed President Vladimir Putin would do business as usual with someone who had tried to overthrow him. Equally, it was surprising that a man as paranoid as the Wagner Group boss would travel with his closest associates in one aircraft so soon after publicly humiliating Putin, his minister of defence and his head of the armed forces.

Among other casualties of the crash were the main figures in Wagner, including Dmitry Utkin, who led the military operations and gave the name to the company, Valery Chekalov, who ran the business side of Wagner, and several of the most trusted commanders and bodyguards.

An immediate consequence was that Wagner had lost the leadership capable of keeping the company united and to negotiate a collective agreement with the Russian state. Each contingent was on its own. Clearly, Russian intelligence has been mapping the allegiances of Wagner cadres in Syria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR), and securing their loyalty to the Russian state.

There may be different outcomes for Wagner, depending on how the dismantling of its assets proceeds and on the attitudes of Prigozhin's senior staff to the Kremlin.

Initially, the Kremlin will have to deal with three shortcomings in Wagner that not only exercised western states' diplomatic corps but increased transaction costs with African regimes.

The first is Wagner's total lack of legal status. The Russian state was not even willing to acknowledge that the roughly 6,000 security operatives in Africa had a legal existence. CAR's President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and the Malian junta boss Colonel Assimi Goïta were embarrassed when, last September, Prigozhin acknowledged in a video what they had not yet admitted: that he was leading Wagner and intervening in many African countries.

Deniability is an asset up to the moment it becomes a liability. President Putin has many possible solutions to the problem of Wagner's status but may be reluctant to choose one while he is under pressure because of the Ukraine war.

The most obvious would be to register the new security entity in a tax haven, or a friendly state, such as the United Arab Emirates. This is what many private military companies have been doing over the past decade, following the example of the United States' former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince.

Human cost
There is a second, more contentious aspect of Wagner military operations which Moscow never paid much attention to until it became an issue in its dealings in Africa – the huge collateral damage. As illustrated throughout the Bakhmut battle in Ukraine that Wagner eventually won at a high price, respect for life was never a major factor for Wagner, even that of civilians.

In Africa, for two years evidence has been building of arbitrary Wagner attacks on civilians, often as revenge for Wagner operatives having fallen into an ambush, in CAR and Mali especially. Such violations of basic human rights have become systematic and create another problem for African states, which cannot afford to be shooting their own people while claiming sovereignty against their former colonial power.

The solution has long existed: to insert better-trained non-commissioned officers and officers in Wagner's ranks. This implies better connections with Russia's military intelligence service, the GRU, and looking ahead, the transfer of GRU cadres into the Wagner operation. But Russia's foreign intelligence service, the SVR, has not given up the idea of inheriting part of the Prigozhin empire.

The Wagner Group included a press agency and the disinformation outfit, the notorious Internet Research Agency (AC Vol 62 No 11, Touadéra tilts to Moscow, losing Western backing). The Kremlin does not seem to have made up its mind on whether the new mercenary company should retain these departments.

Integration options
The holistic approach put in place by Prigozhin had many advantages, such as offering African partners on-the-spot leverage on social networks and the capability to defuse bad news by quickly creating fake narratives. This, over time, gave Wagner's misbehaviour its best protection. But the Moscow security establishment – the GRU, the SVR and the FSB – see such functions as their own prerogative and would prefer to integrate these assets within their own apparatus.

One scenario would be to fully dismantle Wagner and hand its functions and mandate over to the Ministry of Defence. Defence minister Sergei Shoigu would like this, having suffered multiple humiliations from Prigozhin, but the Russian military is less keen, we hear, not having the necessary flexibility or enthusiasm for such tasks.

Deniability would be lost, and there would be no improvement in quality of service, from the Kremlin's point of view. The financial dimension would also be troublesome. Although funded and supplied by the Russian state, Wagner was able to sustain important expenses, including salaries, management, and training, thanks to its business deals in Sudan, CAR and elsewhere that earned hard currency.

A second scenario would be to build a smaller, more focused, security entity completely subordinate to the Russian defence ministry, which in this case means the GRU. This solution was at the core of late August discussions the Deputy Minister of Defence Yunus-bek Yevkurov and GRU General Andrei Averyanov had with African heads of state where Wagner has been operating.

General Averyanov is reported to lead the GRU's 29155 unit, which allegedly carried out multiple assassinations and attempted killings of defectors and double agents in Europe, such as that of Sergei Skripal, the ex-KGB officer poisoned in Salisbury in the United Kingdom in 2018. Averyanov is rumoured to have been involved in the crash of Prigozhin's jet.

This second scenario seems more probable than others, although it has its own difficulties. Among them are the strong personal connections built up over the years by Wagner operatives with their African counterparts. These may be harder to bring under GRU control. Many observers believe that Averyanov has been ordered to rid Wagner of any 'dissidents' who might object to working for the Russian state.

A third scenario would be that used by the US in the past. When a private military company gets into legal trouble, it can be integrated into a new, 'clean' company that would carry out the same functions. That is what Prince did when he set up Academi to absorb Blackwater, when the latter's record was become increasingly controversial. At least two Russian private security companies funded by oligarchs close to Putin look likely to take this road.

The first is Redut, which was set up in 2008 by paramilitary and GRU officers and operates mostly in the Middle East, including Syria, where it protects Russian companies and other assets. It recently appointed a former Wagner cadre to oversee recruitment. Its financial backer is Gennady Timchenko, who made his fortune in the energy sector and is a close Putin associate.

Another contender is Convoy, which was created by Konstantin Pikalov, who had worked with Wagner and, according to the European Union, may have organised the killing of three Russian journalists who travelled to CAR to investigate Wagner in July 2018 (AC Vol 64 No 5, A junta that's going nowhere).

Convoy has financial backing from another oligarch, Arkady Rotenberg, and claims to be recruiting people to operate in Africa. Pikalov accompanied Yevkurov in his recent Africa trip, an indication that he might win preference over his competitors.

At this stage, no firm decision has been taken and the Kremlin may first assess the damage created by Prigozhin's coup attempt and the loyalty of his chain of command in Africa. Only after, notwithstanding the war in Ukraine, can a decision be made.

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