What’s Next for the Wagner Group?
The infamous Russian mercenary group finds itself without a leader, but still with a mission.
By Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch
By Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Robbie and Jack here. Now feels like a good time to remind you to never get on board a plane with a notorious Russian mercenary chief who undermined Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.
And speaking of, here’s what’s on tap for the day: What’s next for the Wagner Group after Prigozhin’s untimely death, U.S. steps up support for Somalia’s forever war, the GOP holds its first presidential debate, and more.
A Crisis of Leadership: Mercenary Edition
So it turns out fomenting and then aborting a mutiny in Russia with your private mercenary army isn’t good for your health.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the energetic and infamous leader of the Wagner Group mercenary outfit, met his untimely demise after his plane was downed outside of Moscow, two months to the day after the Wagner mutiny that almost unraveled Putin’s power vertical. Coincidence? In Putin’s Russia? Probably not.
Prigozhin leaves behind a sprawling mercenary-criminal enterprise that spans hot spots around the globe, from the war in Ukraine to Middle East conflict zones like Syria and Libya to fragile states in sub-Saharan Africa like Mali and the Central African Republic.
So what’s next for the Wagner Group? Your trusty SitRep authors have spent most of the past 24 hours asking Western national security officials and experts that exact question, and we’ve compiled here what we’re hearing for our dear readers.
Putin won’t let go of a good thing. Wagner, in whatever form, likely isn’t going anywhere, even if it’s rebranded, or replaced with new personnel under a new proxy entity for the Kremlin, or subsumed into the Russian defense establishment. Wagner is a very low-cost, high payoff way for Putin to project power into crisis zones in the Sahel region of Africa and elsewhere to stick it to the West and prop up the military juntas that have aligned with Team Russia.
As one senior Eastern European official told us: “Putin got his power projection on the cheap and with some veneer of deniability in Mali and the CAR through Wagner. It’s not in his interest to give that up.”
It’s also important to remember how crucial Russia views its partnerships in Africa. “Africa is key in Putin’s strategy in Ukraine: to prove he is not isolated, to circumvent Western economic sanctions, and rebuild his forces via Wagner,” said Rama Yade, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council think tank. “Prigozhin’s uprising required a clarification on the nature of Russia’s partnership with African countries. It’s done.”
What’s a company without its CEO? Some (but not all) U.S. and European officials we’ve spoken with say that even though Prigozhin was always an instrument of Putin’s power (before the big falling out over that little mutiny snafu) and he could be easily replaced, Wagner likely won’t be nearly as effective in the short-term without Prigozhin at the helm.
That’s because if it’s absorbed into the Russian defense ministry, it’s unclear whether it will be able to source the logistics, munitions, and technical support it needs without Prigozhin’s vast private resources and constant energetic behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing. Being folded into the Russian defense ministry in a formal way will open the group’s network in Africa to more bureaucracy, inefficiencies, and graft. (Not that Wagner was some upstanding model of corporate governance to begin with, but it’s a good rule of thumb to follow that non-government institutions are more efficient than government institutions, especially in the case of corrupt states like Russia).
The Wagner Group is, at least on paper, a counterterrorism partner for the junta in Mali and elsewhere in the unstable and coup-prone Sahel region, but terrorist attacks are on the rise (as are atrocities and possible war crimes by Wagner-linked fighters.) There’s a chance these juntas could start feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse after ditching the U.S. and French-led models of counterterrorism to team up with Prigozhin’s goons.
Two officials we spoke to, one U.S. and one European, disagreed with the line of thinking that Wagner’s effectiveness in Africa and elsewhere will be stymied by Prigozhin’s death. Their reasoning is that Wagner’s operations in Africa operate as a form of semi-independent criminal-security franchise, and they can keep doing what they’re doing no matter who is at the formal helm of Wagner. And, to the first point, what Wagner’s doing is too profitable, both geopolitically and literally, for the Kremlin to let it whither on the vine.
Still, these disagreements indicate that U.S. and other European governments are still sifting through what the long-term impacts and aftershocks of Prigozhin’s death will mean for the mercenary outfit.
Prigozhin’s mercenary legacy. The Wagner model will live on even if Wagner itself dies. Prigozhin showed Putin that mercenary outfits, with that veneer of plausible deniability, may be the least ineffective way for a Russia badly weakened by its botched war in Ukraine and international isolation to revive some of its Cold War glory days for vestiges of global clout and influence.
There are lesser known players in the Russian mercenary game that may be eager to fill the void Prigozhin leaves behind. And after his plane crash, the heads of these outfits are sure to think twice before criticizing Russia’s defense establishment or indirectly challenging Putin’s rule in the way Prigozhin did.
Among the other mercenary outfits to watch: Redut, a private military company that’s actively recruiting for the fight in Ukraine (as investigative news outlet Meduza revealed in reporting last year), a batch of murky and hard-to-trace private security contracting organizations fielded by Russian state gas giant Gazprom Neft, including one called “Potok”, and other smaller groups operating almost exclusively in Ukraine, such as the Moran Security Group, Slavonic Corps, and E.N.O.T. corps. (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has more on those groups).
Perhaps none of them can replicate the success of Prigozhin with Wagner, but surely there’s an enterprising and ambitious future war criminal eager to at least try and seize the moment to replicate the success of Wagner and secure his spot among Russia’s oligarchic elite.
Let’s Get Personnel
The top defense expert at the Heritage Foundation, Thomas Spoehr, is leaving the conservative think tank over disagreements with its stance on Ukraine, five people familiar with the move confirmed to SitRep. Spoehr resigned last week after the organization’s president, Kevin Roberts, published an op-ed in The Hill newspaper arguing that Congress was holding hurricane relief hostage in favor of aid to Ukraine. (Full disclosure: Jack attended a Heritage Foundation defense fellowship program led by Spoehr in 2019).
“He was kind of the last senior guy standing,” said one source familiar with Spoehr’s departure. “That’s the real nail in the coffin here. For a while there were people staying and kind of fighting the good fight.” Sources familiar with Spoehr’s departure said more junior staffers unhappy with Roberts’ ideological makeover are now trying to leave the organization. Kudos to the National Review for getting the story first.
The executive vice president of the EU Commission, Frans Timmermans, has left his post to run for prime minister in the Netherlands. He is replaced by Maroš Šefčovič, who will also take over the EU’s climate change portfolio.
On the Button
What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.
Pick me, pick me. All the top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination—save one (the Donald)—took to the stage for the first presidential debate of the 2024 season in Milwaukee on Wednesday night and there was some interesting chatter on foreign policy worth following. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would support deploying U.S. military personnel to Mexico to fight drug cartels. Former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley both doubled down on support for Ukraine. GOP Presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy, meanwhile, said he would oppose increasing support for Ukraine to focus resources instead on China.
Fast as lightning. Somalia is back into the throes of a renewed offensive against al Qaeda’s richest terror franchise after the fighting ground to a near-standstill for several months. And the tip of the spear is the U.S.-trained Danab commando force that’s graduating about 350 troops every few months at Baledogle Air Base, a Soviet-built complex on the red sands of the Somali desert.
But the elite of Somalia’s military are coming straight off the street: Nearly half of the recent graduates were illiterate when they were invited to join the commando force, and they will face a a force in al-Shabab that is determined to cling to what’s left of its territory: with guerrilla tactics, complex improvised explosive devices, 500-pound truck bombs, rocket-propelled grenades, and even human waves of suicide bombers. Jack traveled to Somalia to embed with the U.S. military for a week.
Fire in the hole. The U.S. Department of Defense has now deployed 700 troops and officials and 140 U.S. Coast Guardsmen along with Chinook helicopters to help put out wildfires that have torn through the Hawaiian island of Maui, U.S. defense officials said. The U.S. military’s gameplan to deal with the wildfires, which local officials believe have distinct origins, include using helicopters to suppress the blazes from above, and set up fuel distribution centers and support facilities to keep the response humming. The fires have burned more than 3,000 acres.
The worst fire season in recent memory continues to heat up other parts of North America, as the blazes that began in the Canadian province of Quebec have moved out west. This week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country’s military would assist in evacuating 35,000 people under orders to leave their homes in British Columbia.
Put On Your Radar
Today: South Africa hosts the final day of the BRICS Summit.
Friday, Aug. 25: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits Angola.
Saturday, Aug. 26: Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba faces a general election in his bid for a third term against 18 other candidates.
Wednesday, Aug. 30: The legal detention period expires for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkowitz, jailed in Russia on trumped-up espionage charges and awaiting trial.
Quote of the Week
“There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind. But I don’t know enough to know the answer. I’ve been working out for the last hour and a half”
—President Joe Biden, when asked by reporters about Prigozhin’s death, after emerging from an exercise class holding a Jamba Juice in Lake Tahoe, California.
This Week’s Most Read
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.