The apparent deaths of Wagner chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin and two top lieutenants in a plane crash Wednesday have brought the mercenary group that for a decade fought to advance the Kremlin’s goals in Ukraine and beyond closer to an end — the main question left being which remnants of its once-sprawling empire will Russian President Vladimir Putin take over.
The group, which has sent personnel to prop up authoritarian regimes or fight rebel groups in the Central African Republic, Mali, Syria, Libya, and Sudan, has been under pressure since Prigozhin launched a short-lived mutiny against Moscow in June. The warlord’s vast network of operatives and contracts in Africa have posed a diplomatic quandary for the Kremlin, which has been attempting to untangle itself from him without breaking promises made to its allies on the continent.
Without Prigozhin and aides Dmitry Utkin and Valery Chekalov, as many as thousands of Wagner fighters are now stranded across multiple countries, their fate in the hands of Putin and the military officials who will decide whether to keep parts of the group going or disband it altogether. Prigozhin, Utkin and Chekalov were all listed as passengers on the business jet that crashed near Kuzhenkino, Russia, on Wednesday, two months after Wagner fighters shot down Russian aircraft and killed Russian soldiers in the abortive mutiny.
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As an organization, Wagner is “really finished,” said David Lewis, a professor of Global Politics at England’s University of Exeter who has researched the group’s illicit business networks in Africa. Prigozhin had become a “highly skilled manager” of what essentially became a multinational corporation, he said, and would be “impossible to replace.”
But Wagner’s blend of mercenaries, profitable business, smuggling and disinformation campaigns, Lewis said, have been an effective model for Russia’s covert foreign policy that the Kremlin will seek to replicate.
Wagner’s mercenaries and their families, meanwhile, are most concerned about what happens to them now. They gathered Thursday online and at the payroll office in Goryachy Klyuch, the Russian town 4½ hours from the occupied Crimean peninsula that has long served as the group’s base.
“Wagner has been decapitated. What are we to do now?” the wife of one fighter asked. “I pray to God that the company finds a new worthy leader.”
Others flooded mercenary-linked groups with questions about promised pay and benefits, compiled a list of more than 100 people waiting in line to see Wagner representatives in person, and wondered whether they should expect their husbands and brothers to return home now.
“Until the circumstances of the incident are clarified, we ask you not to succumb to provocations and be patient,” a Wagner administrator responded. “Employees and departments of the company continue their work.”
After hours of speculation on Prigozhin’s fate, Putin on Thursday appeared to eulogize his erstwhile ally.
“He was a talented man” who “made serious mistakes in his life,” Putin said in televised remarks.
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The Embraer 600 business jet crashed less than a half-hour after leaving Moscow on Wednesday afternoon. All 10 passengers and crew members on board were killed, authorities have said. Few other details have been made public.
Utkin, the infamous brain behind mercenaries’ combat operations, gave Wagner its name and was inseparable from the brand. But the loss of logistics leader Chekalov, a longtime but lesser-known Prigozhin associate, probably hurts the group more.
Chekalov was effectively Prigozhin’s business manager, involved in virtually every part of his empire, from the Concord catering company that supplied food for the Russian army and schools with billions of dollars in state contracts to murky shell companies set up in Africa to exploit local riches.
“He ran a significant part of Prigozhin’s business, including Wagner, Syrian gas and oil projects, contracts in Africa,” said Denis Korotkov, the veteran Russian journalist who was first to report the existence of the group years ago. “He was also responsible for logistics and materiel supply for Wagner.”
In a surprise deal after the mutiny, Putin allowed Wagner to go unpunished into exile in Belarus, where it made an abandoned military base in the village of Tsel its new home. But some waited for further action against Prigozhin.
CIA Director William J. Burns suggested last month that Putin would take his time. “I think Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold,” Burns said at the Aspen Security Forum. “Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback. So I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this. … If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn’t fire my food taster.”
While the cause of the crash may never be known, some analysts suggested that if the Kremlin played a part, the two-month gap between the mutiny and the plane crash might have been a careful calculation to create an illusion of safety for the outspoken Wagner boss and avoid new unrest.
“Eliminating the CEO of the company you want to absorb on day one is a stupid move, as there might be some residual loyalty,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. The “immediate departure of Prigozhin and Utkin could have caused much more disruption.”
Prigozhin most likely dead, and an explosion may have downed his plane, U.S. officials say
For Wagner’s fighters, the chaos began when Prigozhin called off the mutiny. Cut off from Ukrainian front lines by the Defense Ministry, which demanded that they join the regular army if they wanted to keep fighting, the mercenaries became useless to the Kremlin.
The independent Belarusian monitoring project Hajun estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 Wagner fighters — probably those with the most experience — relocated to the country, while the many convicts recruited into the force, which numbered 50,000 during its time in Ukraine, have been let go.
Recent satellite imagery shows the camp at Tsel has been dwindling, with dozens of tents being removed before the plane crash, suggesting several hundred fighters have left.
“Considering that the reports of Prigozhin’s death were a surprise (albeit not entirely unexpected), it will take some time before the internal processes of private military company reorganization will start,” Hajun said on Telegram.
In his last known video, published Monday, Prigozhin said Wagner had restarted recruitment efforts to expand its work in Africa. He said the effort “is making Russia even greater on all continents and Africa more free.”
Prigozhin appeared to cling to this part of his business, but his ability to fund it without state support remained unclear. Reports emerged in Russian media that the Defense Ministry considered ways to replace Wagner with its own more loyal proxy structures on the continent, and Prigozhin’s recent trip to Africa was an attempt to counter this effort.
“Several mercenaries I spoke to said that until very recently they received offers to go to Africa but yet still haven’t been paid salaries for Ukraine, work at the Molkino base in Russia, nor any promised benefits,” said Lilia Yapparova, a reporter with the Russian-language Meduza outlet who has investigated Wagner for years.
Wagner solidified as a fighting unit in Syria in 2013 before joining pro-Kremlin proxy forces in Moscow’s first incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014. Their participation in Ukraine gave Putin two key advantages: plausible deniability of official Russian involvement in the conflict and the ability to cover up the human toll.
Prigozhin and Wagner, long locked in a rivalry with Russia’s defense ministry, were initially sidelined from the invasion Putin launched in February 2022. But they came to the rescue weeks later when it became clear that the regular army had severely underestimated the adversary and plans of a quick war had fallen through.
Wagner emerged as a key fighting force that scored crucial wins for the Kremlin, including the capture of Bakhmut in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle. Prigozhin recruited tens of thousands of convicts, personally touring prison colonies to invite them to “pay their debt to the motherland” and die as “heroes” instead of rotting in captivity.
Once they had signed on, they were used as fodder for Wagner’s “meat grinder” tactic: Sending wave upon wave of ex-convicts to overwhelm Ukrainian forces. Anyone who fled was to be shot by their commanders. Many were killed.
In his remarks Thursday, Putin praised Prigozhin’s dedication to the “common cause” but said he had “made serious mistakes in his life,” a thinly veiled reference to the rebellion. The “mistake” was in many ways of Putin’s own making: He had allowed Prigozhin to continue to operate in Ukraine while publicly blaming defense minister Sergei Shoigu for botching the invasion.
Despite the array of private military companies at Moscow’s disposal, Yapparova said, it’s unlikely that a force of Wagner’s scale will be allowed to emerge.
After Wagner, she said, Putin “would nip such efforts in the bud.”
Greg Miller contributed to this report.
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