The death of a former hot dog tycoon whose private army has waged some of the bloodiest fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to have a major influence on the course of the war.
That’s the consensus of many experts on Russia’s war in Ukraine who point out that before his death, Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenary group already had withdrawn most of its forces from Ukraine after he led a daylong failed rebellion against Russia’s military leadership in June.
According to Ukrainian and British defense ministry estimates, only about 2,000 or 3,000 Wagner fighters remain in Ukraine, down from a high of 50,000 earlier in the 18-month-old war.
Many of them, including Prigozhin, were exiled to neighboring Belarus in the wake of the failed coup.
Maps and graphics:Russia officially confirms Prigozhin died in plane crash
But experts on the battle-hardened paramilitary force such as Kevin Limonier, whose research focuses on Wagner and who teaches at the University of Paris, say the “essence of the group will not fully collapse” with Prigozhin’s demise.
Wagner, he said, is far more than a single man.
It has a diversified “galaxy of interests,” and Russia needs the skills of its personnel, “especially in Africa, which Moscow views as a kind of second front in what it sees as a global war against the West.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s funeral
Russia’s Investigative Committee has confirmed that Prigozhin, 62, was among the 10 people on board a private jet that crashed in a fireball north of Moscow on Aug. 23.
Wagner’s top commander, Dmitri Utkin, and Valery Chekalov, Prigozhin’s deputy, also were on the plane. Prigozhin was buried in a private funeral Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Putin did not attend.
Russia says it is still investigating the reason for the crash. Was it a bomb? A surface-to-air missile?
It certainly looks suspicious.
The hot-dog-seller-turned-warlord’s untimely death came exactly two months after his collapsed mutiny, and those who cross Putin tend to end up dead: poisoned, murdered, thrown out of windows.
“If you oppose Putin, you will die − Prigozhin is hardly the first,” David Smith, a former U.S. diplomat and now a cybersecurity professor at George Washington University, said in emailed comments.
The Kremlin has denied it had a hand in the crash.
Wagner stays in Africa
In Africa, Wagner mercenaries protect leaders, fight rebel groups and control access to vast mineral resources. It has clients ranging from the military junta governing Mali to − in the Middle East − Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Prigozhin also controlled Concord, a lucrative catering company that had contracts with Russia’s military.
His Internet Research Company, which formally dissolved in July, was a troll farm that has been indicted in the U.S. for allegedly intervening in the 2016 presidential race that elected Donald Trump.
‘Putin chef’ turned Russian mutineer:What will happen to Prigozhin’s US election-hacking operation?
Limonier said that Prigozhin’s death leaves questions about who will lead the mercenary group going forward.
He said that one person possibly being considered for the role is Maj. Gen. Andrei V. Averyanov, a Russian intelligence chief whose unit is specifically tasked with carrying out sensitive and risky special operations on foreign soil on Putin’s orders. British officials believe, for example, that Averyano was responsible for the poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, England, in March 2018.
A fighting force, but not in Ukraine
Experts appear to agree that ever since Wagner fighters helped capture large parts of the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in May, it has played a largely negligible role on Ukraine’s battlefields.
“Wagner was so devastated by the fighting in Bakhmut. They fought better than the Russian army. They took more risks to push forward and more were intelligent than it at times, but they lost so many fighters I don’t think Wagner would have been able to make much of a difference in Ukraine going forward (even without Prigozhin’s death),” said Phillips O’Brien, a strategic security expert at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.
O’Brien said he expected that Wagner without Prigozhin would ultimately lose most of its independence and “come much more under the watchful eye of the Putin state.” He pointed out that contrary to comments from some quarters in Washington that Ukraine’s much-telegraphed counteroffensive against Russia was not working, “Ukraine is slowly ramping it up and they are slowly having success at it.”
‘It’s hard, but they’re holding on’:On the ground in Ukraine, the war depends on U.S. weapons
Still, even before Prigozhin’s death, Wagner was disintegrating or at least reinventing itself.
Limonier said that since the failed coup, many of its personnel have been hired by other “structures” with close ties to the Kremlin, including rival Russian private armies with names such as Redut and Convoy.
Others have been absorbed into various government disinformation networks that spread Russian propaganda.
“The future of Wagner carries a sense of intrigue and uncertainty. Wagner is not one man and it is not a mere organization. Wagner is a living organism that was created to provide plausible deniability and to operate discreetly without an official link to Russia,” noted Joana de Deus Pereira, a researcher at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, in a paper published a week after Prigozhin’s failed mutiny.
Like many of the coup’s observers, De Deus Pereira did not expect Prigozhin to survive Putin’s wrath. She also believes Wagner’s impact on the war in Ukraine has been overstated from the outset, partly because of the images that for months poured out from its involvement in the bloody battle for Bakhmut.
And she pointed out that the “first face of Wagner” was not, in fact, Prigozhin but Utkin, who died alongside Prigozhin in the private jet crash on Aug 23. Utkin led Wagner for about eight years.
Prigozhin has been its figurehead only for the past two years.
In an interview, De Deus Pereira said Wagner has many players, is good at adapting and will rebrand itself.
“It would be a big mistake and a dangerous assumption to think that by killing a man you kill the organization.”