Wagner’s finale? Prigozhin’s death marks Russian shift in strategy.

Wagner’s finale? Prigozhin’s death marks Russian shift in strategy.

| View caption Hide caption

His death most probably spells the end of the Kremlin’s reliance on freelance military groups, especially in Africa, in favor of direct state control. Earlier this week Mr. Prigozhin issued a militant video manifesto, purportedly shot in Africa, proclaiming that the Wagner force would be actively fighting to make Africa “more free” in the interests of Russia. The prospect of a reviving Wagner is something that would have focused minds in many quarters.

But there is surprise and confusion among Russian analysts over Mr. Prigozhin’s dramatic demise, exactly two months after his abortive uprising.

“The main likelihood is that [Mr. Prigozhin’s assassination] was an operation of Russian siloviki [security forces],” former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-critic Abbas Gallyamov said in a YouTube debate, accessible in Russia, on Thursday. “It is important for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to show all potential conspirators, who might follow in Prigozhin’s footsteps, that it will not pass unnoticed. But on the other hand, Prigozhin had a lot of projects on the go, in Africa, Belarus, Syria. It’s hard to believe that Putin would risk all this. It’s like shooting himself in the foot. But it does seem that’s what happened.”

View caption Hide caption

Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, says he believes that external enemies had every motive to kill Mr. Prigozhin, while no one in Russia would have wanted to. Still, he says, “people in Russia are concerned about the circumstances of Prigozhin’s death. They want our top authorities to make clear and transparent decisions, and they don’t understand this situation.”

“There is only one Russian actor in Ukraine now”

People who challenge Kremlin power in Russia have a way of coming to hard and sometimes bizarre ends. Mr. Prigozhin’s death will be added to a list that includes Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and Boris Nemtsov. Add to that several failed poisonings, such as the attacks on Sergei Skripal and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny. Few dispute that Mr. Putin is to blame, at least for creating the fractious system of state governance in which he acts as supreme arbiter among various factions, individuals, and interest groups who vie for his favor and often undermine each other.

On the other hand, some analysts argue, the Kremlin has a far more effective machine for sidelining and silencing opponents than anything that headline-grabbing and often botched assassinations could possibly achieve.

Mr. Navalny, who survived at least one poisoning attempt amid a glare of publicity, has been sentenced to decades in prison in Kremlin-controlled courts, and has largely disappeared from Western media discourse. Mr. Navalny recently issued a scathing manifesto from prison that has been widely debated in Russian opposition circles, but has gone almost unnoticed in the Western media. Another example is Boris Kagarlitsky, arguably Russia’s leading left-wing intellectual. He has been in a pretrial detention center in the Arctic region of Komi for months because of his anti-war stance, with few noticing outside of left-wing circles in the West.

View caption Hide caption

There seems little doubt that Mr. Prigozhin’s fall from grace in Moscow began several months ago, even as his large, powerful private army was winning the only clear military victory that Russia has enjoyed in Ukraine so far this year, at Bakhmut. The very existence of such a force, acting outside the control of the Defense Ministry, may have been enabled by President Putin’s desire to fight without placing Russian society on a full war footing. Instead, Russia used Wagner mercenaries, ragtag separatist militias, Chechens, and volunteers to do much of the fighting.

But when Russian forces suffered catastrophic battlefield setbacks a year ago, Mr. Putin ordered a military mobilization and began the process of placing Russia’s economy on a war footing. By last spring, the Russian Defense Ministry had consolidated its control over most of the Ukrainian front line, integrating separatist and other forces into the central chain of command.

Mr. Prigozhin, with a huge mercenary army made up in large part of freed convicts, was an anomaly. His open feud with the Defense Ministry, which he accused of corruption, incompetence, and “criminal mistakes,” was a very public embarrassment for the Kremlin. After Wagner declared victory in Bakhmut in May, Mr. Putin ordered the mercenary force to disband. Mr. Prigozhin’s muddled and abortive revolt followed.

“There is only one Russian actor in Ukraine now, and it’s the Defense Ministry,” says Mr. Markov. “If there are any Wagners still there, they are all under army contracts now.”

But Mr. Markov says he doubts that the Kremlin was involved in Mr. Prigozhin’s death. “I just don’t see what Putin could possibly accomplish by killing Prigozhin, other than a lot of bad publicity,” he says. “No one in Russia needed this.”

Nonetheless, Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert with Carnegie who continues to work in Russia, argues in a draft article that he provided to the Monitor by email that Russian and Soviet secret-police traditions run deep, and Mr. Prigozhin’s removal after his “betrayal” of Mr. Putin was inevitable.

“Extrajudicial killings have become the new normal in Russia,” he writes. “The system built by Putin is designed in such a way that it does not need public executions [as in other autocracies] or official trials [as is usual in democracies]. … It’s pointless to speculate about whether Putin has strengthened his power as a result of Prigozhin’s business jet disaster. The autocrat remained the top leader after the mutiny, and the winner takes it all.”

The Kremlin’s new focus on Africa

Now, analysts suggest, the front lines in Africa will also be occupied by official forces of the Russian state following the effective destruction of Wagner. The battle for influence in Africa has ceased to be a sideshow in Moscow, and is now a front in what is increasingly seen as a global confrontation between Russia and the West.

View caption Hide caption

In the volatile Sahel region, the Russian Defense Ministry has been actively developing a direct presence, says Ivan Loshkariov, an Africa expert with Moscow State University of International Relations, which trains Russian diplomats.

“In West Africa there is growing military cooperation on a state-to-state basis,” he says. “It makes sense. The Wagners can’t sell weapons, train officers, engage in diplomacy. In the Central African Republic, the Ministry of Defense helped to craft the [now failed] Khartoum agreement in 2019. There are Wagners in Mali and Burkina Faso, but official contacts are also increasing. In Niger, Russia is not being asked, and it is not coming.”

Mr. Markov says it’s likely that the Wagner forces who have operated below the radar for years in Africa will at least be placed under new management.

“There is a vacuum now to be filled,” he says. “So maybe the Wagners will get a new owner, one that’s more reliable in the eyes of the Russian government. Or, there will be more official presence. There are strong reasons to increase direct state control in [Russian dealings] in Africa.”


Share This Post

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.