On 23 June, the Wagner Group, led by commander Yevgeny Prigozhin, marched on Moscow following a claim that top Russian defence officials had ordered the bombing of Wagner troops in Ukraine. Wagner Group troops seized control of parts of the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, including the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) headquarters of the Southern Military District, and began their march to Moscow. The reported aim was to remove senior military leadership (Shoigu and Gerasimov), but the advance stopped 200km short of the capital. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko mediated with Putin and Prigozhin, and the latter agreed to go into exile in Belarus, along with any Wagner troops which remain loyal to him. Criminal charges against all those involved were later dropped.
- It is unlikely that Wagner's paramilitary enterprise will be completely dissolved.
- Wagner’s Africa and the Middle East deployments will likely feel limited repercussions.
- Russian forces will likely suffer a setback in Ukraine from losing the Wagner fighters in the long run.
What happens now?
Russia's Defence Ministry has now said that the Wagner Group will surrender its supply of weapons and hardware. Putin has invited its fighters to join the Russian Army instead of leaving for Belarus.[i] The Kremlin's initial plan before this coup, as stated on 11 June, was to have all "volunteer detachments" sign contracts with the Defence Ministry by 1 July to increase the combat capabilities and effectiveness of the Russian Army, give the volunteer formations the necessary legal status, and create unified approaches to the organisation and fulfilment of their tasks. However, Wagner's leader Prigozhin refused to put Wagner under the direct control of the Defence Ministry.[ii] The Wagner Group continues recruiting troops for the war in Ukraine, apparently contradicting the terms of its Kremlin truce.[iii]
It is unlikely that Wagner's paramilitary enterprise will be completely dissolved. Absorbing Wagner fighters into the Russian Army would be challenging since Russian soldiers appear badly/irregularly paid, poorly trained, and with low morale and motivation. At the same time, mercenaries are paid relatively well, and can be highly motivated but may disregard the RFAF chain of command. Wagner is a private, for-profit entity that operates worldwide, theoretically able to work independently from the Russian state and its chain of command. It is structured like a special forces unit where there’s much autonomy for leaders on the ground to make decisions as they see fit, making them far more dynamic and agile than the Russian military, which is still post-Soviet and hierarchically structured.[iv] Co-deployment can only work if a clear and consistent command-and-control structure is implemented and everyone follows it, something that Putin has intentionally avoided instituting and instead has pitted the private and public against each other.[v] It is likely that the group will be rebranded with a new name and new leadership under the directions of the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Wagner’s Africa and Middle Eastern deployments will likely show limited repercussions. The Wagner Group has been too significant to Russia's greater geostrategic aims and economic strength. Wagner mercenaries have operated in over a dozen African countries, including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Mozambique. These activities aim to expand the Kremlin’s influence on a continent where support for its policies remains relatively high as the West’s impact wanes. Russia has sought to reassure leaders who relied on Wagner for security that the firm will continue to operate, as demonstrated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statement that Russia would continue to support the government of the Central African Republic.[vi] This does not rule out the repositioning of Wagner’s forces and resources, as the limitations and deficiencies of their operations predate the war in Ukraine, and it wouldn’t dramatically weaken Wagner’s ability to sustain its operations in the Middle East or Africa.
Additionally, the Wagner Group is a significant source of income for the Kremlin, enabling the Russian government to overtake lucrative mining and extraction sites quietly and securely for a substantial profit. The foundations of the current Russian market for force are shaped by private firms that emerged in the post–Cold War era to support the security needs of state energy companies such as Gazprom, Tatneft, Stroytransgaz, Zarubezhneft, Rosneft, and Surgutneftgaz.[vii]
Dismantling and taking control of Yevgeniy Prigozhin's empire includes not only the Wagner Group, but also the Russian conglomerate Concord Group, which was founded in 1995 and has diverse business interests, including catering, media, logistics, and private military contracting companies. One of the notable companies within the Concord Group is Concord Management and Consulting, the parent company of Concord Catering, known for providing catering services to the Kremlin and other high-profile clients in Russia. While the Russian military relies on Prigozhin’s businesses to feed soldiers fighting in Ukraine, the catering company has lost its contract with the Russian defence ministry.[viii] On the one side, replacing a supplier of that scale will be difficult, especially as Russian fighters try to fend off a Ukrainian counteroffensive. On the other side, since the revenue received from these companies was used to finance the projects in Africa, and other countries, any shortfall in revenue is likely to have a domino effect on the rest of the operations outside the scope of Ukraine and may precipitate greater engagement on the continent in order to replace lost revenue streams in the domestic market.
The Concord Group's activities and associations have been subject to investigations internationally, as it was linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian organisation involved in social media manipulation and disinformation campaigns. The IRA has been accused of attempting to influence the 2016 United States presidential election, and its activities have attracted significant media attention and scrutiny. After being placed under sanctions by the United States, the infamous troll factory was morphed into new projects such as ‘Cyber Front Z’, which recruited people to post pro-Russian comments in discussions about the war in Ukraine on many of the world’s most popular online platforms.[ix] Prigozhin also ran the Patriot media group, a network of sites and blogs that amplified his messaging online, boosting their public image. Following the rebellion, Roskomnadzor, the Russian federal agency responsible for controlling and censoring mass media, has blocked access to Prigozhin's company page, websites, and social network pages.[x] Yevgeniy Zubarev, the editor-in-chief of the group’s flagship site RIA FAN, announced that the entire media group was shutting down and leaving Russia’s information space.[xi]
Russian forces will still likely suffer a setback in Ukraine in the long run from the loss of the highly mobile Wagner fighters. The long-run effects of disbanding the Wagner Group will likely undercut Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine. Moreover, the practical undermining of Wagner’s role will leave several holes in the defensive lines needing plugging quickly. Putin is highly likely to try to compensate for any loss of Wagner forces by adding Chechen soldiers or finding other ways to integrate new troops. The Russian Army’s leadership in Ukraine is likely to be weaker; purges within them are likely to take place to strengthen loyalties to the Kremlin. As mentioned in our previous article on Prigozhin’s Armed Rebellion (which you can read here), Russia’s history is replete with violent purges to address perceived threats, so the Kremlin agents will seek out any person who has a link to Wagner, Prigozhin and his supporters. When officers lead, they will be looking at their backs to see whether the purge is coming their way. This will severely damage the morale of the Russian Army, providing an opportunity for the Ukrainian attacking forces.
[i] Dixon, Robyn, and Mary Ilyushina. “After Mutiny, Putin Says Wagner Can Go to Belarus, Go Home or Fight for Russia.” The Washington Post, June 26, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/06/26/putin-prigozhin-russia-rebellion-wagner/.
[ii] Sauer, Pjotr, and Andrew Roth. “Putin Sides with Military Chiefs over Placing Wagner under Direct Control.” The Guardian, June 14, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jun/14/vladimir-putin-sides-with-military-chiefs-placing-wagner-under-direct-control.
[iii] Stognei, Anastasia. “Prigozhin Appeals for Public Support as Wagner Continues Recruiting.” Financial Times, July 3, 2023. https://www.ft.com/content/68b98279-7904-4ffd-84b2-07fda79755f0.
[iv] Krieg, Andreas. “Russia’s Notorious Wagner Group Is Being Disbanded. Here’s What That Means for Ukraine.” King’s College London, June 28, 2023. https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/en/activities/russias-notorious-wagner-group-is-being-disbanded-heres-what-that.
[v] Dunigan, Molly. “The Wagner Group Will Live to Fight Another Day.” RAND Corporation, June 28, 2023. https://www.rand.org/blog/2023/06/the-wagner-group-will-live-to-fight-another-day.html.
[vi] Armstrong, Mark. “Wagner Group Mercenaries to Remain in Africa despite Mutiny.” euronews, June 26, 2023. https://www.euronews.com/2023/06/26/russian-fm-sergei-lavrov-says-wagner-mercenaries-will-continue-to-operate-in-africa.
[vii] Dunigan, Molly. “The Wagner Group Will Live to Fight Another Day.”
[viii] Styllis, George. “Putin’s Chef No Longer - Kremlin Cuts Ties with Mutinous Wagner Chief’s Catering Company.” The Telegraph, July 1, 2023. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2023/07/01/wagner-mutiny-yevgeny-prigozhin-vladimir-putin-chef-no-more/.
[ix] Ilyushina, Mary, Rachel Chason, Robyn Dixon, and John Hudson. “After Mutiny, Kremlin Looks to Unwind Holdings Tied to Wagner Mercenary Boss.” The Washington Post, July 1, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/07/01/prigozhin-wagner-businesses-kremlin-russa/.
[x] Schrader, Adam. “Russia Blocks Access to Wagner Boss’ Company on Social Media as Regulators Crack down on Dissent.” UPI, June 25, 2023. https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2023/06/25/russia-blocks-access-prigozhin-social-media-regulators-dissent/6621687723865/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twt.
[xi] Jones, Gareth. “Prigozhin-Controlled Russian Media Group Shuts after Mutiny.” Reuters, July 2, 2023. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/prigozhin-controlled-russian-media-group-shuts-amid-mutiny-fallout-2023-07-02/.