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‘The end of Wagner as we know it’: What happens to Prigozhin and his private army next | World News

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Yevgeny Prigozhin is the face of the notorious mercenary Wagner Group – and after its attempted coup on Saturday, the Kremlin says he’s headed for Belarus.

Military experts now say it’s the “end of the Wagner Group as we know it” and that Prigozhin and the private military group’s future remains in question.

The former hotdog seller turned mercenary group boss has been a vocal critic of Russia‘s military elite – mainly the defence minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the general forces, Valery Gerasimov.

His armed mutiny over the weekend ended with a Belarus-brokered deal between the Kremlin and Prigozhin and while the exact terms are unclear, the Kremlin says he’ll move to Belarus.

Prigozhin has since released an audio message – the first time since abandoning the march to Moscow. In an 11-minute clip, he defends his so-called “march for justice”.

Some experts say a move to Belarus would mark the end of the Wagner Group in its current form, but add that there may be scope for something else in its future.

Retired air vice marshal Sean Bell says: “If the Wagner Group is Yevgeny Prigozhin then it’s difficult to see how it will survive, it’s the end of it as we know it.

“At face value, he’s a threat to Putin so why would he make that mistake again? It doesn’t mean Putin won’t use mercenary groups, but Prigozhin is the problem, not the Wagner Group.”

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Putin accuses Prigozhin of treason

Prigozhin – whose forces have been a key asset to Russia’s successes on the frontline in Ukraine, including in the battle for Bakhmut – has repeatedly accused Shoigu and Gerasimov of botching the war.

His angry video messages from Bakhmut – where he demanded more ammunition, singling out Shoigu and Gerasimov – provide a flavour of his attitude towards the Russian military elites.

As for what could happen next for Prigozhin, Bell says there are “a lot of unknowns”, but adds: “By going to Belarus and being out of the headlines for a while he might have an untimely end… but we don’t know what we don’t know and I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Yevgeny Prigozhin.”

While Vladimir Putin accused Prigozhin of treason following the mutiny – once the deal was brokered, the Kremlin said it would drop criminal charges against him.

If Prigozhin isn’t Wagner’s head who takes over?

Bell explains that as a private mercenary group, Wagner’s structure differs to that of the Russian army.

He says: “It’s a lot flatter in terms of structure because it’s a mercenary group – people aren’t serving president and country, they’re earning money and as long as they’re alive to spend it then they’re happy. They don’t subscribe to the law of armed conflict, they don’t care about their colleagues.”

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He adds that while we do not know much about senior Wagner figures, if someone else was to take over the group he thinks there would be a “clean sweep” in leadership and that those in lower tiers would likely either side with the Russian president or be forced out.

Bell says: “That’s probably how the Wagner Group survives and they will probably call it something different.”

Will Wagner Group be disbanded or absorbed into the army?

There have also been questions around whether the Wagner Group will be absorbed into the Russian army.

After the weekend’s events, the Kremlin said Wagner’s fighters would not be prosecuted in recognition of their previous service to Russia, and if they hadn’t taken part they could sign contracts with the defence ministry.

Some analysts saw Prigozhin’s revolt as a desperate move to save Wagner from being dismantled after an order that all private military companies sign contracts with Russia’s Defence Ministry by Saturday.

The Russian government has previously denied involvement with the group and insists it does not legally exist because private military contractors are not legal in Russia.

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Prigozhin ‘not welcome in Belarus’

But Bell says he doesn’t think the group will be absorbed into the Russian army and explains the potential difficulties around doing so.

He says: “It sounds simple but you’d have a Russian conscript who is not well paid, motivated or trained – then a mercenary paid very well – doesn’t care about chain and command – how do those two get assimilated?”.

However, he adds that it’s likely that the group could be rebranded bringing in new leadership and a new name.

He says: “Putin created the beast that is Prigozhin – he’s undoubtedly going to insulate himself better from the downside of mercenary groups – they have their own agenda and they could end up running completely rogue against yourself.”

Countries where Wagner has operated. Data is compiled by CSIS Transnational Threats Project
Countries where Wagner has operated. Data is compiled by CSIS Transnational Threats Project

Wagner’s future outside Russia

While Prigozhin and Wagner’s advance caused a stir inside Russia, the group also has interests and a history in other countries around the world.

The group is not just a mercenary organisation. It has grown into a sprawling international business with mining interests and fighters in Africa and the Middle East. It has fought in Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali, among other countries.

Read more:
What does the aborted Russian mutiny mean for the war in Ukraine?
Russian defence minister seen for first time since attempted Wagner coup

It’s particularly active in Africa and has operated in 20 countries, according to data collected by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) Transnational Threats Project.

In Africa, it’s operated in the civil conflict in Libya where Russia sent it military equipment including fighter aircraft and armoured vehicles, so that it could get a foothold in the country, the US Department of Defence said in 2020.

Meanwhile, Wagner Group contractors were also sent to the Central African Republic, where it was accused of executing civilians and attacking UN peacekeepers as a civil war raged.

Bell says that Prigozhin is likely to have a number of other officials heading operations outside Ukraine.

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