Two days after the frustrated rebellion of the Wagner paramilitary group in Russia, the future of the militia and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is in question. Without disclosing his whereabouts, Prigozhin declared on Monday that his goal was “to save Wagner, not overthrow Russian power.” Integration into the regular Army, dismantling, restructuring: specialists are considering several hypotheses about the future of Wagner.
“The aim of the march was not to allow the destruction of Wagner.” Two days after his aborted rebellion, paramilitary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin broke his silence on Monday, June 26.
In an 11-minute message, he explained the reasons for his spectacular military initiative in Russia, assuring that his objective “was not to overthrow the country’s government” but to protect the militia. Although the group’s Russian headquarters in St. Petersburg said on Monday that it was operating “as normal”, its future is now uncertain.
Immunity, but for how long?
The attempted uprising by the Wagner paramilitary group ended with an agreement between Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Kremlin on Saturday night. Although the exact details of the negotiations remain unclear, they should allow the militia leader to travel freely to Belarus and drop all charges against him and the fighters following him. In exchange, the soldiers were to return to their camp.
But today it is difficult to know what will really happen to the organization and its leader in the medium term. The only thing that is clear is that “Yevgeny Prigozhin is now a target for the Kremlin,” says Ulrich Bounat, a geopolitical analyst and author of ‘La guerre hybride en Ukraine, quelles perspectives?’ (The hybrid war in Ukraine, what prospects?). In his speech on Saturday morning, Vladimir Putin branded him a traitor and a terrorist. And the Russian president repeated it several times: treason is, in his opinion, the worst possible crime. “Publicly presenting Yevgeny Prigozhin in these terms is like signing his death warrant on the spot.”
Elena Voloshin, a France 24 journalist and former Russia correspondent, agrees: “In agreeing, Prigozhin and the Kremlin acted hastily, each aware that it was the best way to avoid a bloodbath. But if the Wagner’s leader has immunity today, that does not mean he will have it tomorrow”.
Proof of the sword of Damocles that hangs over his head: the Kremlin already seems to have backed down. Despite Saturday’s agreement, Yevgeny Prigozhin remains under criminal investigation for his aborted rebellion, according to a source in the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, quoted by the three main Russian news agencies.
“This is the end of Wagner in Ukraine”
Thus, Wagner could be deprived, at least partially, of its leader, but also of its members. Since the beginning of June, the Russian Army has been asking soldiers from various volunteer groups such as Wagner to sign a contract with the Defense Ministry. With this measure, the Russian forces hoped to increase their effectiveness on the ground by bringing order to the groups fighting under the banner of Moscow.
But for Yevgeny Prigozhin it meant above all calling into question the paramilitary independence of Wagner, which normally has its own command and its own rules. “Wagner would have ceased to exist on July 1 (the deadline for signing these contracts, editor’s note),” he denounced in a long audio message on Monday night, justifying his action.
On Saturday, the Kremlin reiterated its call to join its ranks, assuring that Wagner’s men who had followed their leader in his revolt would not be criminally prosecuted for their services in Ukraine, and that those “who wished” could sign contracts. with the Army.
At the same time, Moscow maintains legal uncertainty around one of the sources of recruitment for the paramilitary group: prisons. On Monday, Pavel Kracheninnikov, chairman of the State Duma (Russian Parliament) Committee on Legislation and Construction, announced that people convicted by Russian courts could no longer be recruited by “private military organizations” like Wagner. On the other hand, since February 1, the Defense Ministry itself has recruited 15,000 detainees, according to the NGO Russia Behind Bars.
“Specifically, it is the end of Wagner in the Ukraine,” says Ulrich Bounat. However, this full withdrawal should not have a big impact on the course of the conflict, he believes. “Most of Wagner’s men have not been to the front since Bakhmut’s fall at the end of May,” he notes. In fact, on June 5, Wagner announced a temporary withdrawal from the Ukraine for three months, “to allow them to regain their strength.”
Maintain influence in Africa
According to Ulrich Bounat, the end of Wagner in Ukraine and Russia does not mean the end of his presence abroad, particularly on the African continent. “Nothing should change in the short to medium term. Yevgeny Prigozhin could set up his Wagner base in Belarus and continue to remotely run his group’s operations in Africa.”
“There is a codependent relationship between Wagner and the Kremlin in Africa. Wagner allows Moscow to exploit natural resources, circumvent sanctions or further its diplomatic agenda without acting on its own behalf. In return, the Kremlin helps him logistically by supplying him with equipment and weapons,” Bonat analyzes.
“Wagner’s troops based in Africa are traditionally close to their leader. So, paradoxical as it may seem, Moscow may consider continuing its relationship with Prigozhin worthwhile in this context, as it would preserve its interests.”
Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian security issues and an external adviser to the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center, puts forward a different hypothesis: “I imagine a complete restructuring of Wagner in which the Kremlin pushes its pawns,” he explains.
“This could take several forms: keeping the name but changing local command, creating a new organization from scratch with the same missions, or creating a multitude of smaller structures,” he adds. One question remains unanswered: without Prigozhin, who would succeed him?
*This article was adapted from its original in French.
Source: France 24