They cut off the head of the snake. The future of the Wagner group remains uncertain

Cross-border Talks, 26 August 2023

In this episode, we offer an update on developments in Russia after the death of Wagner Group owner Evgeny Prigozhin. Our Russia expert Veronika Sušová-Salminen seeks answers to questions about what Prigozhin’s death means for the Russian system of government, what has happened since the end of the uprising in June to the present day, and what the future of the private military organization Wagner actually holds.

Welcome to an extraordinary Cross-border Talk, where we continue our observation and comments on developments in Russia following the rebellion of the Wagner Group, which took place earlier this summer. We have very contradictory information about the death of Prigozhin and his people in a downed or somehow accidented airplane. And we are now joined by Veronika Sušová-Salminen, our expert on Russia, to try to make some kind of review of what has been going on in recent times and also to try to understand what will follow. So, Veronica, first of all, what were the developments around Prigozhin and the Wagner military group before the crash which took place just this week?

Yes. Hello, everybody. I will try to sum up the situation before this accident or tragedy or whatever it was, because we really cannot say what it was and I am pretty sure we are not going to be able to say in the near future. So basically, the situation was very strange as all the Wagner uprising was strange. As you know, there was some kind of agreement between the Kremlin and the Prigozhin, which was mediated by Lukashenko. And it seemed that the situation of the Wagner group was probably precarious. It was not sure about the future, but still it didn’t look so bad in a way, because it seemed there were signals that at least for African operations, Wagner group could be still used.

There were clear signals about it. We know that, for example, Prigozhin was most probably present in the pictures from the summit on Africa in Russia, which took place last month in Saint Petersburg. So there was interest to keep him in orbit for this business and for Russia’s activities in Africa. And this made sense.

Second of all, Prigozhin was really present in Africa, and some Russian media outlets were already informing before that there was a substantial business involved – not only military presence in several African countries, but also business with gold. If I remember correctly, it was in Sudan. There was a huge business in Sudan, but Prigozhin became also an important player in African politics, because he was owning several firms which were involved in communications, in media landscapes and in other kinds of political influencing business in several East African countries. So he was an important player.

And many also believed that most probably this is the reason why he was not punished immediately or not punished at all after the uprising because this business was seen as important in Russia. 

The future of the Wagner group was not so sure because it was moved or settled in Belarus for some time. But what would have been the future of the Wagner group in Belarus was not clear. What was clear was that they were out of the Ukrainian front and it was also clear that the uprising and its strange end, despite these agreements mediated by by Lukashenko, was actually helping to strengthen the army and its generals, such as Sergey Shoygu, and of course also the chief of the chief of the army Gerasimov. These two, as you know, were the target of the uprising and of the criticism of Prigozhin. So the results of the uprising and the last two months was that nothing changed about the position of Shoygu. Basically nothing changed about Gerasimov. I was predicting it because Putin would never act under such pressure and start to make some kind of changes.

And the third thing is the fate of the general Surovikin. As you know, General Surovikin was one of the allies of Prigozhin in the Army. And as we know so far, he was taken out of the position informally. First, he was probably in some kind of home arrest, as it seemed, and he was put under the investigation. And now I think it was one day before this crash of the plane, he was fired from the position of commander of the Russian air forces. And all the commanding officers of the air forces were also taken down. So there is evidently some kind of purge in the army. And I would add that most probably Shoygu and Gerasimov were also able to hold the position and do this offensive against Prigozhin and others who were criticizing them because the development on the front in Ukraine is at least going on not as bad as many expected without Wagner. The belief that Wagner are super effective and super important and they do a better job than the regular army was not confirmed because the regular army was at least able to hold the counteroffensive of Ukraine.

Okay. You already discussed the military elite and how it reacts or changes in these circumstances, but how are the deaths of Prigozhin and the leaders of Wagner influencing the Russian political system and elites? To what extent is this a significant change?

Oh, yes. Well, a significant change. Now, I will not speculate who did it because this is, of course, suspicious. And of course, we can, like detectives, think about who has motive and who has the instruments to do it. And then there is a clear direction in which we can go without a clear pointing out towards who did it and who gave the orders. We can say that this is a very sober sign for everybody who would try to dramatically criticize the current leadership. This is a clear message for everybody in spite of the big question marks around why it happened and was it an accident? Was it a terrorist act? Was it really assassination or execution?

We can say it could be even seen as execution, as the delayed punishment for the betrayer, because Prigozhin was seen in the Kremlin as a betrayer, because of the uprising and meanness and his public playing of his own cards. So it also seems like cutting off the head of the snake, because there was not only Prigozhin, there were also other important people from the Wagner group who died there. So in this sense, this will also have consequences for the Wagner group itself. 

But for the elites, this is a clear message that they shouldn’t criticize and they shouldn’t try anything because it can end in such a violent end. So from this point of view, it’s an important message regardless of who did it and how it happened and if it was really assassination or not. 

I would also say that it is a significant event because we have to take into account that now the presidential campaign is starting as the presidential elections are very near. And some observers are saying that this time it is very important. We criticize how much there is a choice in these elections. Putin will again be the candidate and again he is aiming to win.

There are definitely fights within the elites about the agenda. What will be on the agenda for the next period of Putin? What will be the priorities? And some say that, of course, there is the natural conflict between those who are supporting the abnormality which brought this war in and the continuation of the war in Ukraine without any searching for real settlement, or even compromise. And then there are those who are searching for compromise and who would prefer to end the war and focus more on the development economics.

So everything is happening behind the curtains. This is not a public issue in a normal democratic country. There will be some kind of discussion, which will be maybe suppressed as we see that in the West with the war too. There are a lot of limits on discussions. But still in Russia this is very hidden so we just have some hints. We know that there are some groups who are secretly against the war and would prefer some kind of compromise because they are afraid about the future. And this is also a significant event for the radicals because you could see also these last two months that the Kremlin is not totally happy about these radicals. They were useful for the Kremlin as part of the military campaign and so on for mobilization, for the job done and so on. But then they started to grow more and more, criticize the official leadership, criticize the steps of official leadership without having really any political responsibility. Then you could see that the Kremlin decided to crush them.

This is, by the way, the other case, which I should mention. Last month in July, Igor Strelkov was taken into custody for two months, for he was put under the investigation for support of political extremism publicly. And as you know, Strelkov or Girkin, another radical, were very near to Prigozhin. The problem was that there was a spat between them because of ambitions they both had. But the ideology behind the ideas were the same. It was the radicalization of war in Ukraine, continuation of war in Ukraine. The thinking: “We will do it better than you. We will use more, more radical measures to win this war and so on.” So there is also the sign, this is also the clear sign that those who are too radical should chill out and stop pushing this because it is dangerous for them and it’s not accepted.

Okay. And what will happen now with Wagner in Russia and with its operations in Africa?

The future of the Wagner group is, I think, a very open question and very precarious at the moment. We have seen in the last two months that Wagner group operations in Ukraine were basically on hold. You know, that they moved to Belarus and the future in Belarus became also kind of foggy. It was not clear what Lukashenko wanted to do with them and what the plan actually was, what they could do. And it was clear that nobody wants them on the Ukrainian front anymore under such conditions as before.

So I would guess that if these units will somehow continue, then they will be strictly under the command of the official army. They will sign the contracts, because of which the military uprising in June happened. And I think that it’s also a question how much this business model will work without Prigozhin or if it even has some future. I don’t know how it was structurally organized, how much Prigozhin himself was important or substantial for running this business. In Russia and in Ukraine, it is pretty much, I would say, clear that without integration in the army, they don’t have any future in Africa. 

It will be important how much this business was important for the Kremlin and for the African leaders because you know that they are operating then because of the agreements with these particular African leaders, in particular African countries. And it seemed for the last two months that this African part of business is not so much under pressure like in the case of Russia in Ukraine. But again, it’s very difficult to say if they will replace them or if they will change the status of the Wagner group.

You know, it was effective also in the sense that the Wagner group, as I was telling in other interviews, was working totally in the gray zone. The Wagner group as a private military organization in Russia doesn’t exist legally. There are no laws for it. They are not registered properly and so on and so on. And this was giving them in the foreign policy, in the African policy and Syrian policy also giving the Kremlin and Russia such kind of, you know, position, they can distance themselves from them.

And so if they would integrate these groups, it’s a question if this added value of the Wagner group will not be destroyed. So here this is a huge question and I really cannot predict in which direction they will go. And I think it will be very interesting to see it. And we will also see how much Prigozhin himself was important for this business and how much they will be able to, you know, react somehow flexibly to this happening. So also the question is, how will Wagner react to the death of the leader, which now there are some signs, but it’s very difficult to comment on them because you don’t know how widespread opinions are, that we will do revenge for our leader and so on and so on. So it is an open question. I’m sorry, I cannot give any clear and 100% answer about the future of Wagner group. But we have to basically wait for the next developments and we can probably return to this topic later.

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