The fate of Wagner Group, the mercenary company behind Vladimir Putin’s most questionable operations from Africa to Ukraine, is in doubt as Russian authorities say its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was on a private jet that crashed , killing all the people on board.
The crash on Russian territory came just two months after Prigozhin led his fighters in a failed coup that posed the biggest threat to Putin’s nearly quarter-century rule.
Here’s what you need to know about Wagner and his role since the rebellion.
Founded by Prigozhin in 2014, Wagner is a private military company that has supported Kremlin objectives on battlefields in Ukraine, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa, where it has been accused of human rights abuses. The group is also involved in lucrative oil, gold and other businesses in some countries.
What happened to Wagner after the rebellion?
The Wagner fighters, which came within 200 kilometers (124 mi) of the Kremlin and killed at least 13 Russian pilots during their march, escaped punishment under a settlement that required them to make a dramatic retreat. Some people, including Prigozhin himself, then relocated to neighboring Belarus, whose leader helped negotiate an end to the rebellion. It was not clear how many accepted the offer to sign up with the Defense Ministry’s forces.
But within days of the failed uprising, Prigozhin arrived in Moscow and began attending talks with Putin in the Kremlin, shocking observers who had predicted the Wagner founder’s exile. In another apparent affront to Putin’s authority, Prigozhin was pictured meeting with African leaders at the Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg last month. The mercenary group was also allowed to keep most of its profitable operations in Africa, where it played a key role in at least expanding the Kremlin’s influence, sometimes even providing military services in exchange for access to mineral resources.
What will happen to Wagner Group now?
It is not clear why some of Prigozhin’s top lieutenants were also on the plane, creating a huge void at the top of the organization. Those people include Dmitri Utkin, a former military intelligence officer who has been a key figure in this since Wagner was founded in 2014 to support the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine that laid the groundwork for the current conflict. . Valery Cherkaskov, who ran Wagner’s vast business operations in the Middle East and Africa, was also on the board. There have been indications that Wagner’s business empire may have been taken over by other Russian groups, but this has not been confirmed.
What would this mean for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
The effect on the conflict is likely to have been minimal as Wagner had lost or withdrawn most of his forces from Ukraine prior to the uprising following months of bloody fighting around the town of Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials state that there are only about 2,000–3,000 Wagner fighters left in the country, down from a high of about 50,000. It is not clear whether these will be inducted into the regular Russian army.
Where else are Wagner forces operating?
The group has members in Syria, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, and the DRC, and appears to be staying there, at least for the time being. There were some indications that the Kremlin would seek to take control of the units but they were never confirmed.