What will replace Russia’s Wagner mercenary army? | Russia-Ukraine War News

Kyiv, Ukraine – The Kremlin says it is at odds over the future of the Wagner Group, Russia’s largest and most notorious private military company.

“I can’t tell you anything now, I don’t know. Legally, such a structure does not exist,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday, two days after Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and his top leadership were killed in a plane crash that Western officials said was caused by an explosion.

But observers tell Al Jazeera that Wagner’s battle-hardened fighters are too valuable to simply disband and let go.

What and who is left of Wagner is already being torn apart by Russia’s military, intelligence agencies, state corporations and private military companies (PMCs) funded by Kremlin allies or oligarchs – and even Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko could get his share.

Since 2014, Wagner has employed thousands of experienced fighters from vastly different backgrounds. Some graduated from elite military and intelligence units, some fought for Moscow in Chechen wars, and some came from criminal groups that mushroomed in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Over the past year, Wagner recruited tens of thousands of inmates from Russian jails who were promised hefty paychecks and presidential pardons but were mostly used in so-called “meat marches” on Ukrainian positions.

Few survived the period when Ukrainian forces bled dry and Kiev’s counteroffensive faltered, and even fewer stayed.

Given the battlefield strength of the survivors, the biggest question is whether the Kremlin would try to keep Wagner under new management – or create his full-fledged replicas.

Both options hardly seem feasible for the time being.

“Nothing Like It”

What set Wagner apart was the business acumen and shameful charisma of Prigozhin, whose unconventional thinking, obscene, megalomaniac diatribes, and insubordination were unparalleled in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia — and made the villains of many James Bond films pale in comparison.

The 62-year-old ex-convict – once known as “Putin’s cook” and blacklisted in the West – built a business empire trading in Syrian hydrocarbons, African diamonds, gold, timber and commodities.

He struck lucrative security deals with sub-Saharan autocrats, ran restaurants and hotels in Russia, and founded a troll farm that meddled in elections from Madagascar to the United States, spawning media and Telegram channels.

Wagner was only the most visible jewel in his crown.

“Wagner was much more than just a PMC,” said John Lechner. an American author who is writing a book on Prigozhin that summarizes years of research in Africa, the Middle East, Russia and Ukraine, Al Jazeera said. “There’s really nothing like it that could replace it any time soon.”

Ukraine’s leading military expert agrees.

“Wagner is unique in his own way and you have to give Prigozhin credit for that,” Lt. Gen. Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.

Russia’s top executives “will hardly be able to create anything similar in the near future,” Romanenko said.

Wagner’s most valuable and deadly resource – battle-hardened, experienced fighters – is up for grabs, he said.

“You will tear people apart, the process is already underway,” he said. “Some are removed, others are fired. Some will move to other structures, others may be interested [in staying on] because they are well-trained stormtroopers.”

“Not many” Wagner fighters in Ukraine

Since Prigozhin’s failed mutiny on June 23, Wagner has been bursting at the seams.

He said his “justice march” on Moscow, which ended 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the Russian capital, was prompted by a months-long feud with the Defense Ministry that “sabotage” shipments of ammunition.

The march was also prompted by Moscow’s ultimatum that every Wagner fighter must sign a contract to become a cog in Russia’s military machine, known for its ineffectiveness, poor decision-making and logistics, which turned Putin’s Ukrainian blitzkrieg into a quagmire without that an end was in sight.

Lukashenko brokered a truce between Prigozhin and the Kremlin and guaranteed that Wagner fighters who refused to oblige could resettle in Belarus.

Thousands have already done so, settling in camps set up for them in the dense Belarusian forests that were once home to WWII guerrilla fighters fighting the German Nazis.

“The most qualified part of them will receive Belarusian citizenship and be integrated into Belarusian law enforcement structures,” Belarusian-born, Kyiv-based analyst Igar Tyshkevich told Al Jazeera.

The recruits will help Lukashenko counter Moscow’s efforts to complete the subjugation of its former Soviet state of 10 million people.

Lukashenko will try to push the rest of the Wagner fighters back to Russia, where the military, intelligence services and state-owned companies are already trying to fill the vacuum created by Prigozhin’s death, Tyshkevich said.

For example, Lukoil, Russia’s second largest energy company, has long had its own security company, founded by former Soviet-era KGB intelligence officers.

In November, the Kremlin allowed Russian companies to set up their own private military companies, and Lukoil’s security service, Lukom-A, was “actively strengthening its military potential” to create its own PMC, Tyshkevich said.

Likewise, security companies linked to Putin’s allies or Kremlin-controlled energy giants would stay in touch with what remains of Wagner to set up their own private military companies, he said.

Some Wagner fighters would rather maintain their independence and “transform into a standard mercenary group or private military company,” Tyshkevich said.

Others will become part of state companies or intelligence agencies, and some have already signed deals with the defense ministry, while those “expelled” from Belarus could join them to fight in Ukraine, he added.

“But there won’t be many,” Tyshkevich said. “Wagner will break down into several structures.”

Weaker replicas

“Skilled fighters went to the front lines and followed their hearts to kick out [Ukrainian] Nationalists,” a presenter on Kremlin-controlled TV Channel One said in January, announcing a story about Fakel (Torch), another PMC.

Footage showed a dozen masked “ex-military officers” fighting in southeastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, shelling and storming Ukrainian trenches.

Fakel’s financiers were not mentioned, but media reports suggest that Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled natural gas producer and exporter, is paying its bills — and also funding at least two other PMCs — Potok (Flow) and Plamya (Flame).

Molfar, a Ukrainian open-source intelligence group, said 25 Russian private military companies were operating in Ukraine as of March.

They went by names like Redoubt, Anti-Terror Eagle and Yastreb (hawk) and employed mostly former military officers.

Two-thirds of them had ties to Russia’s defense ministry and intelligence services, and six were funded by oligarchs like Putin’s longtime ally Gennady Timchenko and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, Molfar said.

What unites them is the Kremlin’s desire to avoid the official involvement and deaths of regular Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

“Mercenaries are being assembled to circumvent inter-agency and other frameworks and restrictions that are impossible to uphold,” Pavel Luzin, a fugitive Russian defense analyst, told Al Jazeera.

Most of these PMCs are small, and their fighters complain of poor supply chains and coordination with other units.

But their sponsors fulfill two goals: to help the Kremlin avoid another round of mobilization and to show their loyalty to Putin, Lechner said.

“Prigozhin’s Charisma”

Private military companies are still illegal under Russian law, which means that their sponsors or members are prosecuted if they disobey Moscow, as Prigozhin did.

But no one has a chance to outshine him.

“There is a lot of military talent among the other commanders, but Prigozhin’s charisma, his ability to bring things together as a logistician and as a manager – that would be difficult for them to replicate in one man,” said Lechner.

But the war in Ukraine – combined with Russia’s ambitions elsewhere in the world – will likely keep these PMCs afloat and alive.

“Russian mercenaries will stay,” said Lechner. “Maybe in a less charismatic way, but they created the market for themselves and probably for others as well.”


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Amanda Walker

Global events enthusiast. Reporting with a critical lens to offer readers a deeper perspective.

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