July 12, 2023
IntelBrief: Assessing the Continued Fallout from the Wagner Mutiny
Earlier this week, the Kremlin disclosed that in late June Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin days after the private military company’s aborted mutiny. This should not come as a complete surprise. While Putin may eventually seek to deal with Prigozhin by resorting to the vigilante justice Moscow often practices against political dissidents and those accused of crossing the regime, it is likely that Prigozhin has useful information, including about the genesis of the mutiny, during which Wagner forces reportedly advanced close to a Russian nuclear base. Beyond the blow-by-blow of the march on Moscow, Putin could have also been pressing Prigozhin on the mechanics of how Wagner functions and its global operations. Wagner is essentially a conglomerate, a web or network of multinational corporations and shell companies that support Russia’s foreign policy objectives. There has been some speculation that, despite providing the financial backing for the Wagner, as Putin himself admitted recently, not even the Kremlin truly understands the granular details of how Wagner works, especially when it comes to day-to-day activities and how they are facilitated. With dozens of shell corporations and front companies, Wagner is a classic Matryoshka doll, a deliberate sleight of hand designed to obfuscate and deflect.
It will not be easy to continue with business as usual, but before Wagner’s assets can be liquidated and transferred to the Kremlin’s control, Putin likely needs a greater understanding of the complex system that Prigozhin has been operating. Over time, Prigozhin developed a knack for contracting and logistics, gaining a toehold in countries worldwide through Wagner, which served as a trojan horse for Moscow’s global ambitions. Wagner received financial backing from the Russian state, but in turn, it served as a moneymaker for Moscow. What Candace Rondeaux has labeled a “state-backed paramilitary cartel,” the United States also considers a transnational criminal organization. According to the White House, Wagner earned more than $200 million in Mali alone since 2021, making it a critical part of the Kremlin’s sanctions management strategy. Prigozhin was able to figure out how to make things work, balancing a global empire that could at once provide counterinsurgency support in one country, while facilitating the delivery of heavy machinery used for timber in another.
Wagner received the equivalent of billions of dollars in funding from the Russian state, money used to expand the global conglomerate and enter new markets, including in the Middle East and Africa. In countries like the Central African Republic (CAR), Wagner has been accused of state capture, essentially taking over the levers of state power, making the leadership completely dependent on the mercenaries' activities. Reports about Wagner flights departing CAR led some analysts to suggest that the mercenaries might be packing up permanently, although it seems that these flights are just part of a regular rotation of forces. Indeed, after spending substantial resources expanding Russia’s reach throughout the Global South and with particular, albeit brutal, success in sub-Saharan Africa, it seems rather unlikely that Putin would cede influence at this point. Wagner has become inextricably linked with warlords and military juntas in Africa, which makes disentangling assets difficult, if not impossible, at least in the short-term. Through Wagner, the Kremlin secured a 25-year lease on the largest gold mine in CAR—not something a cash-strapped and heavily sanctioned Russia is likely to walk away from. As recently reported by Bloomberg, Putin has agreed to permit Wagner to “hold onto its operations in the Central African Republic.”
Still, it remains unclear who will head Wagner, or whether the private military company will undergo a more significant evolution, beyond perhaps a mere rebranding. In some theatres where Wagner operates, the Russian Ministry of Defense will look to exert more control, assuming Wagner functions and folding in contractors willing to join formal Russian military entities. Putin may feel the need to jettison high-level Wagner commanders he believes are disloyal, but embarking on too widespread of a purge could make him seem vulnerable. In a context such as Mali, where the government successfully requested the withdrawal of the decade-long UN peacekeeping mission, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission, or MINUSMA, the next iteration of Wagner could significantly impact the country and regional stability more broadly.. Washington has accused Wagner of collaborating with the government of Mali to facilitate the UN’s exit, and analysts suggest that the move indicates that Mali may rely more heavily on the private military company for its security. How Wagner proceeds could have larger ramifications for the Sahel region that has become the epicenter of global terrorist activity. Whatever happens next, it will be just the latest transformation of Wagner, which looks much different in mid-2023 than it did when the group was formed in 2014 to support Russia’s initial invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine. What is almost certain is that Wagner will continue operating by the same playbook—identifying weak and fragile states and offering security services, broadly defined and often flagrantly violating human rights, in exchange for access to resources or contracts for mining and extraction. In countries where the ruling entity is concerned about its political legitimacy, Wagner also offers a public relations machine, complete with social media-driven disinformation campaigns designed to sway elections, denigrate political opposition, and manipulate citizens – all without the 'baggage’ of adherence to international human rights and humanitarian law.