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A deadly plane crash appears to have killed Wagner's top boss, but even without Prigozhin, the group likely isn't a 'chicken with its head cut off,' expert says

Members of Wagner group sit atop of a tank in a street in the city of Rostov-on-Don, on June 24, 2023.
Wagner's brief mutiny in June left multiple dead and destroyed several Russian military assets.ROMAN ROMOKHOV/AFP via Getty Images
  • Wagner Group mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is believed to have died in a plane crash on August 23.

  • Without Prigozhin, Wagner's key operations, finances, and future are unclear, experts told Insider.

  • But experts said it's unlikely Russia will give up the group's global networks. Instead, it will likely centralize them.

With the group's top boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, presumed dead in a plane crash, Russia's mercenary Wagner forces are facing an unprecedented period of uncertainty — moreso than after a failed mutiny against Russian military leadership in June severely weakened the group.

But while it's too early to tell what exactly the future holds for Wagner, it's unlikely that the group — including its murky power structure, operations across African countries, and complex finances — will completely collapse into chaos without Prigozhin at the helm.

"This does not mean Wagner has been decapitated," assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations Simon Miles told Insider. It's likely not "a chicken with its head cut off," Miles said because Wagner's local operations "are still in play."

On Wednesday, Russian state-run news agency TASS reported that Prigozhin was listed as a passenger on a business jet that went down in the Tver region just outside of Moscow. All 10 people, which appears to include Prigozhin and his associate Dmitry Utkin, were killed. While the cause of the crash is unclear, even baffling US intelligence, and confirmation of Prigozhin and Utkin's deaths is still murky at best, the news shocked Wagner-affiliated social media channels and raised plenty of questions about the future of the group.

It's the latest drop of chaos in what has already been a rather tumultuous time for Wagner.

Just two months ago, Prigozhin and his forces invaded Russia with intentions of overthrowing the military leadership, namely Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and First Deputy Minister of Defense Valery Gerasimov, both of whom Prigozhin had long been feuding with over Russian military failures and inadequate supply and ammunition support for Wagner troops in the war in Ukraine, especially as Wagner paid in blood as a front-line assault force during the battle of Bakhmut.

During the armed rebellion, which came as a shocking escalation, Wagner captured the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and nearly marched on Moscow, but Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko stepped in and brokered a uneasy truce between the mercenary group and the Kremlin.

The negotiations resulted in Prigozhin calling off his short-lived mutiny and being cast into exile in Belarus, though the details were always a little unclear. His mercenaries were given the choice to join the ranks of the Russian military, leave for civilian life, or join Prigozhin in Belarus. Many chose the latter.

Since then, Prigozhin has been spotted in Russia a few times, including at a critical Russia summit with African leaders, and seen in photos and videos at the new Wagner camp in Belarus, where his fighters were training Belarusian soldiers. In a video shared online in July, Prigozhin said Wagner forces would remain in Belarus for some time before heading to Africa, joining their local operations in several countries there.

Some of those mercenary networks have been involved in government combat operations and training programs aimed at defeating rebel groups, as well as disinformation campaigns in the region. Wagner forces in Africa have been accused of committing human rights violations and atrocities.

Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin.Press service of "Concord"/Handout via REUTERS

With Prigozhin's apparent death in Wednesday's plane crash, the fate of Wagner's vast networks in Africa and Latin America, as well who will take control of the group's operations and finances, remain the big questions.

Ultimately, it's unlikely "Russia would abandon its PMC [private military company] model altogether given that it provides significant benefits at relatively low financial or political cost," Associate Director and Associate Fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Catrina Doxsee, wrote in a blog shortly after Prigozhin's plane crash.

When Wagner was founded in 2014 during Russia's annexation of Crimea and began operating as a sort of state proxy in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya, it gave Russia a way to increase its influence abroad while maintaining plausible deniability and limited accountability for the group's actions. Since then, its personnel and operations have only expanded, and Wagner has gained political capital, actual capital, and broader influence in certain areas and with certain governments, which favors Russia's geopolitical ambitions.

Moscow has looked at expanding its PMC network, but none have the footprint that Wagner does. And "without a clear successor organization, Moscow is unlikely to dismantle Wagner's operational infrastructure in host countries, as it would be difficult to rebuild the same relationships, knowledge, and systems that Wagner personnel have established over the years," Doxsee added.

There's also evidence that Wagner's reach in some countries such as Mali has grown since its June mutiny, suggesting the group's influence is not only still intact, but potentially growing. Miles told Insider the networks appear to be "pretty siloed," meaning that Prigozhin's absence wouldn't majorly impact their activities. "A lot of the key decisions still ran through him and his immediate group, but Prigozhin was not an operational commander."

In other words, "he was good at holding a gun and screaming curse words into the TV camera, but not so much at actually leading men in combat. That was something that other people did," he added.

But the impact of losing both Prigozhin and Utkin still majorly impacts the group in a larger context, namely their brand and power.

"Prigozhin and Utkin were undeniably the faces of Wagner, and their assassinations will have dramatic impacts on Wagner's command structure and the Wagner brand," said Institute for the Study of War Russian analyst Kateryna Stepanenko.

"But it is too early to tell how this will materialize," she added. "Wagner commanders and fighters may begin to fear for their lives or become demoralized. The Russian MoD's [Ministry of Defense] and Kremlin's inroads into Wagner's operations and the absence of Prigozhin — who would fight for new opportunities for Wagner personnel — may further lead to the degradation of the Wagner grouping."

A mural depicting Russia's Wagner Group that reads: "Wagner Group - Russian knights."
A mural depicting mercenaries of Russia's Wagner Group that reads: "Wagner Group - Russian knights."AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

While time will shed light on the impact of what Prigozhin's absence may mean, there's a good chance that Wagner will continue to exist — just with a rebranding of sorts.

"Instead of a dissolution or replacement of Wagner, Russia is likely to install new Wagner leadership — with stronger loyalty to the Kremlin and kept under tighter supervision than Prigozhin — while maintaining as much continuity as possible at the operational level," Doxsee wrote.

That Russian-installed leadership makes sense given a lack of a clear successor to either Prigozhin or Utkin. As of this time, no Wagner commander has released a statement regarding Prigozhin's death or the future of the group, likely indicating there's little to speculate about a potential power structure.

Perhaps a reformed Wagner will be an example of Russia tightening the leash, which began happening before Prigozhin's presumed death. In August, ISW noted reports on efforts from the Russian Ministry of Defense to form new private military companies beyond Wagner and recruit Wagner personnel for those groups.

But if Russia does intend to keep a closer eye on Wagner, it could have consequences, Miles told Insider.

"I would imagine what you would see is at least an attempt by the Kremlin to exercise more central government control over those forces," he said, "but the utility of Wagner was always plausible deniability, so if that is what they do, they erode that."

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