Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Wagner Group Licks its Wounds in Belarus
Wagner Group Licks its Wounds in Belarus

Wagner Group Licks its Wounds in Belarus

Bottom Line

  • Exiled to Belarus, for now, Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group are looking to capitalize on their second chance. Though the group’s long-term viability remains in flux, the fact that they were given a Belarusian lifeline exemplifies the difficulties Moscow faces in trying to rein in the mercenary group and raises serious concerns along NATO’s borders.

  • Prigohzin’s mutiny affords the Kremlin an opportunity to renew the facade of plausible deniability it so valued prior to its invasion of Ukraine. Absent a viable alternative, the Kremlin will still find value in Wagner and it will be incumbent on the United States and allies to keep the pressure on Prigozhin and Wagner’s global network.

  • The Wagner Group will look to continue, and grow, its operations in Africa (in the Sahel and beyond). Prigozhin will attempt to capitalize on democratic retrenchment to revitalize the Wagner brand and court new buyers throughout the Global South.

Most analysts have labeled Yevgeny Prigozhin’s attempted rebellion and the Wagner Group mutiny a failure. And in many ways, that’s true. Indeed, Prigozhin and the contingent of Wagner fighters that eschewed signing contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defence have reportedly been exiled to Belarus where Wagner appeared in recent weeks to be building a sprawling base south of Minsk. Meanwhile, Prigozhin has faced some setbacks. In addition to weathering scathing critiques from Russian state media, many of his assets were initially seized by Russian authorities, and he’s stood by helplessly as parts of his economic and media empire have slowly been commandeered or liquidated altogether.

Yet, in other ways, Prigozhin has emerged from this fiasco as a winner. Legal charges against him were dropped, he still boasts incredible wealth, and he even met with Putin soon after the short-lived mutiny fizzled out. And though technically exiled from Russia, Wagner’s asylum in Belarus has provided the mercenary outfit with the potential for a new lease on life. Its stated mission, at least for the time being, will be to train the Belarusian army and refocus its attention on overseas deployments to the Central African Republic, Mali, and other resource-rich fragile states. Video released on July 19 appeared to show Prigozhin along with a shadowy figure believed to be Dimitry Utkin, Wagner’s founding father, preaching to Wagner fighters about their renewed purpose and focus. But recent speculation has called into question just how long Wagner forces will be welcome in Belarussian territory.

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin’s inability to halt the rebellion without outside support, particularly from someone frequently derided as one of Putin’s lackeys, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, has led many to question the strength of his grip on power. Putin curiously even chose to scapegoat his own forces for their failure to stop the Wagner Group’s mutiny, rather than the Wagner Group itself. Meanwhile, suspicions that Gen. Sergey Surovikin, the former commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, knew of the mutiny before it commenced have rattled the Russian army. Since then, Surovikin has been missing, allegedly “resting,” likely meaning he is in custody or has perhaps suffered a more dreadful fate. The shake-up since the mutiny has had ripple effects on Russia’s front lines and signals a growing divide within the military on the execution of the war in Ukraine. 

While Putin lambasted Prigozhin in an address to the nation, even labeling him a traitor (though not directly by name), it has been remarkable to watch the Putin regime walk back its vicious critiques and negotiate with Prigozhin. For all his flaws, it is impossible to deny that Prigozhin generated significant value for the Kremlin, both inside and outside of Ukraine. Wagner’s performance in Bakhmut, for instance, illustrated a deep commitment to the Kremlin’s cause. In Syria and Libya, Wagner bolstered the Russian army. Meanwhile, economic exploitation and political encroachment in Central African Republic have been valuable for Prigozhin and Moscow. In short, parting with Prigozhin and his mercenary army isn’t as simple as many have suggested.

Born Again in Belarus

This isn’t the first time that Prigozhin has found himself out of the Kremlin’s good graces. His companies lost millions in contracts with the Ministry of Defence back in 2018 and his feud with Russia’s top brass long predates the recent mutiny, dating to the intervention in Syria. Despite setbacks, Prigozhin has been able, time and again, to maneuver his way back into relevance, avoiding drafty windows and radioactive salads along the way. A master propagandist, he has even tried to sell his relegation to Belarus as part of a strategic pivot away from a war that he has called a disgrace.”

Recently, satellite imagery confirmed Wagner’s arrival in Belarus, though the size of its force is still unclear. Regardless, what is certain is that Wagner isn’t dead yet. But questions abound about the way forward for Wagner. Since its inception, it has been heavily reliant on the Kremlin for financing and the military for logistics. Putin revealed as much when he claimed, despite years of denial, that Moscow was bankrolling Wagner, noting that the group had been given nearly $1 billion between May 2022 and 2023.

It is unclear how Wagner plans to sustain its overseas operations, make payroll, and resource itself given the fallout from the mutiny. Even during its operations in Ukraine, Prigozhin persistently complained of a lack of ammunition. But Wagner found creative ways to supplement its operations in Ukraine, including receiving armaments from North Korea. Whether Wagner was merely the conduit through which Russia facilitated that arms transfer or not, Prigozhin has almost certainly been looking into ways to bolster Wagner’s supply lines with or without Moscow’s support. Partnering with Belarus gives him access to additional resources.

Reeling from his own missteps in responding to the mutiny, Wagner’s arrival in Belarus buys time for Putin to take stock of the vast conglomerate of shell companies and determine a way forward that minimizes disruption to a lucrative global enterprise. After all, the Kremlin needs Wagner, or at least some Wagner-like entity, to continue to help evade sanctions and to project power abroad. Putin’s timeline, however, could be shrinking by the day if recent speculation about the collapse of the Wagner-Belarusian deal proves to be true.

Wagner, meanwhile, is likely to try to keep its focus on Africa and expand its footprint on the continent, potentially using Belarus as a logistical hub should their deal with Lukashenko sustain. Always an opportunist, the mercenary outfit has already tried to take advantage of the recent coup in Niger as the country’s military junta aims to shore up its own security, which would be a significant blow to French and US security interests in the Sahel. With demands from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that Niger’s president be reinstated, the junta has reportedly already asked Wagner for help. The ramifications could be significant should ECOWAS military intervene to restore constitutional authority. 

The Belarusian experiment has also bought time for Prigozhin, who is desperately looking for ways to ensure Wagner, and his position with it, remains intact. His failed mutiny hasn’t made him any less critical of the military strategy in Ukraine. But it may inject a sense of realization that while he has some degree of support, breaking through the old guard in Moscow is challenging if not impossible. For now, Prigozhin lives to fight another day, and removed from the war effort, his focus may genuinely shift to expanding Wagner’s footprint in Africa and elsewhere.

Still, the enclave of Wagner assets currently stationed at Tsel military base in Belarus raises questions about Wagner’s future, if any, in Ukraine. The fractures in Moscow-Wagner relations today do not preclude a future partnership, albeit a risky one. Despite his callous resentment of the Russian Ministry of Defence, Prigozhin himself has not ruled out a return to Ukraine at some point. Of course, this is not his decision to make, but having Wagner forces available as a last resort is something Moscow may lean into as the war drags on and especially if the slow-going Ukrainian counteroffensive gains traction.

Of course, a revitalized partnership comes with risks, but Wagner was always designed to be a tool Moscow could disassociate with if/when things went south. Plausible deniability was a, if not the, key feature that made Wagner so valuable in the first place. Prigohzin’s mutiny affords the Kremlin an opportunity to renew the facade of plausible deniability that it was forced to abandon when Wagner was called on to help stop the bleeding in Moscow’s poorly calculated invasion of Ukraine.

Besides the risks posed by Wagner’s continued operations in Africa or its potential reemergence in Ukraine, there are also serious risks for NATO allies with Wagner forces headquartered in Belarus, risks that will only grow if Wagner stays put. Some reporting suggests that Wagner troops were agitating to cross the border into Poland. Even if this was simple posturing for a mercenary outfit still licking its wounds, the notion of Wagner attacks on NATO soil is a nightmare scenario that could expand the scope of the conflict and kick NATO’s mutual defense clauses into action. 

While Wagner’s long-term viability remains in question, the fact that the group has been thrown a lifeline in Belarus, at least for now, exemplifies the difficulties Moscow faces in trying to rein in the mercenary outfit. Whether the Kremlin actively tries to dismantle the Wagner network or seeks new pathways to revitalize its control over it, letting the Wagner problem fester and expecting it to solve itself would be a mistake. In any case, Russia needs Wagner or some entity that mimics Wagner’s capabilities. During the recent Russia-African Summit in St. Petersburg, African leaders questioned Moscow about its future plans on the continent.

Thus far, Moscow has sought to assuage African concerns over a withdrawal of Wagner forces. But what happens next is anyone’s guess and it seems that Putin and his shrinking circle of close advisers are still trying to figure out how to proceed. For Putin, losing favor with African leaders is undesirable. The continent makes up the largest voting at the United Nations. and has been largely divided on Russia’s war in Ukraine. But this year’s summit saw less than half as many African heads of state attend, an attrition Moscow blamed on the West. 

In reality, Russia hasn’t done itself any favors in efforts to advance its anti-neocolonialism propaganda. The summit concluded with many unanswered questions, including a lack of clarity over the future of a grain deal, despite Putin’s misleading promises to provide six African nations with modest grain shipments over the next several months. But to everyone’s surprise, Moscow’s most infamous mercenary leader was spotted in St. Petersburg shaking hands with African delegates; a sign that the Kremlin is aiming to convince African leaders that all is quiet on the Wagner front.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Naval War College, U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.