The core of Wagner leadership was effectively decapitated with the deaths of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitri Uktin, but the group’s fingerprints won’t disappear quickly.
Although the Kremlin may attempt to appoint new leadership, semi-nationalize Wagner, or attempt a full takeover, a Wagner descendant organization will continue causing problems for the West. The Wagner model of weaponizing private military companies to use as a foreign policy tool, will continue as well.
U.S. and European authorities should avoid complacency by intensifying efforts to counter Wagner and its employees, so that Wagner members cannot slip into anonymity amidst Russian gray zone warfare.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is presumed dead in a plane crash, alongside Wagner Group’s co-founder and operational commander, Dmitry Utkin. They leave behind a business empire and thousands of security contractors in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The Kremlin has a few options to clean up the debris: they could completely disband Wagner, force a rebranding, or pursue some form of nationalization.
For the United States and its partners, how Russia deals with the fallout is less important than making sure Wagner cannot happen again. The Wagner Group exported an aggressive version of Russian foreign policy that was fundamentally anti-Western and a direct threat to the rules-based international order. The mercenary group and its broader network aimed to project Russian influence via the provision of military and security services, particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East. The cost has been significant as Wagner has insulated illiberal regimes and committed widespread atrocities in places like Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR). As a result, avoiding complacency in countering Wagner, and Moscow’s use of mercenaries more generally, is key. Several clear courses of action will keep Wagner down and ensure that other Russian private military companies (PMCs) cannot cause similar chaos in the future. American and European policymakers should intensify their anti-Wagner policies in the short term in an effort to develop a robust and durable toolkit to ensure Russian PMCs are not an enduring challenge to international peace and security.
To many, the Kremlin’s initial approach to Prigozhin’s revolt in June seemed uncharacteristically lenient. That perception changed on August 23 when Prigozhin’s private jet crashed north of Moscow exactly two months after his march towards the city. While Prigozhin made the mistake of equating usefulness for indispensability, the West cannot make the mistake of assuming that Wagner is incapable of surviving without Prigozhin, or that the Kremlin will abandon PMCs as useful tools in its foreign policy. The Kremlin learned a valuable lesson from Prigozhin about the dangers of allowing mercenary outfits to grow too powerful or too autonomous, but it also learned the value that PMCs can bring to a comparatively cheap foreign policy.
Wagner’s leader set himself apart by approaching mercenary work as part of a bigger enterprise. Unlike many Russian PMC leaders, Prigozhin was neither a mercenary nor a veteran. His personal mesh of business and criminal experience in post-Soviet Russia made him dangerous and capable of thriving in corrupt environments. Wagner’s African activities followed in his likeness—building uniquely integrated structures where other Russian contractors couldn’t. While Wagner mercenaries provided the security services desired by host countries, they also secured natural resources for Prigozhin-affiliated companies to extract and transport, ran airfields to move contractors and goods between Russia and Africa, and created media campaigns that lauded these efforts as a step towards greater African autonomy over its own affairs. Even though Prigozhin is gone, his approach will outlast him.
What then should US and European policymakers do? Now is the time to double down on efforts aimed at countering the Wagner enterprise. Doing so will send a strong signal to Moscow that its weaponization of PMCs as proxy forces will not go unnoticed or unaddressed.
For starters, the United States and its partners must intensify and coordinate sanctions programs to make the Wagner enterprise less financially viable. It is imperative to prevent a “business as usual” culture from developing, particularly in places like the Central African Republic and Syria. There is little doubt that the Kremlin will make every effort to siphon profits from Wagner operations, if not completely commandeer them, now that Prigozhin is out of the picture. This only amplifies the importance of constricting Wagner’s economic freedom. At the same time, while the US Treasury Department has remained bullish in its efforts to counter Wagner via financial targeting, including taking an aggressive step of targeting government officials in places Wagner operates, such efforts should only be part of a broader portfolio of activities that seek to disincentivize partnerships with Russian backed PMCs.
The key to Wagner’s comparative success is that it is only part of a larger enterprise. To that end, Wagner’s unique business structure won’t be easy to tackle, but it must be done, including end users, interlocutors, and suppliers. In the Central African Republic, Wagner established large wood and gold smuggling networks that will take time and diligence to break down. Midas Resources, a U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned company, operates a recently industrialized Ndassima gold mine, likely through Dubai. Meanwhile, Wagner shell Wood International Group (WIG), allegedly smuggled wood into Europe across multiple borders.
Enhanced counter-smuggling laws, import controls, and enforcement mechanisms across the European Union, the United States, and other like-minded countries will help staunch the flow of valuable natural resources out of vulnerable countries. Interlocutors who help facilitate Wagner’s criminal enterprise must also be sanctioned. Entities in the United Arab Emirates, for instance, have already been identified and sanctioned given their role as key facilitators in Wagner’s illicit gold smuggling operations. Dubai-based actors need a strong deterrent to avoid such mercenary complicity in the future.
Second, the United States will need to systematically monitor Wagner contractors and affiliates. Wagner commanders and foot soldiers will be working swiftly to shore up their positions either within Wagner, whatever entity supplants it, or within other PMCs the Kremlin has invented. As one analyst put it, “the Russian mercenary community is small, and while the names often change, the faces stay the same.” Much chaos is likely to ensue, making it all the more important for efforts at network development and watchlisting to be instituted or scaled up if already in action. Tracking Wagner personnel and likely recruits will give US officials a leg up in countering other Russian PMCs that ex-Wagner personnel join or form. Key Wagner personnel were themselves in other PMCs before joining up. Utkin, for example, was notably in both the Slavonic Corps and Moran Security Group prior to founding Wagner. If Wagner’s contractors and managers decide to quit the organization, they will take their experience to other PMCs, leading to new war crimes in new places.
Third, Washington should engage with the countries that host Wagner deployments. Policy aimed exclusively at Wagner misses the other half of the equation. Diplomatic pressure towards the Central African Republic and Sahel states that have partnered with Wagner is absolutely essential. As others have noted, a key part of Wagner’s value to the Kremlin is in fostering relationships and bringing political elites closer to Russia. Elite cooptation and state capture have been central features making Wagner an indispensable venture for the Kremlin, even if Wagner changes in the near term. Though it will be difficult to compete with Moscow in places where democratic retrenchment is alive and well, the United States and Europe must convince potential partners that the Kremlin is a poor security provider and exclusively self-interested. One needs to look no further than Putin’s weaponization of grain exports or Russia’s meager investments across the continent to see where Moscow’s priorities lie.
America and Europe need to think harder and smarter about what effective assistance looks like in the absence of a robust physical presence in the Sahel or other places Wagner operates. Wagner has been able to capitalize on exasperation with French policy in places like Mali and moved swiftly to fill security voids it helped accelerate. Despite Wagner’s penchant for chaos and conflict, rebuilding security gaps and establishing lasting local infrastructure will be essential in any long-term approach to security in the Sahel, and should form the coreof the Biden administration’s Africa Strategy in the short term.
Deterring Russia’s mercenaries now will save policymakers a big headache in the future. Prigozhin’s demise does not mean the end of Moscow’s mercenary ventures. The Kremlin still stands to use mercenary activities to project soft power abroad. Although the West has been on the back foot in recent months as it assessed Wagner’s relocation to Belarus, Prigozhin’s death is an unexpected crisis that should not go to waste.
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 are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Naval War College, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government.