Reported death of Wagner Group leader 'strengthens Putin's hold on power,' analyst says
Many questions remain a day after the reported death of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash. The World's host Marco Werman speaks with Kimberly Marten, who has studied the Wagner Group and testified about it on Capitol Hill. She is also a professor at Barnard College, Columbia University.
A portrait of the owner of private military company Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin lays at an informal memorial next to the former PMC Wagner Centre in St. Petersburg, Russia, Aug. 24, 2023.
A day after a private jet dropped out of the sky north of Moscow, reportedly killing all onboard, including apparently Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, many questions remain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday offered condolences to the families of the dead. He praised Prigozhin as a talented businessman. He went on to say that the mercenary chief made serious mistakes in his life, but he "got results for himself and for the common cause when I asked him."
A telegram channel linked to Prigozhin's Wagner Group said that his death is "the result of actions committed by traitors to Russia."
To discuss the incident and what it means, The World's host Marco Werman spoke with Kimberly Marten, who has studied the Wagner Group and testified about it on Capitol Hill. She is a professor at Barnard College, Columbia University.
Marco Werman: Kimberly, what do yesterday’s events tell you about Putin’s grip on power?
Kimberly Marten: He is strengthening his grip on power. He took his revenge slowly, most likely, but he used that time productively to ensure that the mutineers were located on Belarusian territory far away from Russia's borders but close enough to monitor and control, and also probably to renegotiate the contracts in Syria and in several African countries where Wagner's groups are on the ground playing a very important role for Russian foreign policy and security interests in those countries. So, he always takes his revenge a little bit after the events actually happened. And I would guess he used these two months very productively.
So, who were the other people onboard that plane yesterday?
One of them is listed as being Dmitry Utkin, who was the original military founder of the Wagner Group back in 2014. But other people had indicated that there were rumors that he was actually killed a long time ago. And then probably the most important other person who was on the list as being killed is a man named [Valeriy] Chekalov. He was listed as being head of security, but he was also the person listed as being the manager of Prigozhin's private business firm located in Syria. It is likely that the troops in Syria that had been working for the Wagner Group have now been moved either over to work for the Russian defense ministry directly or else for a different group similar to Wagner called Redut that is affiliated with a different Russian oligarch named Gennady Timchenko, who is actually much closer to Putin than Prigozhin ever was.
Let me ask you, Kimberly, was this crash essentially a decapitation of the Wagner group as we know it?
Sure. It looks like the kind of revenge that Putin would take. And, you know, it's not clear exactly what's going to happen next. But these forces could probably continue their activities in Africa under local commanders or the local commanders, if they did not wish to cooperate with the Russian state any more, could be pretty easily replaced by other people.
What can we say then about rivalries in the groups of officials who surround Putin?
So, I think the rivalries that we're going to see are probably coming from other groups that are somewhat like Wagner. And the one that everybody has been talking about is called Redut, which means redoubt. It has mostly been on the ground in Syria providing security to oil and gas facilities. It also had a role in 2022. It one of the first groups that went into Ukraine alongside the regular Russian military forces. It did not do very well there. It doesn't really have a lot of combat experience. So, it probably would have a difficult time taking over Wagner's combat roles. There are a variety of other companies. One is called Patriot. There are some others that could potentially play a role, but we're not sure what's going to happen there. The big question in Moscow is how the Russian military thinks about Prigozhin and Prigozhin's death. We do know that the former head of the Russian air force and space forces was removed from duty. He has not been seen since the mutiny back in late June.
That would be General Sergey Surovikin and also nicknamed "General Armageddon."
Yes, Prigozhin had identified him as the person who was his go-between with the defense ministry. And we don't know how deeply inside the Russian military support for Prigozhin went. And so the one thing to keep an eye on is whether there is any kind of instability within the Russian military over this. But what we have seen is that particular groups inside the Duma, the Russian legislature, have apparently been celebrating the death of Prigozhin. And so, in terms of the politicians that are close to Putin, there's probably not going to be any instability whatsoever.
How many private military groups are there like Wagner in Russia? And is the reported death of Prigozhin going to open, kind of, the floodgates for more of these mercenary groups to emerge?
That wouldn't be surprising if that happens. As far as we know, there are somewhere maybe between 10 and 15 of these groups. They haven't exactly been counted. They have a tendency to change their names, and new ones are appearing all the time. So, for example, the Russian state has been apparently calling for private oligarchs in Russia to put forward their own new groups to go fight in Ukraine. We know that Gazprom, the Russian big natural gas monopoly, has created three of these new groups just in the last several months, which are apparently cooperating with Redut in their training for going to deploy in Ukraine. We know that the Russian space agency has created a group. We know that Ramzan Kadyrov, who is the warlord in the Russian region of Chechnya and a very strong Putin supporter, he has created groups to go fight in Ukraine. And so, it would not be the least bit surprising if we now see a plethora of these groups just emerging to try to fill the space that Prigozhin formerly occupied. But I think it would also not be surprising to see that various Wagner formations continue to be Wagner just under new commanders.
Yevgeny Prigozhin was famous for publicly calling out Russian military leaders as ineffective, especially in the war in Ukraine. And he questioned the rationale for the war and said the rank-and-file soldiers were being exploited. What happens to that message now?
I think that message probably disappears. What Putin has done immediately after the Prigozhin mutiny — the leader of the group of strong Russian militaristic nationalists, Igor Girkin, was imprisoned and that sort of shut off one set of strongly pro-war but anti-how-the-war-was-being-fought group that was loud in addition to Prigozhin and anybody who has expressed any dissent about the war itself has immediately been shut down.
So, Kimberly, if this is indeed the end of Yevgeny Prigozhin, what do you think it all means for Russia's war in Ukraine?
I'm not sure it has any direct impact on Russia's war in Ukraine. Wagner troops, per se, had not been in Ukraine since early May. So, it certainly has no direct impact on the fighting. The big question is what all of this will mean for Russian military morale. And again, that comes back to the question of how much support Prigozhin actually had within the military, whether the ordinary rank-and-file soldiers saw him as a hero.
So, what does this change then about Putin's hold on power?
I think it strengthens Putin's hold on power because he has demonstrated that he does not allow people who have betrayed him to get away unscathed. The one thing it does also, though, is to demonstrate that Putin is not trustworthy or reliable because it appeared that he had a deal with Prigozhin and it appears that that deal now ended. And so it would, I think, make people think twice about reaching any kind of an agreement with Putin in the future.
Kimberly, what are the other shoes left to drop? What are you going to be paying most attention to now?
I think what we should pay most attention to is exactly what happens to the leadership of these groups that were associated with Wagner that are in foreign countries and then what happens in Belarus. We have reports already that there was a Russian military airplane that landed in Belarus last night and that there has been some activity around a Belarus camp in the middle of the country today. And I suspect that there will be some effort by the Russian regime to ensure that those Wagner fighters in Belarus, who were primarily prisoners, who were given freedom in return for fighting in Bakhmut in Ukraine by Prigozhin last year, and who therefore may see Prigozhin as being a hero, that those people are controlled. They do not have heavy weapons, as far as we know. Their heavy weapons were taken away after the mutiny. And so, they don't appear to be posing much of a threat. But I would guess the Russian military is paying very close attention to them.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.