Wagner’s future uncertain after chief’s death | Sunday Observer

Wagner’s future uncertain after chief’s death

3 September, 2023
Yevgeny  Prigozhin
Yevgeny Prigozhin

A plane crash earlier last month that killed Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin could have been caused by a “deliberate atrocity,” a Kremlin spokesperson said on Wednesday, after confirming that the mercenary leader has been declared dead.

This possibly points to a bomb blast on board the Embraer Legacy 600 jet that carried Prigozhin on an internal flight, though other causes such as a missile strike have not been ruled out.

The Interstate Aviation Committee—Russia’s aviation authority—indicated that it would not be investigating the crash under international regulations, because the flight was domestic.

Brazil’s Centre for Research and Prevention of Aeronautical Accident also said it would join the Russian-led investigation if invited, as the plane carrying Prigozhin and nine others was manufactured by the Brazilian firm Embraer.

Russian officials have denied the Kremlin’s involvement in the crash, while Putin—who made his first comments about the crash days later—said Prigozhin was a “person with a complicated fate” who “made some serious mistakes in life, but he also achieved necessary results.”

With the chief gone, questions have been raised about the future of the Wagner Group, which is active as far afield as Africa, in addition to its operations in the Ukrainian war theatre.

It all began to unravel when the two decades old Russian leadership under President Vladimir Putin was challenged by a mutiny led by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.

This event took place in late June and unfolded over 36 hours ending with the mediation of the Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Wagner is a private military company operating mostly in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region. Incidentally, the group is named “Wagner” after the famous composer as Prigozhin was an ardent admirer of Wagner’s music.

He was a close ally of President Putin and was known as “Putin’s Chef” after his catering company which earned billions of dollars in just a few years.

St. Petersburg

Their friendship goes back to the period when Putin was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg which is the second largest city in Russia. Both of them hail from this historic city which was also known as Leningrad for some time.

The mercenary Wagner fighters did most of the fighting in the frontlines of the Ukraine War. They advanced and captured some places in Ukraine. Since proper credit was not given to the Wagner fighters for their achievements by the Russian Defence Ministry, the discontent between the Wagner boss and Moscow began to boil.

In the past three months, his anger grew towards the military establishment in Moscow. It reached its climax when the late Wagner chief publicly started to criticise namely the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu who is apparently not of pure Russian origin and the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov for failing in their part in supplying arms and ammunition to the Wagner fighters on the frontlines.

The Wagner boss even indirectly blamed President Putin, mentioning that the Commander in Chief of Armed Forces was answerable for activities of the Defence Minister and the Chief of Staff. The mutiny began on the same date of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - 24th, albeit in a different month. It began peacefully without bloodshed by taking over the Southern Russian military command in the city of Rostov-on-Don. The Wagner fighters peacefully marched about 700 kilometres towards Moscow. On their way they took over another city called Voronezh.


Only 150 kilometres away from Moscow in the city of Kaluga they had to give up peacefully and return to their barracks. President Putin had apparently tried to reach the Wagner chief to stop him from entering Moscow. However, the latter had not answered any calls from President Putin.

As danger was imminent, President Putin sought a possible way out by calling the Belorussian President to intervene and to stop the Wagner fighters from advancing to Moscow.

In the end, a deal was brokered by President Lukashenko and the details of the negotiations are hardly available. Under this plan, the Wagner boss was to seek exile in Belarus. However, after a brief period there, he had re-entered Russia.

Presidents Putin and Lukashenko have a good rapport and frequently help each other. Some reports suggest that as a token of gratitude for negotiating with Wagner, Russian gas is to be supplied to Belarus until 2030 at a concessionary price.

The late Wagner boss made it clear that he did not want a “regime change” in Moscow. He had wanted to discuss certain issues in person with the Defence Minister and Chief of the General Staff but later it developed into demanding the resignations of these two.

According to the late Wagner boss, two issues compelled him to make the decision to withdraw as he was in the outskirts of Moscow. One was to avoid bloodshed between Wagner personnel and the conventional Russian Armed Forces soldiers and the second was that he did not want to go as far as toppling the Government. He feared far-reaching consequences if President Putin was removed from power.

This thought was shared and agreed upon by President Lukashenko who said the consequences would have been grave and far reaching had the Wagner coup been successful.

As the uprising started, both Prigozhin and President Putin were firm in their words and speech. The Wagner boss was determined about reaching Moscow and shooting down Russian helicopters which targeted the Wagner fighters.

The casualties of the Russian forces in this insurrection were acknowledged by both parties and the Wagner boss said Russian military helicopters started shooting first at the Wagner members.

The failed coup has opened many questions and discussions on how much power President Putin really holds and how the Russian people see the attitude of Wagner. It is no secret that many residents of Rostov-on-Don welcomed the Wagner fighters with open arms.

Political analysts have wondered whether some senior figures in the Russian Armed Forces High Commands were secretly siding with Wagner.

At the end of the day, except for the plane crash which killed the Wagner boss, the coup episode did not have any bloodshed. No resistance met Wagner while overtaking the Russian southern military high command and the videos show the Wagner boss and Russian army leaders having a peaceful conversation. This raised suspicions that some Army personnel were supportive of Wagner.

President Putin initially wanted to punish everyone involved in the coup but later all charges against the Wagner boss and his commanders were lifted.

Some analysts say that it is strange why Prigozhin chose to return to Russia after this episode, instead of retreating to Africa where he has a comfortable base, possibly out of reach of any enemies who may wish him harm.

Moreover, after all the failed coup there are said to be cracks in the corridors of power in the Kremlin, with the vexed war in Ukraine also sharply dividing opinions in Russia.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain – a country led by a former KGB officer would never forgive or forget actions that betray the motherland. History has shown the validity of this argument.

Stalin ruled the USSR for nearly 30 years. Having survived this short-lived coup, President Putin has to stay in power for seven more years to break the record of Stalin.

The writer holds a Master’s Degree from the Moscow State University and is a former News Editor of the Soviet Embassy Information Department in Colombo.