Yevgeni Prigozhin, the head of the Russian private military company Wagner Group, was killed in a plane crash on Wednesday, March 23 2023.
A Telegram social media channel linked to the Wagner private military group issued a statement saying Prigozhin had been killed in a plane crash north of Moscow.
Mr. Prigozhin was once a long-time ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that changed after the mercenary incited an armed rebellion against the Kremlin.
In late June, thousands of Wagner group paramilitary forces launched a mutiny in Russia. It seemed to constitute a significant challenge to long-time Russian leader Vladimir Putin – the first from within his own country since the invasion – and yet it was over as soon as it began.
The insurrection itself, Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Fund noted, unfolded with dizzying speed: Wagner’s deployment; Putin’s angry reaction; Prigozhin’s panic at finding himself on the brink of seizing Moscow; the deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko; and Wagner’s decision to stand down. The final act was a June 29 meeting with Putin at which Wagner commanders were obliged to apologise and agree to relocate to Belarus.
“Looking back, it all appears to have been a misunderstanding. On the one hand, Putin failed to understand how radicalised Prigozhin had become and allowed the conflict to escalate with deadly consequences.
On the other hand, Prigozhin overestimated his importance, mistakenly believing he could strong-arm Putin into reshuffling the military leadership and saving Wagner from irrelevance”.
When asked after the event why he decided to seize a military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don and send a column of troops toward Moscow, Prigozhin reportedly said: “I had a meltdown”.
His days were numbered the moment he started talking about marching on Moscow. Putin had vowed that the mutiny’s perpetrators were treasonous, criminal terrorists who would be “brought to account”.
Conspiracy theorists say this is Putin redeeming his vow.
US President Joe Biden suggested President Vladimir Putin may have been behind the plane crash. “I don’t know what happened, but I’m not surprised,” he said.
It is in Africa that the late Wagner boss’ death would be felt most. The Wagner Group has, since 2014, been a ruthless force-for-hire across Africa and has been used by the Kremlin as a tool to expand Russia’s presence in the Middle East and Africa.
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Russia’s Wagner Group has intervened in the affairs of several African countries, providing military and security support while expanding Moscow’s influence across the continent.
According to the Council of Foreign Relations, CFR, the Wagner Group’s several thousand-strong private military force, “has become one of Russia’s most influential foreign policy tools in recent years.
It has played a significant role on the battlefields of Syria and Ukraine and, recently, has worked to expand its footprint in Africa. The group has operated in several African countries since 2017, often providing its clients with direct military support and related security services alongside propaganda efforts”.
The Kremlin, CFR further noted, uses Wagner to forward its foreign policy interests in Africa. “Russia’s main goal in Africa at this point is to build up diplomatic support that it hopes to use in places like the United Nations,” says CFR’s Thomas Graham. “The Wagner Group got involved in Africa for reasons (such as) private money making. But more recently, the Kremlin has found this a useful adjunct to what it’s trying to do diplomatically.”
First noticed in 2014, the group has operated in Syria and at least a half dozen African countries. Rather than a single entity, Wagner is a complex network of businesses and mercenary groups whose operations have been closely tied to the Russian military and intelligence community. Some five thousand members are estimated to be stationed across Africa, including former Russian soldiers, convicts, and foreign nationals.
With Prigozhin’s death, it is unlikely that Wagner would drop off the radar. He was practically banished to Africa after being deprived of the Ukraine account by Russia’s Defence and General Staff chiefs.
It is more likely that the group will continue to be a nuisance in Africa, where they have given cover to coup plotters and are extracting precious minerals in several countries while also worsening internal security. Russia’s Wagner mercenaries are already operating in Mali, the Central African Republic to the south, Libya to the north and Sudan to the east. In Mali, Wagner seems to be replacing the UN and French forces to fight the region’s Islamist insurgents who ignore state boundaries.
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Approximately one thousand Wagner troops entered CAR in 2018 to defend the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra against rebel attacks on the capital, Bangui. In return, Wagner subsidiaries received unrestricted logging rights and control of the lucrative Ndassima gold mine. Similarly, Wagner Group forces deployed to Mozambique in 2019 to help fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the northern Cabo Delgado province. However, after a few months, the group failed to contain the insurgency and withdrew.
Wagner acts as a security service for vulnerable regimes. The group served as a part of a personal protection detail for Touadéra and helped train CAR’s army to prepare for possible coup attempts.
Wagner has operated in Sudan since 2017, training Sudanese troops, guarding mineral resources, and suppressing dissent against the government of President Omar al-Bashir, all in exchange for gold exports to Russia. In many cases, Wagner’s support is supplemented by official Russian military assistance, such as in Mali, where the armed forces received combat and surveillance aircraft from Moscow.
Prigozhin might be dead, but his unsavoury acts live after him in Africa.