With Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin reported dead, Foreign Editor David Pratt examines how the group’s assets and influence are too valuable to forfeit and likely will be rebranded to suit the Kremlin’s foreign policy ambitions

Gold bars exchanged for surface to air missiles. Gold bars found on his properties. Vast exports of gold into Russia. Gold, it seems, played a big part in the life and nefarious activities of Russian Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.

“I need more gold,” Prigozhin, is said to have told commanders from Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) when he met them in Bangui the capital of Central African Republic (CAR) just days before his reported death in a plane crash in Russia last Wednesday.

As highlighted in a detailed account by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), who cited a Sudanese official familiar with the encounter and conversation that day, Prigozhin had met the Sudanese paramilitary commanders who delivered the gold bars packed in wooden crates from the Songo mine in western Sudan’s volatile Darfur region.

Most likely the shipment was payment for the weapons – including surface to air missiles - and support the Wagner group had supplied to the RSF to help them prosecute their brutal war against Sudan’s government.

The encounter is just one of a number of telling details to have surfaced from the last days and hours of Prigozhin’s life even if at time of writing the warlord’s death has yet to be officially declared by the Russian authorities or confirmed by family members or business associates.

The closest the Kremlin has come to acknowledging Prigozhin’s death was to say on Friday that Western suggestions that the Wagner leader was killed on the Russian government’s orders are an “absolute lie.”

But with Prigozhin’s death come a myriad of pressing questions. The most obvious of these concern what it means for Russian president Vladmir Putin’s hold on power and the Kremlin’s future foreign policy. Then there are those two other inextricably connected questions over what now for Wagner and what impact Prigozhin’s death - if any - will have on the war in Ukraine?


A man takes a photograph using his smartphone of a makeshift memorial for Yevgeny Prigozhin in front of the Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg, on August 25, 2023. The plane crash that reportedly killed Yevgeny Prigozhin

A man takes a photograph using his smartphone of a makeshift memorial for Yevgeny Prigozhin in front of the Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg, on August 25, 2023. The plane crash that reportedly killed Yevgeny Prigozhin


Prigozhin’s endgame

Amidst all this swirling uncertainty what seems increasingly clear though is that those last few days of Prigozhin’s life provide some clues and indicators as to what the answers to those questions might be.

To begin with Prigozhin’s endgame involved an intense period during which the warlord appears to have been doing the rounds, criss-crossing the world by air, shoring up and reaping some of the outstanding profits Wagner’s complex, lucrative network of military and commercial operations had created across Europe, the Middle East and especially Africa.

Most likely Prigozhin knew that his mercenary built global commercial empire was hanging in the balance.

That much had become evident ever since the man once close enough to the Russian president to be dubbed “Putin’s chef,” incurred the wrath of his erstwhile ally and confidant after Wagner’s audacious but brief mutiny and insurrection in June challenged the Kremlin’s authority over the war in Ukraine.

In the insurrection’s aftermath, the Kremlin’s main concern was to neutralise Wagner from Prigozhin’s control both politically and militarily, with the aim of restoring the stability of the state.

Well aware of that aim, there’s no doubt that after the abortive June munity, Prigozhin intensified his efforts to bolster and consolidate Wagner’s presence in Africa.

In a video screened last Monday most likely from the West African country of Mali, the camouflage-clad warlord brandishing an assault rifle confidently vowed that the mercenary group would make “Russia even greater on every continent and Africa even freer.”

Little did Prigozhin know that barely days later he would be dead and that even without him at the head of Wagner, Putin far from relinquishing the sprawling global network the mercenary group had built up, was in fact stepping up efforts to seize control of it.

That much can be ascertained from another telling detail in the story of Prigozhin’s demise, given that barely 24 hours before the Embraer Legacy 600 jet carrying him and his most senior lieutenants crashed to the ground, a senior Russian official visited Libya to reassure allies there that fighters from the Wagner Group would remain in the country - but under Moscow’s control.

In fact, Prigozhin’s whirlwind Africa visit some analysts contend perhaps had perhaps as much to do with staying ahead of the GRU, the foreign intelligence service of the Russian military, which has long coveted Wagner’s operations and sought to take control of them.

According to Russian Telegram channel VchK-OGPU, known for leaks from the FSB, Russia’s internal and counterintelligence service, Prigozhin for some time had become concerned that his operations in Africa were being shifted to the GRU.

It was to that end perhaps that Moscow despatched Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to a meeting in Benghazi. There according to a Libyan official with knowledge of the meeting who spoke to Reuters News agency, Yevkurov told pro-Kremlin eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar last Tuesday that Wagner forces would report to a new commander. Wagner mercenaries have been fighting alongside Haftar’s troops since his failed bid to seize Libya’s capital, Tripoli in 2019.


Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a videoconference in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP).

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a videoconference in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP).


Influence in Libya

Coincidental as the timing of Yevkurov’s visit might have been, Jalel Harchaoui a Libya researcher with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says the visit “suggests that - if anything - the Russian footprint in Libya might deepen and expand rather than shrink.”

Other observers say what happened in Libya will now likely play out in similar fashion with Wagner’s other extensive Africa operations.

In other spheres of Wagner activity such as in Syria, its forces had already been put under close Kremlin oversight with a plan to gradually absorb their projects into the security services and defence ministry.

In Ukraine meanwhile, Moscow moved quickly in the wake of June’s brief mutiny to bring Wagner’s forces there under its control.

It began by handing over a base to Russia's regular military and then started relocating the most dedicated Wagner troops, a contingent of around 5,000, to an army camp in Belarus, under a new leader, a ‘loyal’ Putin man Andrey Troshev. Other Wagner troops were forced either to enlist with the military or to return home.

But for Putin and especially those within Russia’s GRU, bringing Wagner’s huge assets and influence in Africa under their control remains a work in progress. As the Financial Times highlighted in the wake of Prigozhin’s death: “Wagner became, in little more than five years, a crucial plank in Russian power projection in Africa. The group launched election interference schemes, misinformation campaigns and military activities, while offering plausible deniability for the Kremlin when anything went awry.”

From propping up pro-Moscow strong men and military juntas in Africa, the Wagner template remains an invaluable one for a Russia whose foreign policy and overseas reach has been weakened by its mismanaged war in Ukraine. So what now then for Wagner?

The first thing to recognise is that certainly in Africa, Wagner may stay more or less intact albeit under new – most likely – Kremlin controlled management. The fact remains that Wagner’s ability to operate in places where Moscow may have no formal or legal presence makes it an invaluable tool of Kremlin foreign policy. Among other things Prigozhin showed Putin that mercenary outfits, can provide plausible deniability when it comes to Russia’s presence and activities in certain places.

“Wagner is a going concern. There are contracts, it is a business, it needs to continue,” observed John Lechner, a US-based researcher who is writing a book about Prigozhin.

“From a credibility perspective, Wagner will try to give the appearance that things are going on normally, that they are still a partner,” Lechner told Reuters last week.

But some observers say that folding Wagner fully into the Russian defence ministry would arguably prove counterproductive, resulting in more bureaucracy and undermining that plausible deniability factor on which the Kremlin depends and which made Wagner so useful.

Then there's the fact that in Africa especially, Wagner is not the only mercenary firm on the continent. African leaders in need of military support will not much care whether Russian troops answer to Prigozhin or another Kremlin functionary.


Russian President Vladimir Put, left, and Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov talk to each other during an extended meeting of the Russian Defense Ministry Board at the National Defense Control Center with a Russian military map showing the alleged

Russian President Vladimir Put, left, and Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov talk to each other during an extended meeting of the Russian Defense Ministry Board at the National Defense Control Center with a Russian military map 


Redut on the rise

Among the other mercenary companies to watch, perhaps the most significant is Redut, the Russian word for “redoubt,” a defensive military fortification or stronghold. It was among the first to enter Ukraine, when Russia launched its large-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, according to the Russian and English-language independent news website Meduza.

Redut’s origins go back several years to the war in Syria, says the Russian-language newspaper Novaya gazeta, where its soldiers were reportedly involved in guarding facilities set up there by Stroitransgaz, an engineering and construction company originally established by Gazprom but later acquired by Kremlin-connected billionaire Gennady Timchenko.

Reports by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty along with remarks by Prigozhin himself and other reporting, suggest there are other multiple private security entities that exist under Gazprom's umbrella, including one called “Potok,” or "flow," which came to came to public attention last April, when a group of its contractors in Ukraine released a video complaining about battlefield supplies.

Then there are other smaller groups operating almost exclusively in Ukraine, such as the Moran Security Group, Slavonic Corps, and E.N.O.T. corps.

Dmitri Utkin, a longtime lieutenant to Prigozhin and the man whose nom de guerre inspired the name of their private military outfit, Wagner, was a former Russian military intelligence veteran with the GRU and also worked for Moran Security and later the Slavonic Corps. Utkin was among those other key Wagner figures who along with Prigozhin were reported killed in last week’s plane crash.

Whatever new replacement mercenary leader or group the Kremlin might engage, experts agree they will need to fully understand that they will be working under the oversight of Russia’s intelligence services and military.

As Dr Sean McFate a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and an expert in mercenary operations wryly put it last week, that person will be someone “who understands not to bite the hand that feeds him”. In other words, any ‘new’ Prigozhin would have to think twice before criticising Russia’s defence establishment or going toe to toe with Putin in the way Prigozhin did.

Which brings us back to Vladmir Putin and what Prigozhin’s death means for the Russian president’s hold on power. While no evidence exists that Prigozhin was indeed assassinated, assassination attempts against Putin's foes have been a consistent feature of his nearly quarter-century in power.

Perhaps author and journalist Ben Macintyre hit the nail on the head in The Times on Friday writing in his column that this was “murderous political theatre, a brazen hit job, a whodunnit in which everyone knows who done it.”

Whoever was responsible - or not – one school of though is that Prigozhin’s demise could help consolidate Putin’s power and fear is an important factor in that consolidation.

“Everyone’s afraid,” The New York Times cited Konstantin Remchukov, a Moscow newspaper editor with ties to the Kremlin, as saying of the reaction among the Russian elite to the plane crash last Wednesday. “It’s just that everyone sees that anything is possible.”

But not everyone believes Putin will ultimately benefit given that it could also reinforce the myth of the Wagner leader as a ‘truth speaking’ popular hero and patriot.

“The assassination…will have catastrophic consequences,” warned Grey Zone, a Wagner-affiliated group on Telegram, a social-media site. “The people who gave the order do not understand the mood in the army and morale at all,” it warned.

But so far there is little sign of any blowback from Prigozhin’s death on Putin. As for its impact on the war in Ukraine many military analysts suggest that it will be negligible. With Kyiv’s counteroffensive well underway both sides are already locked in a pattern of combat that Prigozhin’s death and Wagner’s absence will not alter or shift.

“General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of general staff, whom Prigozhin routinely attacked, has “brought some order to the military chaos of last year”, says John Foreman, Britain’s defence attache in Moscow until last year.

Speaking recently to The Economist, Foreman pointed out how once Wagner forces had been shoved aside after they led the conquest of Bakhmut in May, its shock troops were not as important once Ukraine went on the offensive.

As for Prigozhin and Wagner, their model will take a new form. All that gold, that Prigozhin was so preoccupied with right up until his last days, along with the myriad other lucrative assets of mining, oil, timber, diamonds and more will continue to fill the Kremlin’s coffers and Ukraine war chest. So too will that plausible deniability that Wagner through its presence often gave Russian foreign policy. In short, it's not so much that Wagner has gone, rather that Moscow’s mercenaries are about to have a makeover.