by Ambra Visentin
The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the mercenary group Wagner Army, marks a point of no return for the soldiers themselves, about whose future the world is asking many questions. The list of passengers on board the private Embraer jet that crashed in the Tver region on 23 August shows the extent to which the split in the militarist camp caused by Prigozhin himself, who had decided on several occasions to openly criticise the management of the war in Ukraine by the Russian Defence Ministry and it’s Head Sergei Shoigu, has been healed by removing the problem at its root.
Who caused the plane crash is not officially known, but the world is looking at Vladimir Putin and his need to punish the ‘traitor’. And this is where opinions differ. Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and expert on the Russian security services, said: “I did not believe all this language about black revenge and betrayal”. He added: “If you look at the whole situation more closely, Prigozhin did not betray Putin, he was not a real traitor because he did not go to the Ukrainians and NATO. He was not a real traitor, it was a [political] problem.”
But for the most active supporters of the war and opponents of the current elite, the Wagner leader was a hero. This success Prigozhin nurtured through direct dialogue with ordinary citizens, as Alexander Baunov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru, explains in an article: “Prigozhin’s great instrumental and conceptual mistake was also to address ordinary citizens in order to gain popularity and some kind of political mandate without the greatest permission. After Prigozhin’s fraternisation with the people of Rostov, Putin had to break months of isolation and descend to direct communication with the people. This is the real betrayal of the Russian Government.”
In addition to Prigozhin’s death, the arrest of Igor Girkin (Strelkov) marks the beginning of a new special crackdown on srategic figures. The former commander of the forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) was also its defence minister, but left his post after a series of defeats at the front. After that, Strelkov did not take an active part in hostilities: he returned to Russia, helped the ‘Donbass veterans’, opened a channel on YouTube (and later on Telegram) and even took part in debates with Alexei Navalny. The misfortune of General Sergei Surovikin can also be read through the same lens. Since June, following the Wagner Group’s ‘March on Moscow’ two months ago, there had been uncertain news about the ex-general’s fate. Some said he had been arrested, but his family denied this. At the time – commented the New York Times – US intelligence speculated that Prigozhin’s attempted mutiny might have been supported by Surovikin, in their shared ambition to re-establish the military hierarchy in his favour against Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
The straw that broke the camel’s back as far as Wagner’s fate was concerned came on 23 and 24 June, when thousands of Prigozhin fighters moved rapidly from the south of Russia towards the capital in a ‘march for justice’, reportedly reaching 120 miles from the city before he halted their advance. But the response was relatively slow. Why was that? Putin may have taken the time to assess the damage and the situation as a whole. “Dictators often refrain from purges in the army, especially during wars. And in the case of Russia at war, it may seem that a way has been found to punish a patriotic rebel”, Baunov explains. The Prigozhin Media Holding was liquidated, and its main energy resource – the Wagner Group – was partly transferred to the Ministry of Defence and partly sent to Belarus and Africa. Prigozhin’s video message from Africa, released shortly before the disaster, suggested that he himself had found a new place of service in Africa: a kind of patriotic exile with demotion. However, an important technique of punishment within both a dictatorship and a criminal-type group is that the destruction of the enemy is preceded by the appearance of reconciliation, forgiveness and sometimes even rapprochement with the leader. Essentially a Russian version of The Godfather.
Returning to the question of the future of the Wagner Battalion, it seems that it has already been absorbed into the Federation military apparatus. It is no coincidence that in the last few days the soldiers of the army have been called to take the oath of allegiance. According to the new regulations, which came into force immediately on Friday, all “persons joining volunteer formations and other persons contributing to the performance of tasks assigned to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, other troops, formations and military bodies and taking part in a special military operation must swear allegiance to the country and the army.” The break is very strong, as Francesco Strazzari, professor of Political Science at the Scuola Sant’Anna in Pisa, a research university, explains: “We will no longer have a political leader who escapes and allows himself to do what he wants on the basis of old friendships. The Russians will try, in an opaque way, to adapt their actions to the will of the Kremlin.”
Wagner’s fighters and active veterans admit to Meduza that they are unlikely to do anything serious in response to Prigozhin’s death. “It’s sad, of course. Yevgeny Viktorovich was a serious guy, we used to call him Dad”, explains a mercenary who was recently invited to work with the Wagner contingent in Africa. “But time has passed, you know? If this had happened on 27 June, right after the march, there would have been a reaction. But now… some people are on holiday, others are building their lives. Others have gone to work for the Ministry of Defence.”
The crash of the Embraer is a signal to those who still believe that they do not have to submit to the Kremlin, but it will continue to affect the geopolitical balance on the continent, especially with regard to Russia’s presence in Africa, which Prigozhin had declared shortly before the plane crash that he wanted to liberate from jihadism. “In Prigozhin’s plane was Valery Chekalov, who is the third most important figure (…),” says Strazzari. “If Dmitry Utkin is Wagner’s military commander, Valery is the man who organises the rear, the transports that move the troops from Syria to Libya, to the Central African Republic, to the various fronts. And much of what remains of Wagner in Africa is largely about the ability of this system he created to survive. There is a proliferation of market mechanisms and military security mechanisms in which the Russians are present with bilateral agreements”, concludes the professor of Political Science at the Scuola Sant’Anna in Pisa.
Cover Image: RudencoMihail on Shutterstock