The mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was presumed dead on Wednesday. But what will happen now?
Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was reportedly killed in a plane crash on Wednesday night.
Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian Defense Ministry have yet commented – and Prigozhin’s death has yet to be confirmed – although the incident has shocked Russia and the rest of the world.
But what will happen next?
What is the possible political impact of Prigozhin’s death?
“The Kremlin has cut off the head of the hydra,” he explains Stephen Hall to Euronews, suggesting that it was about neutralizing a possible threat.
“The regime feared that something like the Wagner uprising could repeat itself,” he continues.
Yevgeny Prigozhin has irritated many Kremlin leaders in recent months.
He has repeatedly – and very publicly – lashed out at the military establishment’s campaign in Ukraine, while challenging key Kremlin narratives on the conflict.
The Russian Defense Ministry counterattacked and tried to seize control of the group, something many say was the spark that sparked the Prigozhin rebellion in June, when Wagner’s mercenaries marched on Moscow.
Many Western analysts and security officials suggest that Putin and his allies orchestrated Wednesday’s crash – which killed several high-ranking Wagner figures – although this cannot be confirmed.
But, Hall believes, Russian elites in general were targeted.
“Putin sends signals to the people,” he says. “I think this is a pretty clear sign that this is what happens to traitors,” he adds.
Shortly after the Prigozhin armed mutiny broke out on June 24, the Russian president denounced the rebellion as “treason” and a “stab in the back”, vowing revenge.
The charges against Prigozhin were soon dropped in a secret deal that exiled the mercenary force to Belarus. But many speculated that the Kremlin would soon go after the leader of the mercenaries.
“The war is going badly and some elites are unhappy. Killing Prigozhin sends a signal that if you revolt you will have a very brutal end,” he says.
Russia’s nationalist and patriotic groups have increasingly criticized their government’s military campaign in Ukraine, often criticizing it for mismanagement and botched battlefield maneuvering.
However, Hall notes that the incident could make the Kremlin “look weak.”
“Some people will say that Putin consolidates power, plausibly. But I think it is also the testimony of a desperate regime… they are trying to send a signal that they will eliminate those who rose up against them… (but this) too highlights to the elites that there are conspirators out there,” he says.
What awaits Wagner?
The existence of the mercenary force has been in question since its foiled mutiny in June.
The force was reportedly moved to Belarus in a secret deal struck between Putin and Prigozhin to prevent the rebellion, but it is also believed to have lost funding it was supposedly receiving from the state.
“What we will see is either Wagner’s name is changed and a new symbol is assigned to it – the Kremlin likes to maintain the structures it has already created – or it is dissolved,” says Hall.
Wagner was created in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Until 2022 it was not clear who the true founders were. There was much speculation in the media about who created it, although Prigozhin eventually admitted it.
Earlier this week, Prigozhin appeared in his first video speech since his foiled mutiny, saying the force was in Africa to make the continent “freer.”
It is unknown what will happen to Wagner’s operations in Africa, where he mines and helps secure weak regimes.
Some commentators have suggested that the Russian state could take over, although this is unclear.
How could the Russian population react?
Prigozhin continually made headlines during the Ukrainian war, criticizing the way the Russian military was conducting its campaign.
Although this made him enemies in the corridors of power, some ordinary Russians respected his outspokenness.
It is not known how the population will react to his alleged death.
“It’s true that he was popular, especially among the more patriotic and nationalist groups, although he certainly wasn’t among the liberals,” Hall says. “But a lot of Russians are going to be pretty upset,” she adds.
“Prigozhin died in cold blood,” he asserts.
“Here is a man who said that the war is going badly and that the regime is corrupt, and they have finished with it,” he says.
However, Hall is cautious.
“Russian politics has always been mysterious. And boy, in the last 18 months it has been especially mysterious,” he adds.
“We simply don’t know what the future will bring in terms of although I think we knew that Prigozhin’s days were numbered, it has certainly been surprising how it has ended,” he ditch.
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