Wagner PMC has built up a powerful network on the African continent. It's one of the mercenary group's greatest assets — and now, a Kremlin takeover of Wagner could even strengthen its influence in Africa, including through the recent coups d'état in Niger and Gabon.
"Prigozhin’s last thought was ‘Putin!’'’ That's how Boris Johnson imagines what was going through the mind of mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin during the 30-second plunge to the earth in his private jet.
“I cannot think of another example of such ostentatious and uninhibited savagery by a world leader — not in our lifetimes," added the former British Prime Minister in an article in the Daily Mail.
After Prigozhin's death, the future of the Wagner group remains unclear. Renamed, or reshaped and brought back into line, it's a safe bet that, in one form or another, it will survive the elimination of its founders. Worse still, it may even emerge with its influence in Africa strengthened.
This is the thesis of the ambitious investigation, based on the work of the collective All Eyes On Wagner,that investigative journalists Lou Osborn and Dimitri Zufferey are about to publish with French group Editions du Faubourg.
Who will be Prigozhin's successor?
"Wagner is dead, long live Wagner,” says political scientist Anna Colin Lebedev, a specialist in post-Soviet societies. Officially, private military companies are illegal under Russian law. But a new law, passed by Parliament after the failed Wagner coup in June, encourages the creation of semi-private armies under the leadership of regional governors.
Semi-private militias (among them Redut, Convoy, Patriot and Enot) have continued to flourish.
The Wagner system remains above all a powerful tool of influence.
Andreï Trochev, also know as Sedoï ("grey hair"), a Putin loyalist who alerted the regime of the planned mutiny at the end of June, has already been put forward to head Wagner as Prigozhin's successor. General Andreï Averyanov is also being considered.
But for journalists Osborn and Zufferey, the Wagner system remains above all a powerful tool of influence, designed by the Kremlin to reinforce its foreign policy.
While the group lead by Prigozhin and his right-hand man Dmitry Utkin, who also disappeared in the explosion of the Embraer Legacy 600 jet on Aug. 23, will have a hard time thriving, there remains a precious legacy of know-how and techniques to preserve.
Since the failed mutiny, the Russian army's intelligence service (GRU) seems to have already begun recovering Wagner's missions for redistribution to Sergei Aksionov's Convoy militia, Moscow's strongman in Crimea, and to Redut, the semi-private militia which has participated in the invasion of Ukraine since Feb. 2022.
A legacy to exploit
Based on the work of the All Eyes On Wagner collective and open-source research, Osborne and Zufferey's impressive reconstruction begins with a rogues' gallery of those who contributed to the rise of Wagner: from the sinister Andrei Trochev to Konstantin Pikalov, boss of the new Convoy militia in Ukraine.
But their main goal is to dissect and analyze the techniques and influence of the Wagner group, whose existence the Kremlin had denied until the summer of 2022 — eight years after its actual creation.
It wasn't until June 2023 that Vladimir Putin acknowledged the lie of Wagner's autonomy, and revealed the billions in public funding which had benefited Prigozhin's empire.
The challenge facing the Kremlin now is to "punish Wagner (which has been done) without demoralizing the soldiers in the trenches, or wiping out a decade of influence in Africa," sums up French journalist Pierre Haski, in his foreword to Osborn and Zufferey's book.
Burkina Faso's President Ibrahim Traore and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shaking hands during a meeting at the second Russia-Africa Summit at the Constantine Palace.
TASS via ZUMA
How Wagner profits from local instability
Historically, the aura of "Putin's cook" remains largely linked to the creation of the first "troll farm," the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a propaganda agency which was active during the 2016 U.S. election. But the IRA has largely set an example in Africa by supplying software and technology to local regimes.
One of the Wagner group's strengths today is its powerful network of influence and propaganda on the African continent, which the Kremlin is not about to give up.
Russia has become Africa's leading arms supplier by multiplying bilateral agreements, like in Cameroon in April 2022. Tested in Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, Mozambique and Mali, the "modus operandi" worked: the Kremlin dangled a promise of protection and liberation from Western influence in exchange for access to natural wealth.
Apart from Mali, Wagner is very active in Burkina Faso, Chad and Sudan. Always the same tactic: take advantage of local instability to extend its hold on political and economic circles.
In the Central African Republic, the authors trace how quickly the country became a laboratory for Russian infiltration in just a few years, against a backdrop of chronic instability, thanks to French withdrawal. Wagner also took over the exploitation of diamonds and timber through the Diamville and Bois Rouge companies.
It's too early to measure the impact of the group’s return to power.
In Mali, which was one of the first countries to rely on Wagner for security, anti-French cartoons (financed by the Russian group's mining exploration companies) have been all the rage for several years.
Also firmly established in Sudan and the Central African Republic, Wagner is still dreaming of pushing its pawns into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The Biden administration fears that the Wagner system is still profiting from the coup d'état in Niger. It's too early to measure the impact of the group’s return to power. But there is no doubt that the Kremlin will not sell-off the precious legacy of the man they call a "traitor to the nation."