What Does the Death of Yevgeny Prigozhin Mean for Russia and the Wagner Group?

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A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Catrina Doxsee on her Critical Questions, What Does the Death of Yevgeny Prigozhin Mean for Russia and the Wagner Group?

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Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group—a private military company (PMC) closely linked to the Russian government—was included among the list of passengers on a jet that crashed in the Tver region of Russia on August 23, 2023. If confirmed, Prigozhin’s death could have significant ramifications for the future of the Wagner Group and Russian foreign policy in regions such as Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

Q1: What do we know about the crash and the passengers?

A1: Russian state media claims that Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, his second in command, were killed when an Embraer Legacy 600 jet registered in Prigozhin’s name crashed near the village of Kuzhenkino in Russia’s Tver region. According to the Russian Ministry of Emergency Services, the flight manifest listed seven passengers—including Prigozhin and Utkin—and three crew members, all of whom are presumed dead. There is not yet independent confirmation that either Prigozhin or Utkin were onboard the flight. Further complicating the matter, some online channels have publicized flight data indicating that a second plane registered to Prigozhin had been in flight at a similar time and location.

State media outlets reported that seven or eight bodies have been recovered from the wreckage, and pro-Wagner Telegram channels claim that the bodies of Prigozhin and Utkin were identified. The latter claim has not been confirmed and is likely premature given that the bodies recovered are reportedly badly burned and disfigured, thus requiring more time for identification.

Q2: How have Wagner personnel reacted to the news of their leader’s alleged death?

A2: Social media channels linked to Wagner allege that Russian air defenses shot down the plane. Many blame Putin and other Russian officials for orchestrating his death and are threatening retaliatory action against Moscow. Amid these developments, Russian state security forces have mobilized in Rostov.

It is important to note that if Putin does intend to install new Wagner leadership in place of Prigozhin and Utkin, the circumstances surrounding their alleged deaths could make it more difficult to ensure the loyalty of existing Wagner troops—and, by extension, a seamless transition of power within the organization.

Q3: What benefits have Prigozhin and the Wagner Group provided to Moscow?

A3: The operational model of using a PMC such as Wagner appeals to the Russian government because it can serve as a low-cost force multiplier to advance political objectives while maintaining plausible deniability and minimal accountability—either on the international stage or to the Russian public.

Wagner, with Prigozhin at its helm, has been a significant tool for Russia to achieve its goals abroad, particularly to spread geopolitical influence, achieve military objectives, and secure financial gain. Although Wagner is frequently called a “company,” it is better thought of as a large shadowy web linked to Prigozhin that includes the paramilitary arm as well as a wider network of companies and financial intermediaries involved in resource extraction and smuggling, information operations, logistics, and other activities abroad—all of which are coordinated to advance Moscow’s goals.

The bulk of Wagner activity is concentrated in Africa, particularly in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Sudan. Wagner’s African deployments likely offer the greatest benefit to Moscow, both through the rich natural resources it provides—which are of increasing importance to Russia in the wake of heavy sanctions from the West—and the expansion of Russia’s geopolitical influence on the continent, often at the expense of traditional European partners such as France.

Q4: What comes next? How might Wagner change?

A4: If the deaths are confirmed, this is likely to be the first major step toward reimagining Wagner operations after the June mutiny. The timing of the crash also coincides with the official removal of Sergei Surovikin from his post as the commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces. Russian security forces detained Surovikin, who allegedly knew about the Wagner mutiny in advance, in late June.

Although Wagner’s—and Prigozhin’s—future has been in question for the past two months, it remains unlikely that Russia would abandon its PMC model altogether given that it provides significant benefits at relatively low financial or political cost. Without a clear successor organization, Moscow is unlikely to dismantle Wagner’s operational infrastructure in host countries, as it would be difficult to rebuild the same relationships, knowledge, and systems that Wagner personnel have established over the years. Furthermore, there is evidence that Wagner has continued to expand activity in countries such as Mali since the mutiny, and Moscow has continued to reassure local partners, including through the Russia-Africa Summit, that assistance would continue uninterrupted.

Instead of a dissolution or replacement of Wagner, Russia is likely to install new Wagner leadership—with stronger loyalty to the Kremlin and kept under tighter supervision than Prigozhin—while maintaining as much continuity as possible at the operational level. This process may also involve rebranding, and companies within the Wagner orbit may divide into separate entities based on functional area, which may be nationalized or maintained as quasi-independent entities. If Putin does intend to maintain operations under new leadership, the loyalty of rank-and-file Wagner personnel and mid-level leadership may be one of the strongest factors in determining the sustainability of Wagner without Prigozhin.

Moreover, one lesson Putin likely learned from the June mutiny is the danger in allowing so much power and responsibility—leadership of the entire Wagner network and the geopolitical interests it controls—to reside with one man. Although Russia is likely to seek to continue its PMC model for foreign policy and security assistance, it is likely that the marketplace of PMCs will diversify away from Wagner’s monopoly to prevent repetition of Prigozhin’s challenge to the regime.

Whatever the transition process entails, it will almost certainly be a period of increased uncertainty and risk for Wagner’s local partners, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where many rely on Wagner to “coup-proof” their own regimes. This may open opportunities for regional or Western actors to increase dialogue with Wagner’s partners and explore options to provide alternative viable solutions to improve security and good governance in place of the PMC.

Catrina Doxsee is an associate director and associate fellow with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Special thanks to Mackenzie Holtz for her research assistance and Rayna Salam for her editing and publication support.

Catrina Doxsee
Fellow, Warfare, Irregular Threats, and Terrorism Program