What’s Next for Wagner

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This transcript is from a CSIS podcast published on June 28, 2023. Listen to the podcast here.

Andrew H. Schwartz: I'm Andrew Schwartz, and you're listening to The Truth of the Matter, a podcast by CSIS, where we break down the top policy issues of the day and talk with the people that can help us best understand what's really going on.

To get to the truth of the matter about the weekend push and uprising by the Wagner Group against the Russian military, we have with us Catrina Doxsee, who is an expert in this. Catrina, first I want to ask you, what is the Wagner Group and tell me about its leadership?

Catrina Doxsee: So the Wagner Group is a quasi-private organization. We tend to use the term private military company or PMC, although, I can get into, it's not quite what we typically think of when we use the term PMC. But it's this quasi-private organization headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin that has been used by the Russian government in roughly the past decade, since it was formed in 2014 in Ukraine, used to achieve various geopolitical goals abroad, and really acting as sort of a force multiplier for the Russian military, being this allegedly private entity that can go out and do various tasks including carrying out human rights abuses, war crimes, various other crimes without having any kind of actual accountability come back on the Russian state and without the Russian state having to expend the same amount of resources that it would have to if it was using formal forces to do it. So essentially, Wagner has been a tool of irregular warfare for Moscow.

Over the past year, we've seen that they have gotten more and more involved in the war in Ukraine, actually on the front lines, operating in areas like Bakhmut, more or less like an informal unit of the military. And that situation is really what's led to both Wagner's higher profile, but also the increasing clashes between Prigozhin and various figures in the Russian Ministry of Defense, such as Shoigu and Kasparov.

Mr. Schwartz: Shoigu being the head of the Russian military, of course.

I want to ask you about Prigozhin. Prigozhin until the Ukraine war wasn't known to most people. He kept a relatively low profile. He's a Russian oligarch who started with a catering business essentially and became Putin's chef. So what about him? Why did he come to prominence and come out of the light when Ukraine kicked off?

Ms. Doxsee: So he's such an interesting figure because it's easy to go back to his roots as a caterer running a hotdog stand for just sort of almost the rags to riches Hollywood type of story.

Mr. Schwartz: He literally started with a hotdog cart.

Ms. Doxsee: Yes.

Mr. Schwartz: Yeah.

Ms. Doxsee: But truly, I mean, he's an oligarch in Russia and really I would think of him much more as a warlord than someone that we see, he's not the Jose Andres of Russia.

Mr. Schwartz: Yeah.

Ms. Doxsee: He is a warlord. He is deep into these mafia-like politics. And he has built up a business empire focused on security contracting and focused on basically doing Moscow's dirty work. He is a brutal, power-driven person who will do whatever he needs to do to get benefit at the end of the day. And I think that's really at the core of why he stepped out of the shadows in terms of the involvement of Wagner in Ukraine.

Mr. Schwartz: So Prigozhin is much more a mercenary warlord than he is an actual oligarch, correct?

Ms. Doxsee: He's a little bit of both. Different oligarchs have decided to build business empires in different sectors, and his chosen sector is security. And for a Russian security oligarch, that means basically mercenary action and doing violent dirty work.

We've seen Wagner get involved as sort of a direct force multiplier for Russian or Russian allies forces in places like Ukraine, Syria, in Libya with Khalifa Haftar, but we've also seen them act more as a quasi- third-party intermediary, particularly in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, where you have Wagner come in as contractors reaching an agreement with a local host state to provide paramilitary services and other security support, including training, assisting with equipment transfers, information and intelligence operations, all in exchange for securing rights to natural resources, particularly mining concessions for gold, gemstones, and other profitable raw goods. So that's what his business is.

I think one thing that's really important to understand, both the context of these states with weak governance and ongoing security challenges that Wagner has targeted, but also how Prigozhin thinks about his business, is that while Wagner, and by extension the Russian government, has benefited financially from this resource exploitation, Prigozhin isn't one of those mining oligarchs. He is a security guy.

He's going into countries that, yes, are rich in natural resources, but that your more traditional mining oligarchs would not touch with a 10-foot pole because in most of them there's no guarantee of any kind of medium to long-term benefit. It's really a get in, grab what you can while you're able to stay there, and accept that the situation may devolve past where you can hold it. I mean, look at Mozambique, where Wagner was present for about six months, suffered huge military setbacks, and was ultimately fired and replaced by a South African PMC instead.


Mr. Schwartz: So it's interesting, as you point out, he had this really precipitous rise, but now we see a precipitous downfall. He gets to Ukraine, becomes a household name, has some real success, has an ally in some of the commanders on the ground there. But some people think this wasn't really a push against the Russian military or certainly against the Russian government. Some people think this was an act of desperation because he was falling out of favor. Correct?

Ms. Doxsee: I do think that it was an act of desperation, but I don't know that it was about falling out of favor so much as it was this sense of an existential struggle and an existential threat to Wagner. This is something that was sort of implied in his timing for the uprising and corroborated by the statement that he released, the audio statement he released yesterday.

Basically, the Ministry of Defense had set in mid-June a deadline of July 1st for all Wagner troops to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense, thus making them an official part of the Russian military rather than allowing Wagner to continue as this quasi-independent entity. And that was the piece that crossed the line for Prigozhin. That was the existential threat, where he was willing to come in and help the Russian military in Ukraine, particularly because the Russian government was really bankrolling their operations in Ukraine, giving another source of profit while he was still able to maintain his broader business empire in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.

But now, he was facing an existential threat to his control of Wagner because if suddenly all of Wagner in Ukraine has to sign with the Ministry of Defense, he loses them. And then that's potentially a backdoor to having the Russian government take over that broader network as well, both the mercenaries but also his wider network of shell companies, financial intermediaries. And so really this seems to have been just a bid to maintain that sense of independence and maintain his own control of Wagner ahead of the July 1st deadline.

And certainly there was high cost and he miscalculated, he went too far in what he did. But to some extent, he did reach that objective as part of the terms of the agreement that he reached on Saturday with Putin. Prigozhin and individuals who participated in this march toward Moscow are able to go to Belarus, as it's been put, they're able to not sign those contracts with the Ministry of Defense, and other members of Wagner have the option to sign the contract with the Ministry of Defense.

So he has, at huge cost, opened up that possibility of maintaining some autonomy. The bigger question now is, well, if Prigozhin survives all of this, is what happens to his grip on that wider Wagner network beyond just the operations in Ukraine and the presence in Russia itself?

Mr. Schwartz: Okay. So I have two questions. One is how loyal are the 25,000 or so troops that he's assembled, many of which were former prisoners, lots of people he recruited, how loyal are they to him? How likely are they to stay with him? And then the second question is, is as part of his rise with Wagner Group, the Russian government and military supplied him with an enormous amount of weaponry, tanks, anti-aircraft, guns, bullets, et cetera. He really owes a lot of that success to getting armed up. So what happens, what do you think happens next?

Ms. Doxsee: Yeah, so on the loyalty piece, it's hard to say. I think that certainly those who are high up in the organization will maintain their loyalty to him, perhaps partly out of their existing relationships and partly out of a probably justified fear of what happens to them otherwise given how close they were to Prigozhin.

I think further down in the ranks, it's hard to say. There is kind of a division into two types of Wagner fighters, right? You have the longer-term, kind of traditional old-school Wagner fighter who were typically people who had former experience in the Russian military or intelligence services, folks who had gone through a bit more of a formal training even when they joined up with Wagner, and who largely chose to work with Wagner because it paid better than the Russian military. They got better benefits. They had a better experience. They were treated better.

Those people have already seen what it's like on the other side, and especially with how things are going in Ukraine, I think they would be much more comfortable staying with Wagner. I don't think that they would necessarily be good news for the Russian military either if they join up along with whatever trauma they're already feeling from the experience in Ukraine and suddenly are getting a pay cut, they're being treated worse, all of that.

The other bucket of Wagner fighters that we need to consider then are, as you mentioned, the recent recruits who are prisoners, various others, kind of the people who are conscripted in, who have very little training. They have minimal experience before they came in. They got a shortened, abbreviated form of Wagner training that rather than really being based around skills was much more based around instilling fear in them to obey whatever they were told to not abandon ranks.

Mr. Schwartz: Right. He would tell them that if they didn't obey, he would shoot them.

Ms. Doxsee: He would tell them that. But we also have reports that they would bring in the new recruits, gather them all together, pull a guy out of the group and beat him to death with a sledgehammer in front of all the others, and then say to them, "You do what we say or that's going to be you next."

Mr. Schwartz: It’s incredible.

Ms. Doxsee: Yeah, that was the form of training they got. And so then they're put out there on the front lines where at that point, by the time they were being recruited in, infantry waves were basically the tactic being used in this attrition warfare. They were just bodies being put on the front to serve as cannon fodder.

You have an extraordinarily high amount of trauma amongst these people who also don't have training. Many of them come in with a criminal history, which has its own baggage in terms of their past, their intentions, but also there are huge rifts within the troops because there's such a social stigma against these prisoners, both in the general Russian population, but even within the prisoner population. There was a very strict hierarchy within Russian prisons. And particularly those who are kind of in that lowest strata, the untouchables, there's an absolute refusal even amongst some prisoners to work with other prisoners. They had to be formed into their own units.

So you have a lot of disorganization and just trauma, fear, inexperience among these troops. If they're given an opportunity to not be fighting on the front lines in Ukraine anymore and potentially get that promised freedom that they were offered if they were prisoners, to potentially receive a higher paycheck, assuming that the same payment structure even continues in Wagner, they're probably going to throw in their hats with Wagner just thinking that that's a better benefit to themselves.

The big question on that then comes for what kind of other coercion or leverage does Russia use to try to get them to sign with the MOD? Do they have to worry about their families back home in Russia? And do they have to worry about potential other punishments coming to Wagner down the line? Do they have to worry if there will be more clashes between the official military and those who have sided with Prigozhin? They don't want to be on the losing side. So some of it too is the messaging from Russia and how hard they want to try to really coerce those really just self- preservation-focused troops into signing with one side or the other.

Mr. Schwartz: Sounds like there's not a lot of great choices for these guys.

Ms. Doxsee: There really aren’t.

Mr. Schwartz: Well, that brings me to something else. So currently, Wagner is sidelined. They're not going to be in Ukraine. Do we think that there's any chance they get reinserted? What do we think is the future of Prigozhin himself, who's in Belarus? And what happens to the projects that Wagner was undertaking in Africa and the Middle East?

Ms. Doxsee: Yeah, I think that piece about Africa, the Middle East, other places where they are including a small presence, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, I think the big question is who controls Wagner and Wagner-linked to operations in those areas now? I don't think that we'll see much more from Wagner in Ukraine, or at least not under the Wagner name. Almost certainly whatever Wagner troops do sign with the Ministry of Defense will continue to be used there, perhaps even in very similar units to what they're in now. But I don't think that Moscow can risk having units that are potentially loyal to Prigozhin on the front lines there. With fear of a military uprising against Russia on the front lines, Putin's already made the comparison to 1917, so you don't want to go down that road. But also I think they're very aware of the fact that Ukraine is thinking about how to exploit this internal tension in Russia as part of their ongoing counter-offensive.

So I think Wagner's kind of fading out in the Ukraine side, but the real big question now is what happens to the broader business empire, which of course is most heavily centered in Africa. So the problem here is that obviously this is essential to Prigozhin. This is his business empire. It's how he's built his reputation, his power, his fortune. He's not going to let it go easily. He wants to stay in control, both of what we traditionally think of as Wagner, that being the mercenaries, the paramilitary groups that are working in various states in Africa, but also of this broader network of shell companies, financial intermediaries.

So this is companies like Lobaye Invest in the Central African Republic, M-Invest and its subsidiary Meroe Gold in Sudan, which are involved in things like resource exploitation, who holds the mining concessions, including some of which have just been expanded long term. So one of their largest mining concessions in the Central African Republic was recently extended to be a full-scale industrial exploitation contract giving them rights to the Ndassima mine for 25 years with potential extensions. He doesn't want to give any of that up. The problem is that Moscow doesn't want to give it up either.

Wagner and similar PMCs, but really Wagner as the preeminent one, have been instrumental for Moscow to expand its influence and footprint on the African continent and in other places abroad over the past decade. There's been a huge increase in Russia's reliance on private military companies to facilitate other security cooperation and diplomatic agreements, to increase their influence in Africa to a degree that we really haven't seen since the end of the Cold War, as well as to bring in economic gains, to secure potential locations for military bases. We've seen the back and forth over whether they'll be able to get a naval base at Port Sudan giving them access to the Red Sea. We've seen them really lily-pad these deployments and help to expand their just intelligence collection profile. Moscow can't lose all of that.

And part of the problem is that you can't just say, "Okay, Wagner doesn't exist anymore. Here's a new company to create all of these deals with," because Wagner still has those relationships. The different shell companies linked back to Prigozhin holds those mining concessions. So the question now is how does the Russian government wrest control of all of those various nodes in Prigozhin's network to gain control?

And so what we're likely to see is number one, an ongoing struggle between Prigozhin and the Kremlin for control here. But then number two, a potential splintering where you get some portions of that network who remain loyal to Prigozhin, who he's able to maintain control over, whether by intimidation, force, just exploiting relationships that he personally has or knowledge that he personally has, but then also some splintering to either come under control directly of the Russian government and Russian military or others continuing to function as PMCs but with new leadership put in by Moscow and likely reigned in a lot more than Wagner has been.

I think it's important to understand here that Wagner is neither the first nor the last private military company that Russia has used as a tool abroad. There was already a long history of private military companies associated with Russia operating in places like Africa before Wagner was even created, and we have seen a proliferation of new, sort of rival companies, being formed in recent years as well responding to Wagner's success.

None of them are quite at the point where they can directly rival Wagner at this point, but there's no way that Moscow's going to give up such a lucrative model to be able to secure these different geopolitical military and economic gains at such low cost to themselves and with a huge amount of deniability when they go in and just recklessly commit human rights abuses, commit war crimes. It's just a matter of how do you keep the leaders of those groups on a tighter leash than you let Prigozhin be on, and how do you ensure that whoever is leading them now is going to remain loyal and continue to reap those benefits for Moscow rather than, as we started to see with Prigozhin, really turning them to his own power ambitions.

Mr. Schwartz: So with Wagner sidelined for at least a little while, what does this mean for Ukraine and what does it mean for the United States?

Ms. Doxsee: I think that that is still a huge unknown. I can speculate, but we just don't have enough information at this point. At this point, we don't even know the full terms of the agreement that Putin and Prigozhin reached. And I think that's a very important piece that will help us to better understand what the ongoing threat of conflict between Prigozhin and those loyal to him and Moscow will be.

We do, however, know that after events like this, and certainly with so many weaknesses on display from the Russian government, there's a heightened chance of other copycat attempts or other challenges to Russian leadership. It's really notable that despite a large presence of anti-war activists in Russia, opponents on the left, this was a threat that came from the right and from someone who was a close confidant of Putin's, who was an insider who was closely involved in the war. There are many other parties within Russia across the political spectrum that could see this as an opportunity to challenge the current status quo.

Amid all of that, you also have the war in Ukraine, which Russia cannot afford to really stay in long term. We've already seen, based on analysis from some of my colleagues in the Transnational Threats Project, that Russia has suffered more casualties in Ukraine since the 2022 invasion than it did in all of its wars since World War II combined. That's a huge expenditure of life, huge expenditure of resources, and a continual drain on the Russian state, particularly amid growing domestic unrest and disapproval with the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Russia.

That's a lot of external pressure, and then to be paired with internal pressure as well really highlights the weaknesses of the regime. That's something that Ukraine could certainly try to exploit in its counter-offensive. It's something that I think shows a weakness perhaps in the information environment as well. As much as Putin has always closely controlled media and official narratives in Russia, there are also a variety of other platforms that he has less control over, things like Telegram, where you're able to get Prigozhin's side of the story, where you're able to get more of this Wagner information shared now at this point.

And I think one thing that's especially important in everything that Prigozhin has said over the past few days was on Saturday in his remarks when he basically went through point by point and dismantled Putin's entire justification for the war in Ukraine. Having that so completely taken apart by someone who isn't a traditional anti-war opponent of the Kremlin but is someone who was an insider trusted by Putin, and not only trusted, but trusted to execute the war, someone who has been fighting, well, his forces have been fighting on the front lines, and his forces have been credited with some of the biggest and, frankly, only successes that Russia has seen in the war, that gives him a huge amount of credibility. And when he uses that credibility to take down Putin's argument, that's a huge blow. So there's a lot of weakness there.

On the U.S. side, I think that the administration has been rightfully cautious to not make this seem like we are overly exploiting the situation in Russia to directly fight against Russia. There were rumors and accusations in Russia that perhaps all of this was linked back to be a Western-supported coup against Putin. That has not played out to be correct. The U.S. was not involved in this. No Western nation was involved in starting this. And the United States government has been very clear that it is not trying to topple Putin's regime. And frankly, if the government does collapse in Russia, that will have huge negative externalities for Ukraine, for the region, for the U.S., for the world at large just in the chaos that it creates.

Where the U.S. does have opportunities though, is in combating the Wagner Group's operations further abroad. So, for years, we've been looking at Wagner's growing profile in Africa. It's expanded deployments, most recently going into Mali and courting other countries in West Africa, like Burkina Faso, to try to confront the jihadist threat and in the process replacing European partnerships that had been in place.

We've long been looking for ways to disrupt Wagner's activities, in part because we want to counter Russia's growing footprint on the continent, but also because we see the massive negative impacts that Wagner has. When Wagner comes into a country, it's typically responsible for a variety of human rights abuses and war crimes. It smuggles raw goods out of the country, exploiting some of the poorest nations in the world. And often through its actions, actually creates more instability and more violence, particularly targeting civilians both in the country that they're located in and throughout the region. So, there are huge problems to working with Wagner.

That said, it's been really difficult to get a wedge in there between Wagner and these governments to be able to offer a viable alternative. But now, all of this upheaval has left Wagner's partners across Africa confused and concerned about their futures. You have regimes in places like Mali and the Central African Republic, where over the weekend people are saying, "We don't know even who to talk to ask our questions, and we have a lot of questions about what the future of this relationship is, how long can we count on Wagner or Russia, whatever they call themselves being here." And particularly, some of these more autocratic regimes have long preferred to work with Russia over the U.S. just because it doesn't come with what they see as the burden of protecting human rights or having extra assurances for the well-being of civilians.

But those regimes are primarily working with Wagner for its coup-proofing function. They want Wagner to ensure their own regime stability, particularly because in most cases these are leaders who recently came to power through coups or other illegitimate means themselves and know how possible it is that they could fall to the same circumstances. Now, with their most important security agreements up in the air, those regimes aren't just facing the question of how long will they have security assistance to combat the various threats in their country, whether it's from jihadists, rebel groups, et cetera. They're facing a question of how long will I have the main force that is keeping my regime in power? This is starting to become an existential question for those regimes as well as an existential question for the Wagner Group.

This creates an opportunity for the U.S. and Western partners to be able to step in and offer alternatives that are more stable and that are ideally viable and can center on the autonomy of these countries to really combat their security threats in good faith rather than what we've seen from Wagner, which is essentially going in, checking whatever boxes they need to, to not utterly fail and lose their job, but also allowing the conflicts in these countries or the instability to continue, because the longer the instability continues, the longer they get to keep their jobs and continue to reap the benefits.

So this is a huge opportunity for the U.S. and our allies to step in in places like Africa. At this point in time, yesterday, Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, did come out and say that the Wagner Group would continue to operate in Africa. The big thing that was left unsaid there is what does Wagner Group in Africa even mean going forward? So, while on the surface that might sound like reassurance, it only raises more questions. And none of us know what the future will be for Wagner in Africa, but it's an incredible opportunity for the U.S. to step in and offer a better future.

Mr. Schwartz: Catrina, this has just been amazing. Thank you so much for your analysis and insight on this difficult issue to process.

Ms. Doxsee: Thank you for having me.

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