Putin will struggle to contain the monster he himself helped create

After the failed uprising of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Vladimir Putin now faces the question of what to do with Wagner’s forces in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. His options are limited.

Colin B. Clark

Colin B. Clark He is the Director of Research at The Soufan Group, a New York-based security and intelligence consulting firm.

For years, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private army quietly functioned as an extension of Russian foreign policy. Thousands of Wagner mercenaries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa helped the Kremlin secure natural resources and wield influence. In addition, President Vladimir Putin could easily distance himself from the group’s unsavory alliances and ruthless tactics.

In Syria and Libya, Wagner fighters support rulers like Bashar al-Assad and Khalifa Haftar in exchange for oil and gas revenues. In Madagascar and Sudan, Wagner advised governments on how to suppress protests, launch disinformation campaigns, and interfere with elections. In Mali and the Central African Republic, military juntas depend on Wagner for stability, while Wagner can extract gold, diamonds, and timber.

Prigozhin’s rebellion exposed Russia’s dependence on Wagner and other private military companies, and raised questions about the future of Russian influence around the world. The incident put the Kremlin in a difficult position: on the one hand, it wants to preserve Wagner’s sources of income and influence abroad, and on the other hand, it wants to refute the idea that the group was an independent entity at all.

Three options

Putin has some options on the Wagner issue. But neither option is likely to work well for Russia.

In a speech last weekend, Putin said that Wagner fighters who did not take part in the uprising could sign contracts with the Russian military. But this measure, which Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tried to introduce at the beginning of June, was one of the main reasons for Prigozhin’s mutiny.

Even if the Wagner fighters decided to join the Russian military units en masse, it would not be easy for Moscow to integrate them. Wagner’s forces have a bad reputation, and the militants have already been accused in several regions of torturing, kidnapping, and executing civilians.

Putin could also leave Wagner’s foreign operations unchanged and appoint a new leader. This way Moscow’s foreign agenda will not be disrupted. Wagner’s presence in Africa is huge, with ongoing activities in Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. When asked immediately after the failed uprising what would happen to Wagner’s forces in Africa, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russian “trainers” would continue to work in Mali and the Central African Republic.

But this, too, can get messy. If Wagner’s men remained loyal to Prigozhin, installing a new figurehead with the Kremlin seal could produce poor results. Prigozhin was revered by his fighters, and it is questionable whether they would accept a new leader.

A large recruitment poster of Wagner has been removed from the street scene.A.P.’s photo

Finally, Russia could try to completely disband Wagner and distribute his fighters among other private armies. For example, there is Patriot, a group that has ties to Shoigoe and is considered an important competitor to Wagner. The organization carries out operations in Burundi, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Syria and Yemen. There is also the company ENOT, which was founded by Russian nationalist Igor Mangushev. The group has some experience abroad, but is far less influential than Wagner. Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, has also developed its own army, but its main goal is to protect oil and gas infrastructure.

None of these other Russian groups have the stature of Wagner. Nor do they possess the capabilities that make Wagner indispensable to the Kremlin in managing foreign operations.

There is no plan

Kremlin pundits try to predict which path Putin will choose, but the Russian leadership has sent mixed signals in recent days. The Russian government’s assurances to leaders in Africa and the Middle East that Moscow will manage Wagner appear to run counter to the large-scale dismantling of the Kremlin in recent days.

This is at least clear amid the murky coverage: Putin appears to have no plan for what happens next with Wagner. He would almost certainly struggle to contain the monster he himself helped create.

© New York times

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