Skip to main content
  • Share to or
The PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg. June 24, 2023.

Room to breathe As he relocates to Belarus in a deal with the Kremlin, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s next fight will be to keep what he can of Wagner Group

Source: Meduza
The PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg. June 24, 2023.
The PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg. June 24, 2023.

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny has failed. The mercenary leader has avoided criminal prosecution (for now, at least), but he was forced to “leave for Belarus,” as the Kremlin phrased it. It’s impossible to say reliably what he’ll do there or what happens next to Wagner Group’s thousands of warriors, many of whom have seen fierce battle in Ukraine. Meduza special correspondent Lilya Yapparova spoke to several mercenaries, soldiers, and experts for a better grasp of what’s in store for what is now the world’s most infamous private military company.

Contract negotiations

Vladimir Putin has told the men of Wagner Group that they must choose between a future within the Russian military and whatever fate awaits the organization’s remnants in Belarus. So far, it’s unclear how many of these mercenaries will follow their leader into exile. British intelligence estimates that roughly 8,000 fighters joined Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion, but only a fraction of this group may be headed for Belarus. “Just a thousand or so men,” a source in Russia’s Defense Ministry told Meduza. This claim could not be independently verified.

By Prigozhin’s own admission, the basis for his insurrection was the military’s campaign to force Russian mercenaries into official service contracts with the Defense Ministry. President Putin finally endorsed this initiative about a week before the mutiny, saying it was necessary to ensure that “social benefits” reached the men. Realizing correctly that this would shatter his influence, Prigozhin started to telephone officials furiously, lobbying to be transferred to the National Guard instead. 

“They turned him down,” a source close to the Kremlin told Meduza.

There are conflicting reports about how many Wagnerites have accepted contracts with the Defense Ministry. On June 26, Prigozhin claimed that only a “minimal number” of his group had agreed to sign up — just a “percentage or two,” he claimed. Meduza’s source in the Defense Ministry says it’s true that few of the mercenaries have signed military contracts, though he expects that to change. 

“Not everyone went with Prigozhin. Some units remain here in the Special Military Operation zone, some are hanging out in the [self-declared] Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, and others are still in the Krasnodar region,” Meduza learned from a Wagner Group veteran who signed a military contract before the mutiny but remains in contact with the PMC’s senior command.

A former security official familiar with Wagner Group members told Meduza that the mercenaries fighting on the frontlines in Ukraine simply don’t have time for a formal transfer to the Defense Ministry: “They’re on the march from morning until night. So far, nothing has changed for them. They’re operating normally and reinforcing the flanks.”

While it’s assumed that Prigozhin acted largely to protect his own clout, multiple sources also confirm that absorbing Wagner Group into the Defense Ministry will undermine the unit’s combat capacity, eventually dissolving it entirely to plug personnel holes in other formations.

Denis Korotkov, a journalist at the investigative outlet Dossier Center who’s reported for years on Prigozhin and Wagner Group, told Meduza that incorporation into the military spells the end for the PMC. “Within two months, these people will become another Special Combat Army Reserve,” Korotkov explained, referring to a largely ineffective unit created by the military using men from Redut (another absorbed mercenary group).

Amid an armed rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a crew in St. Petersburg begins taking down a billboard advertising PMC Wagner’s local recruiting center. (After the rebellion ended, many of these ads were restored.) June 24, 2023.

Rolling out the welcome wagon

“Mr. Alexander Lukshenko offered to find a solution for PMC Wagner’s continued operations in a legal jurisdiction,” Prigozhin said in an audio clip released on June 26 — the last time he spoke publicly, as of this writing.

By all appearances, the Belarusian president has enjoyed the attention he’s receiving as the supposed peacemaker in the Wagner Group mutiny. At a marathon press conference on June 27, Lukashenko said Wagner fighters who join Prigozhin will share their combat experience with Belarusian soldiers. “They’ll tell us about weapons, which worked well and which didn’t. And about tactics and armaments, and how to attack, and how to defend. It’s invaluable. That’s what we ought to take from the Wagnerites,” the president explained.

Vowing to “keep an eye peeled,” Lukashenko also stressed that hosting the mercenaries would be perfectly safe, perhaps alluding to an incident during the 2020 Belarusian presidential race when police arrested 33 Wagnerites on suspicion of planning to stage riots amid voting. (Moscow blamed the confusion on Kyiv, which tried and failed to convince Minsk to send the captives to Ukraine, and the men were returned to Russia in the end.)

It’s still unclear where most Wagner Group fighters are today. After their convoy turned back from Moscow on Saturday, the men left for the Luhansk region. No one has seen them yet in Belarus.

“I got in touch briefly, and they say they got back and are just washing up, cleaning, and resting for now,” Denis Korotkov told Meduza, adding that it will be hard to miss the group’s “rather noticeable” convoy when it hits the road again.

It’s hard to say what awaits the Wagnerites who do come to Belarus. The news outlet Verska Media reported on June 26 that construction crews are building a field camp 85 miles southwest of Mogilev that will supposedly accommodate up to 8,000 men. Open-source intelligence monitors and other journalists have found no evidence to support this information, however, and even Belarus’s loquacious president hasn’t mentioned it.

Denis Korotkov argues that it would be simpler to clear out an existing campground and turn it over to the mercenaries. “Or they could call some Belarusian brigade back to the barracks at their permanent base and bring Wagner to the vacated grounds,” Korotkov said.

More serious questions about Wagner Group’s future in Belarus concern how the relocation might affect the organization’s operations abroad. Telegram channels with ties to the Belarusian security apparatus already write that the PMC “is just going legit and will continue its work in both Africa and Ukraine.” Lukashenko also said he wouldn’t object to Wagner Group joining the Belarusian army’s ranks.

Multiple sources — including a security official with ties to Wagner Group’s leaders, someone in the Russian Defense Ministry, and two Wagner PMC veterans — told Meduza that Prigozhin might very well retain control over the PMC’s projects in Africa, where the group has been active in nearly a dozen countries across the continent. Over the years, journalists have learned that Wagner mercenaries trade security services, weapons, and political consulting in exchange for access to local natural resources and mining rights. In February 2023, The Financial Times reported that Prigozhin profited some $250 million from such deals with countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Opportunities in Belarusian exile

“Why did Prigozhin take off to Minsk?” asks an ex-mercenary still in contact with some Wagner Group commanders. “Because, no matter how much he shouts about it, he can’t make any moves without the army’s support. You need military aircraft to move heavy equipment and armaments to Syria and Africa. It used to be the Russian Defense Ministry providing him with planes, and now it will be the Belarusian Defense Ministry.”

“They’ll be flying on Batka’s planes,” agrees Marat Gabidullin, a former reconnaissance commander at Wagner Group, who says the Belarusian Air Force has no problems landing at Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, “and Belarusian military aviation has been flying to Libya for a long time now,” he added.

Even with Wagner Group exiled to Belarus, Moscow will retain some control over the PMC’s operations in Africa, Denis Korotkov told Meduza, pointing out that all Belarusian flight paths to Africa pass through Russian airspace. 

More about Prigozhin’s assets

What he leaves behind Yevgeny Prigozhin owns and controls a vast network of ‘trolls,’ media outlets, and profitable businesses. This was his empire before he bet the farm on Wagner Group.

More about Prigozhin’s assets

What he leaves behind Yevgeny Prigozhin owns and controls a vast network of ‘trolls,’ media outlets, and profitable businesses. This was his empire before he bet the farm on Wagner Group.

So far, according to The Washington Post, Wagnerites have not abandoned their checkpoints in Africa. Additionally, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced that the governments of Mali and The Central Africa Republic will maintain their Russian PMC connections. Lavrov also defended Wagner Group’s African activities as “anti-terrorism” work in a region abandoned by “France and other Europeans.” What the senior diplomat didn’t acknowledge is that Russian mercenaries have also aggravated the hostilities in Africa and have themselves committed war crimes, including civilian massacres, robberies, and rape. 

Gabidullin told Meduza that Wagner Group “managed perfectly well” in Africa with 5,000 men. To replace the fighters who don’t follow him to Belarus, Prigozhin can also look for new recruits in Belarus, say multiple sources.

Despite reports that Wagner treats its men as expendable, many soldiers still find the mercenary work more appealing than formal military service. Gabidullin says he believes the group’s command staff will stand by Prigozhin even after the failed mutiny: “No specialist worth his salt will sign a contract with the Defense Ministry, not for any prize. They simply don’t care about you there.” 

Denis Korotkov points out that the Defense Ministry won’t likely welcome Wagner’s current commanders, leaving them with limited options. A reconstituted PMC based in Belarus could be attractive to such men. Korotkov is also confident that Prigozhin will find new people for operations in Africa if he can retain the PMC’s “crystalline lattice” of battle-hardened warriors.

Yet, Meduza’s source in the Russian Defense Ministry questions Wagnernites’ future in Africa and expresses doubts even about the fighters who didn’t join Prigozhin’s rebellion. “They’re no better! Either they’ll be [transferred] to military contracts, or they’ll be removed. Nobody’s irreplaceable. We have alternatives!” he explained. Journalists at The Wall Street Journal have already reported that the Kremlin is moving to seize control of Wagner’s “global empire,” commandeering Prigozhin’s projects without “derailing Russia’s expansion” into Africa and the Middle East.

If the authorities go this route, they could turn to former mercenaries in PMC Redut, some of whom the Defense Ministry assimilated at the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

No exoneration

Though President Putin publicly forgave the mutiny’s rank-and-file participants, calling them “patriots” who were fooled into a rebellion, Russian military police in southern Syria later arrested four Wagner Group senior officers who were responsible for overseeing local PMC facilities and played no role in the insurrection. 

Citing British intelligence, journalists in the U.K. also reported that Russia’s security agencies threatened the families of several Wagner Group commanders, though Meduza’s source familiar with the PMC’s command staff denies any knowledge of such incidents. Korotkov doubts the British claims, as well, arguing that the delayed raid on the PMC Wagner Center building in St. Petersburg suggests that Russia’s security agencies are too inefficient to have zeroed in so quickly on senior Wagnerites’ family members. In fact, this center reopened almost immediately, and the equipment seized from its offices over the weekend has already been returned.

Still, according to Meduza’s Defense Ministry source, Prigozhin’s only real protection is the agreement reached between Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko that drops insurrection charges in exchange for exile to Belarus. “He wasn’t let off,” maintains one source. “His sentence has been delayed.”

While officials have backed away from enforcing Russia’s laws against armed rebellion (not to mention its laws against private military groups), Vladimir Putin has indicated that Prigozhin might face felony charges for fraud and embezzlement. On June 27, in remarks to a gathering of Russian soldiers, the president said he hopes the Wagner PMC “didn’t steal too much” of the 80 billion rubles (nearly $1 billion) he now admits was allocated to the mercenary group between May 2022 and May 2023 alone.

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion has ended, but Meduza’s sources with ties to Wagner Group and security agencies outside the Defense Ministry say they’re either disheartened or upset by the mutiny’s results, even several days later.

One Wagner Group veteran complained to Meduza that the PMC could have taken the capital without a fight. “Because it’s useless to resist when going up against guys with combat experience,” he said before adding, “Well, at least we managed to demonstrate to the whole country the impotence of our ruling elite and our phony generals.”

Another source who is well acquainted with both mercenaries and military personnel in Russia admits that he still refuses to believe that the rebellion sputtered out: “It’s as if they might reach for their guns again at any moment.”

Story by Lilya Yapparova

English-language adaptation by Kevin Rothrock

  • Share to or