What will replace Russia’s Wagner mercenary army?

The Kremlin, the biggest and most infamous private military organization in Russia, claims to have conflicting opinions regarding the future of the Wagner Group in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated on Friday that an explosion, which Western officials assert was triggered by a plane crash, occurred two days after the demise of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner, and his high-ranking officials. Peskov added, “Currently, there is no legally recognized entity of that nature. Consequently, I am unable to provide any further information at this time.”

However, analysts inform Al Jazeera that the battle-hardened fighters of Wagner are too precious to simply disband and release.

Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, may even share his power with the oligarchs or allies of the Kremlin, who are financed by private military companies and state-run intelligence and military services of Russia. Wagner, who has already left, is being torn apart by this situation.

During the 1990s, certain individuals originated from unlawful organizations that sprouted in the previous Soviet Union, certain individuals battled for Moscow in the Chechen conflicts, and certain individuals completed their education in prestigious military and intelligence divisions. Wagner has hired numerous skilled combatants with distinctly diverse histories since 2014.

Last year, thousands of inmates from Russian jails, who were enlisted in Wagner, were promised hefty paychecks and presidential pardons known as “meat marches” in Ukrainian positions.

Only a limited group of people succeeded in surviving in the circumstance that depleted the Ukrainian troops and stopped Kyiv’s counterattack, and an even tinier group chose to stay.

The biggest question is whether the Kremlin would try to preserve the battlefield prowess of the survivors by creating or managing new full-fledged replicas under Wagner.

Both choices appear to be difficult to accomplish at the moment.


‘Nothing quite comparable to it’

What made Wagner stand out was the unprecedented comparison in many James Bond movies, where pale villains, such as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, were portrayed as insubordinate and megalomaniacal. Their obscene diatribes and out-of-the-box thinking, coupled with Prigozhin’s nefarious charisma and business acumen, added to the uniqueness.

Building a business empire, the 62-year-old former prisoner, who was previously referred to as “Putin’s chef” and faced sanctions in Western countries, engaged in the trade of Syrian hydrocarbons, African diamonds, gold, timber, and raw materials.

Establishing various media platforms and Telegram channels, he established a troll operation that interfered in elections across different countries such as Madagascar and the United States. Additionally, he managed catering enterprises and hotels in Russia, and secured profitable security agreements with authoritarian leaders in sub-Saharan Africa.

Wagner was simply the most prominent gem in his collection.

John Lechner, a US author who is compiling years of research in Africa, the Middle East, Russia, and Ukraine for a book about Prigozhin, stated to Al Jazeera, “Wagner served a role far beyond that of a private military company. There truly is no comparable substitute in the foreseeable future.”

Ukraine’s foremost military specialist concurs.

Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, who previously served as the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, informed Al Jazeera, “Prigozhin should be acknowledged for that,” and Wagner possesses its own distinctiveness.

According to Romanenko, Russia’s senior military officials “will unlikely be able to create something comparable in the near future.”

According to him, Wagner’s most precious and deadly asset – experienced and battle-hardened warriors – is available for anyone to seize.

Some structures may need to be relocated as they are well-trained storm troops. Some individuals will be terminated, while others will be dismissed. The process is already underway, and they will separate individuals.

Wagner has been falling apart since Prigozhin’s failed rebellion on June 23.

He said his “march on Moscow” was triggered by a months-long feud with the defense ministry that had sabotaged the ammunition supplies in the Russian capital’s south, approximately 125 kilometers (200 miles) away.

The march also sparked an ultimatum from Moscow, causing each Wagner fighter to sign a contract to become a cog in Russia’s military machine, known for its poor logistics and decision-making ineffectiveness, turning into a quagmire without an end in sight.

Lukashenko brokered a truce between the Kremlin and Prigozhin, guaranteeing that Belarus did not want to relocate fighters who could sign up with Wagner.

Thousands of German Nazis, engaged in World War II, concealed themselves in the dense forests of Belarus and established camps to combat guerrillas.

“The analyst Igar Tyshkevich, who is based in Kyiv and was born in Belarus, informed Al Jazeera that most qualified individuals will become integrated into the Belarusian law enforcement structures and obtain Belarusian citizenship.”

The fresh recruits will support Lukashenko in opposing Moscow’s efforts to completely dominate his ex-Soviet nation with a populace of 10 million.

Tyshkevich stated that Lukashenko will attempt to compel the remaining Wagner fighters to return to Russia, where the military, intelligence agencies, and state corporations are already endeavoring to occupy the void created by Prigozhin’s demise.

For example, Lukoil, Russia’s second-largest energy company, has had its own security company launched by former special intelligence officers of the Soviet-era KGB.

Tyshkevich stated, “Lukom-A, a security service owned by PMC, has actively been boosting its potential military launch. In November, the Kremlin allowed Russian corporations, including Lukoil’s military private companies, to form their own.”

Similarly, he mentioned that they would maintain communication with the remaining parts of Wagner in order to establish their own independent military firms, security firms associated with Putin’s associates, or energy giants controlled by the Kremlin.

Some fighters would prefer to maintain their independence and prefer to become a conventional group of mercenaries or a private military company, like Wagner.

He further stated that individuals who have been “forced to leave” Belarus might choose to join them in combatting in Ukraine, whereas a few have already entered into agreements with the ministry of defense, and others will be integrated into state-owned companies or intelligence agencies.

“But there won’t be many,” Tyshkevich stated. “Wagner will divide into several entities.”

Less strong duplicates

In January, a news presenter from the Kremlin-affiliated Channel One television network stated, “Seasoned combatants headed towards the battlefront driven by their convictions to expel [Ukrainian] nationalists,” as they introduced a report about Fakel (Torch), a different private military company.

The footage showcased a team of twelve disguised “ex-military officers” participating in battle in the Donetsk area of southeastern Ukraine, relentlessly attacking and infiltrating Ukrainian fortifications.

According to media reports, Potok (Flow) and Plamya (Flame) funds support at least two additional private military companies (PMCs) and also fulfills its financial obligations. However, the financial supporters of Fakel were not mentioned by the Kremlin-controlled natural gas producer and exporter, Gazprom.

As of March, Molfar, a Ukrainian open-source intelligence group, reports that there are currently 25 Russian private military companies operating in Ukraine.

They were given names like Redoubt, Anti-Terror Eagle, and Yastreb (Hawk) and primarily hired former military officers.

Molfar asserted that six were “likely” financed by oligarchs like Putin’s longstanding associate Gennady Timchenko and aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, and approximately two-thirds of them purportedly had connections to Russia’s military and espionage agencies.

What brings them together is the Kremlin’s effort to prevent the official engagement and casualties of ordinary Russian military personnel in Ukraine.

According to Pavel Luzin, a Russian defence analyst who is on the run, he stated to Al Jazeera, “Private military contractors are being assembled to circumvent various institutional and other structures and restrictions that are practically impossible to adhere to.”

Many of these private military companies (PMCs) are small and their combatants express dissatisfaction with inadequate logistics and collaboration with other groups.

Said Lechner, their sponsors fulfil two goals: to help the Kremlin avoid another round of mobilisation and to show Putin their loyalty.

“He informed Al Jazeera that Deripaska’s press service stated that Molfar’s allegations were completely untrue as he has never offered any type of assistance, funding, or endorsement to any military corporations or organizations.”

‘Prigozhin’s charm’

If Prigozhin’s companies, which are still considered illegal under Russian law, were to subject their members or sponsors to prosecution, would Moscow disobey them in any way?

But no one has a opportunity to surpass him.

Lechner stated, “It would be challenging for them to find a suitable replacement for one individual – his skill to unite various elements as a logistician, as a manager, but Prigozhin’s charm, and the abundance of military expertise he possesses compared to the rest of the commanders.”

These private military companies are expected to remain financially stable and operational, despite the ongoing conflict in Ukraine – as well as Russia’s aspirations in various regions globally.

Lechner stated, “Russian soldiers of fortune are here to remain. It could potentially take on a less captivating shape, but they have established the demand for themselves and likely for others as well.”