Why Wagner still matters

Two weeks ago, Russia appeared to be close to a new revolution threatening Putin and his government. Vevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, agreed to relocate its troops to Belarus after calling off a march on Moscow to potentially remove the Russian leadership. There were negotiations and, in the end, Russia agreed to absorb many of the fighters into Russia’s regular army. The Wagner Group would no longer be a separate fighting force. 

At this point, Prigozhin is in Russia, supposedly in St. Petersburg, according to Belarus’s president Lukashenko, who brokered the pact. Lukashenko said many of the Wagner forces remain in their bases in southern Russia and that some are still in the eastern parts of Ukraine. 

The continued presence of the businessman-turned-warlord Prigozhin points to an outsize role he had gained not only in Russia and Ukraine, but also as part of Moscow’s broader project to assert greater geopolitical influence across the Middle East and Africa, where Wagner is an important lever in supporting authoritarian leaders and extracting gold and other precious resources. Wagner has little by little gotten intertwined both financially and militarily with the Russian state. 

Since Wagner’s march on Moscow against perceived weak military leadership, incompetence and for squandering resources, the Russian government has tried to downplay the event and foreign minister Lavrov dismissed the insurrection as little more than scuffle. Russian state television has repeatedly aired news segment exposing Prigozhin’s lavish lifestyle, trying to weaken his influence. Moves have also been made to strip him of his media companies, another core element in his empire. 

Though Wagner has lost thousands of troops in Ukraine, the paramilitary force has been responsible for the only gains in recent months, and Prigozhin’s allegations of corruption among the military leadership and how it has hampered the campaign have resonated widely among ordinary Russians. He retains his chief asset: the tens of thousands of Wagner soldiers who still follow him. Under the deal with Russia, Prigozhin’s fighters had the choice to either join the regular Russian army and continue fighting in Ukraine or move to Belarus with the Wagner chief. 

At this point, the Wagner troops are loyal to him and after all, they are mercenaries. Prigozhin may be the only person that the Wagner troops listen to, especially the hard-core fighters. At this point, it seems that the Russian miliary has chosen to remain pro-Wagner as they still need its services. Also, Russia can’t risk another march on Moscow or even a civil war. Short-term, the Wagner troops will keep fighting in Ukraine and other areas of the world, but long-term it is likely that the march on Moscow will not be forgotten. 

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