The Wagner Group will continue to disintegrate in the wake of a plane crash that left its leader presumed dead, experts have warned.
Yevgeny Prigozhin and his commander Dmitry Utkin were on board a private jet that smashed into the ground north of Moscow on Wednesday, according to Russia’s civil aviation authority.
Also on the flight was Valery Chekalov, reportedly Prigozhin’s deputy and responsible for all Wagner Group logistics.
All those on the aircraft are believed to have been killed, but Prigozhin’s death has yet to be confirmed on any official channels.
Shashank Joshi, defence editor at The Economist, said the group – reportedly named by Utkin after Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer – may have come to an end in its current form.
“It will have a serious effect on the cohesion of Wagner but of course Wagner, as we know, was already disintegrating even before this plane crash,” he told Sky News.
“We saw this in the sense that they were being pushed out of Africa by Russian military intelligence, displaced by other Russian mercenary groups close to the Russian government, and even in Ukraine.
“They were effectively playing a negligible role on the frontlines after he [Prigozhin] led the capture of Bakhmut back in May.”
As a result, the organisation was “already falling apart”, he said.
Now it is likely that fighters will defect to other groups, with the Russian government moving to consolidate control over what is left.
“[Wagner] was always dependent on Russia’s Defence Ministry for things like heavy weapons, artillery ammunition,” Mr Joshi said.
“We should avoid the sense that it was ever a serious, independent fighting force independent of the Russian government.”
Why did senior Wagner figures fly on the same plane?
Former Wagner fighter Marat Gabidullin said it was odd that Prigozhin, Utkin and Chekalov all appeared to have flown on the same aircraft.
“Yes, this surprised me,” he told Sky News. “Why they did not follow a certain security protocol, why two top people flying together? Yes, I was surprised.”
Regarding whether Prigozhin really had died, Mr Gabidullin said: “As of now, the information is that he has died. My sources also confirm this information.”
Regarding how Wagner forces may react to Prigozhin’s apparent demise, Mr Gabidullin said: “It will all depend on who will be accused of their death, which facts are confirmed.
“There is still no clarity about the cause of the crash.”
Wagner will probably cease to exist – in its present form
Joana de deus Pereira, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said Wagner, as it is at present, with its current “label”, will “probably cease to exist”.
However, she said the “organisation it represents will continue to operate and morph and probably will appear with another branding, with a facelift”.
She added that the “operations, the core operations in Africa, they will continue to exist”.
Wagner’s stronghold in Africa could be eroded
The group has a presence in Africa, where it has been “providing muscle for these African leaders who basically don’t want the West to meddle in their affairs”, Mr Joshi said.
“If you’re an African leader who needs men with guns, then you don’t really care if the badge says Wagner, if the chain of command leads up to Prigozhin or if it’s somebody else, as long as they’re dependable, they’re reliable, and they’re affordable.”
But a “steady erosion” of the group’s influence in these places remains likely, Mr Joshi said.
However, anything that arrives in its place would be “similarly unsavoury” and likely to be controlled by the Kremlin, he added.
What it means for Ukraine and Putin
As for the frontlines in the war with Ukraine, it may make very little difference.
“Wagner just isn’t that important,” Mr Joshi said.
Many will see Prigozhin’s death as revenge by the Russian president following his mutiny against Vladimir Putin two months ago.
But the fact it took him almost eight weeks to act may mean Mr Putin is labelled as weak.
“Prigozhin’s mutiny and the theatrical mode of his death reminds the Russian elite that there are challenges to Putin’s rule out there, that Putin does not always act against them in a decisive way,” Mr Joshi said.
“I don’t think this necessarily means that all challenges to Putin’s rule are done with for the foreseeable future.”