After mutiny, Kremlin wants to unwind stake tied to Wagner mercenary boss

RIGA, Latvia — Still reeling from the failed Wagnerian mercenary rebellion in Moscow, the Kremlin has begun the difficult task of Wagner Prigozhin’s sprawling empire that includes not only shadow mercenaries but also the propaganda media. Wing and internet troll factory notorious for meddling in US elections.

St Petersburg tycoon Prigorzhin, dubbed “Putin’s cook” for his billions in government catering contracts that feed soldiers and kindergartens across Russia, has since agreed on Saturday to stop the mutiny and head to Belarus , He has faded out of people’s sight. Although Belarusian President Lukashenko said Prigozhin had arrived there, he has not yet been seen.

In his absence, the warlord’s businesses have begun to crumble, with his media empire crumbling first. But managing the dissolution, restructuring or takeover of its operations poses challenges for the Russian government. In Africa, for example, Russia has tried to reassure leaders who rely on Wagner for security that the company will continue to operate, but it is not clear that this will work, while also cutting off Prigozhin’s flow of public funds that fund the Prigozhin. Make him rich for decades.

In addition, the Russian military, which relies on Prigozhin’s operations to feed soldiers fighting in Ukraine, cannot afford disruption.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials are grappling with the implications of Prigozhin’s feud with Russian President Vladimir Putin for Russian mercenaries and the formal defense establishment.

General Sergei Surovkin, Ukraine’s deputy war commander, has been detained by Russian authorities, according to U.S. intelligence officials, but they say it is unclear whether his detention is temporary or if he will face punishment for being complicit in Wagner’s rebellion.

Adding to the complexity in Russia is the gray financing Prigozhin used — in part because some of his operations are illegal. Many businesses operate on a cash-only basis, with some creative accounting, as evidenced by the billions of rubles stuffed from vans near Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg and seized by law enforcement after the defection.

“Prigorzhin is not only the Wagner Group, he represents an organization that tries to work on the ideological front, the political front, etc.,” said Russian investigative journalist Denis Korotkov, who first exposed the Wagner Group. “All of this is happening in a tight ecosystem with other aspects of his business.”

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Prigozhin runs Patriot Media Group, a network of websites and blogs that amplifies his message through online platforms and thrives on the Telegram app. This allowed Prigozhin and Wagner to boost their public profile and criticize regular military leaders for mismanaging the war, despite being blacklisted from state television.

Prigorzhin’s online activities also included the notorious troll factory, whose employees were sanctioned by the United States for election meddling. These efforts have morphed into new projects such as Cyber ​​Front Z, which recruits people to make pro-Russian comments while discussing the war in Ukraine on many of the world’s most popular online platforms.

Prigozhin’s website was quickly taken offline by Russia’s internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor, after the insurgency. On Friday night, Yevgeniy Zubarev, editor-in-chief of the group’s flagship website RIA FAN, announced the closure of the entire media group.

“We are shutting down and withdrawing from Russia’s information agenda,” Zubarev said in a surprisingly candid video in which he revealed that Prigozhin started his first disinformation campaign in 2009.

It may have only taken Russian authorities a few days to curb Prigozhin’s online influence, but other ventures, such as his sprawling recruiting network of fighters across Russia; his operations across Africa and the Middle East; and his catering company — — the backbone of the entire empire — will be harder, if not impossible, to unwind.

Although Prigozhin was not present in Belarus, there are reports that a camp is being built in Belarus after Lukashenko brokered a deal to end the insurgency. Wagner’s recruiting efforts in Russia appeared to be functioning as of Friday, although most of their VKontakte social media pages, the main recruiting tool, were offline.

A Wagner recruiter contacted by The Washington Post said the group has no plans to sign a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry and is actively recruiting. The recruiter also denied reports that the group was moving to Belarus.

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Local St. Petersburg news outlet Bumaga reported earlier this week that recruitment continued, including at local gyms and fight clubs as a “war in Ukraine” despite Russian officials saying Wagner would no longer participate in the war in Ukraine, which the Kremlin is still referring to. special military operations”.

The amount of money involved is huge.

By Putin’s own admission, Prigozhin’s catering business raked in at least $1 billion last year through government-awarded contracts to feed tens of thousands of soldiers on the Ukrainian front. These catering contracts have been the main vehicle used by the Russian government to finance Prigozhin and his deals.

Prigorzhin’s main company, the Concord Company, and its subsidiaries provided food and other services, almost certainly at premium prices, and then used the excess revenue to finance unofficial activities, including mercenary groups.

“A group of companies operated by Concord has been supplying food to members of the Russian Armed Forces since 2006,” Prigozhin wrote to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in June. Revenues from the Russian Federation are then used to fund projects in Africa, Syria and other countries, contributing to the promotion of Russian national interests amounting to 147 billion rubles as of May 2023 [about $1.7 billion]”.

Replacing a supplier of this magnitude will be difficult, especially as Russian fighter jets try to fend off a Ukrainian counteroffensive. Any shortfall in restaurant revenue could have a domino effect on other businesses that depend on those cash flows.

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While Putin said Wagner fighters would be allowed to join Prigozhin in Belarus, early indications were that the mercenary group could shrink significantly in size. Putin essentially offered Wagner fighters three options: follow Prigozhin into exile, join the regular Russian army, or return home.

It is unclear how many fighters joined the rebellion or sided with Prigozhin. Prigozhin claimed that his forces numbered 25,000 fighters, but the actual number is likely to be lower. According to U.S. estimates, there are about 10,000 contractors in Wagner’s force in Ukraine — a more loyal and well-trained part of the organization. The rest were inmates recruited from prisons who suffered heavy casualties in fighting in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

“I would be surprised if Prigozhin’s paramilitary forces numbered thousands,” said Ruslan Leviev, a military analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent Russian open-source intelligence organization. To the Ministry of Defense. Access to funding, tenders and media empires is cut off. Who will pay their salaries? If Prigozhin is not receiving corrupt funds in return now, why does he need them?”

Russia has other private military companies, but none seem to be able to replace Wagner in Africa. For years, Wagner in Africa has been an unofficial extension of the Kremlin’s efforts to exert influence and weaken American and European influence.

Asked who might replace Wagner, investigative journalist Korotkov said: “No one.” “Technically, you can find some other subcontractors, but Prigozhin has weight and competence there. “

“Anyone who tries to get in there will probably start off by looting funds and will be hacked to death somewhere in the jungle,” he added. “Therefore, there is no comparable figure in Russia who can take on this heavy responsibility.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that it was up to African countries to decide whether to continue the security contract with Wagner.

The two countries where Wagner has the greatest influence on the continent are the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, and the leaders of both countries have stressed that their initial links were with the Kremlin, not with paramilitary groups.

Fidel Guangica, a senior adviser to CAR President Faustin-Archanche Touadera, said the country initially signed a security contract with Moscow: “We didn’t know Wagner. We didn’t sign with Wagner. We signed with Moscow. The Kremlin signed the deal,” Guangjika said.

But Guangjica also acknowledged that Russia eventually sent Wagnerian soldiers, who he said “saved democracy in the Central African Republic.” He said “the entire population” was satisfied with the contractor’s performance, dismissing reports of atrocities committed by Wagner’s soldiers as “fake news.”

According to Sentinel, which investigates war crimes, conflict and corruption in Africa, Wagner controlled all military operations outside the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, and led a “widespread, systematic and orchestrated campaign of mass murder, torture and rape”. “Across the country.

The Sentinel said the mercenary group had trained and equipped a dozen militiamen.

“In the Central African Republic, Wagner perfected the blueprint for state takeover, backing a criminal state hijacked by Central Africans. [Republic] “The President and his inner circle have amassed military power, secured access to and looted valuable minerals, and terrorized the population,” the Sentinel wrote in a report released Tuesday.

Gouandjika said no changes are planned. “Wagner saved the Central African Republic,” he said. “At the moment, we are with Wager. But whether we stay with Wager is not up to us. It’s up to Russia … we have faith in Russia.”

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But even if Moscow decides on Wagner’s presence in the country, the group’s roots in the country may now be too deep. Martin Ziegler, former prime minister of the Central African Republic and current opposition figure, said Touadera had “trapped the wolves into a trap” by allowing mercenaries to “do anything and ignore nobody” and operate in an already fragile region. “. nation.

“The biggest threat is not from the armed groups or the opposition; it’s from the armed groups or the opposition. It’s coming from Wagner,” Ziegler said. “They’ve infiltrated all the systems. At the heart of the military, the economy, the timber industry, politics, airports – everything. They have all the power. “

At this point, Ziegler said, Touadela was completely Wagner’s “hostage.”

An analyst in Bangui, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation, said the Wagner contractor remained at the base as of Thursday and there had been no notable changes in the capital. “It’s safe to say they’re here to stay in the short term,” said John Lechner, an expert on Wagner’s activities in Africa.

“Even if there are management changes, I think personnel changes will be relatively slow,” Lechner said.

As the Kremlin has struggled to shake off the shackles of its once loyal warlords, it has also become clear that Prigorzhin is the glue holding a divided empire together, just as many aspects of modern Russia depend on one man: Putin Same.

“In the absence of Mr. Prigozhin himself, the Wagner Group either ceased to exist or degenerated into a completely different organization, unable to carry out the same level of activity,” Korotkov said.

Ilyushna and Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia; Chason from Dakar, Senegal; and Hudson from Washington.

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