Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 21 July 2023


It will be busi­ness as usual for Wag­ner unless the west acts now

If there is one les­son to be learnt from the fal­lout from the mutiny by Wag­ner Group chief Yev­geny Prigozhin, it is that almost every­one is expend­able to Vladi­mir Putin except the goose that lays the golden egg.

For the past dec­ade Prigozhin — a cater­ing mag­nate turned bil­lion­aire mil­it­ary swash­buck­ler — has been just that for the Krem­lin, deliv­er­ing Rus­sian-made mil­it­ary gear around the world in exchange for gold, dia­monds and other pre­cious com­mod­it­ies.

The dust-up over Prigozhin’s mutiny con­tin­ues to roil the upper ranks of Rus­sia’s officer corps: Ivan Popov, who voiced cri­ti­cism of the Krem­lin’s war strategy, has been fired and Gen­eral Sergei Sur­ovikin, a long­time Wag­ner loy­al­ist, is on “hol­i­day” under house arrest. Prigozhin him­self has lost access to luc­rat­ive con­tracts but remains oth­er­wise baff­lingly unscathed. Richard Moore, head of the UK’s Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice, com­men­ted this week that the Wag­ner chief had “star­ted off as a traitor at break­fast, he’d been pardoned by sup­per and two days later he’d been invited for tea”.

What the US and its Nato allies must grasp is that Rus­sia is wed­ded to its policy of export­ing mil­it­ary muscle for hire no mat­ter who the pres­id­ent is, who leads the min­istry of defence or who man­ages its irreg­u­lar para­mil­it­ary forces. To com­bat this, the west will need to move faster to map Wag­ner’s organ­isa­tional struc­tures and learn to track its wide net­work of com­mand­ers, brokers and fin­an­cial col­lab­or­at­ors.

Prigozhin him­self has made clear this week that Wag­ner’s relo­ca­tion to Belarus is little more than a reori­ent­a­tion of the mis­sion of the thou­sands of con­tract sol­diers who look to him for lead­er­ship. Instead of fight­ing on the front lines in Ukraine, the itin­er­ant war­lord long known as “Putin’s Chef” said in a Tele­gram video that he will now train Belarus­ian forces while expand­ing his role as chief logist­i­cian for Rus­sia’s for­ward oper­a­tions in Africa. At least, that is what Prigozhin told Wag­ner troops at their new base near the Belarus­ian town of Osipovi­chi, when he described their new man­date as trans­form­ing the Belarus­ian mil­it­ary into the “second greatest in the world.” Judging by the advanced age and befuddled looks of the Belarus­ian train­ees, that could take some time.

The second aspect of Wag­ner’s new mis­sion — sus­tain­ing rev­enue streams crit­ical to the Krem­lin’s sur­vival and expand­ing Rus­sian sup­ply lines to and from Africa — is already well under way. Cov­ert Rus­sian mil­it­ary air ship­ments of heavy duty weapons have been spot­ted trav­el­ling from Uganda to Belarus, and there have been some speedy pro­mo­tions of Wag­ner com­mand­ers who earned their stripes in the min­eral-rich Cent­ral African Repub­lic. Wag­ner fight­ers con­tinue to rotate in and out of Rus­sian redoubts in Africa unper­turbed, doing their part to slake the Krem­lin’s thirst for gold, dia­monds and tim­ber that can be quickly con­ver­ted to cash.

Mali’s mil­it­ary junta seems so con­fid­ent in the con­tin­ued oper­a­tions of the Wag­ner forces it relies on to enforce power that it has not back­tracked an inch since order­ing UN peace­keep­ers out of the coun­try in June. That’s good news for Prigozhin who, west­ern offi­cials claim, is now equally depend­ent on Mali for smug­gling arms to Ukraine.

All this rein­forces what we have long known: Putin and his trus­ted secur­ity ser­vices lieu­ten­ants have always been in charge of Wag­ner. Indeed, des­pite all the hub­bub about Prigozhin’s mas­tery of grey zone war­fare — polit­ical influ­ence and other oper­a­tions which fall below the threshold of mil­it­ary con­flict — the only evid­ence of this are the arcane laws and secret pres­id­en­tial decrees that per­mit mer­cen­ar­ies such as Wag­ner to deploy thou­sands of con­tract sol­diers around the world. That includes Rostec, Rus­sia’s top arms man­u­fac­turer and chief sup­plier of mil­it­ary hard­ware to dic­tat­ors in the global south. So far neither Wash­ing­ton nor Brus­sels has figured out a strategy to counter what Rus­sia has been selling there.

One more pos­it­ive devel­op­ment is Putin’s pull­back from a planned trip to South Africa after Pre­toria raised con­cerns about the Inter­na­tional Crim­inal Court’s arrest war­rant against the Rus­sian pres­id­ent. Pre­toria has its own repu­ta­tional risks to man­age after the Fin­an­cial Action Task Force put South Africa under increased mon­it­or­ing for fail­ing to com­bat money laun­der­ing. Turn­ing up the heat on account­ab­il­ity efforts could mater­i­ally dis­rupt the Krem­lin’s illi­cit fin­ance net­works.

For Nato, strik­ing while Moscow and Wag­ner forces are still unsettled by the abort­ive mutiny is crit­ical. Now is the time to gather evid­ence so that Putin, Prigozhin and Wag­ner can be held to account for their numer­ous atro­cit­ies.

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