Yevgeny Prigozhin, flamboyant Russian warlord and head of the Wagner Group, was killed in his private plane on August 23, along with Wagner’s second-in-command, Colonel Dmitry Utkin, the chief of combat operations. The puzzle of how Prigozhin met his end—reports suggest an air-defense missile, a bomb, or even a problem with his plane’s mechanics—is less important than the path Wagner and Russia will take in the aftermath of his death. This special edition of Hudson Institute’s Ukraine Military Situation Report by Senior Fellow Can Kasapoǧlu will focus on how Prigozhin’s death affects Wagner’s leadership, its mercenary business, and the role of private military companies within Russia.
1. The Road Ahead for Wagner’s Leadership
With Prigozhin and Utkin dead, Wagner’s stakeholders must decide who will lead the mercenary group. Vengeance may well top the agenda of whomever assumes the mantle of leadership. Many of Wagner’s key personnel, including Prigozhin’s bodyguard Sergei Plashchenko, did not join their erstwhile chief for his fatal journey, and defiantly attended the August 29 funeral of Wagner’s logistics and security chief Valery Chekalov, who also died onboard. In 2016, Plashchenko brawled with agents of the Russian security services when they tailed Prigozhin’s motorcade in St. Petersburg. Sufficient remnants of Prigozhin’s inner circle remain to cause concern for Vladimir Putin.
Yet it is difficult to predict the most credible claimants to the mercenary throne because so much is contingent upon the Kremlin’s intentions. Will Putin prefer to use Wagner as a shadowy extension of Russian power, enabling him to claim plausible deniability for nefarious acts? Would he rather its fighters function as shock troops in Ukraine? Or will he opt to keep Wagner entirely in Africa as a capable overseas deterrent?
The shortlist of contenders for Wagner chief comprises three strong candidates with different backgrounds, each from a pillar of the Russian security apparatus: a former military intelligence general responsible for sensational assassinations in NATO territory, a former internal security colonel who fought with the Soviet expedition in Afghanistan, and a former officer of the airborne troops (VDV) who massacred Ukrainian servicemen in Soledar. Let us take a closer look at each.
The veteran of military intelligence is General Andrey Averyanov. Some news outlets have suggested that Averyanov, a veteran of the Russo-Chechen wars who has risen through the ranks of Russian military intelligence (GRU), is the most logical candidate to succeed Prigozhin. Should Averyanov lead the organization, Wagner will likely evolve to reflect Averyanov’s intelligence background. During his time as a GRU major general, Averyanov commanded Unit 29155, a branch responsible for several high-profile assassinations, including the 2018 poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom. Unit 29155 was reportedly even responsible for the thwarted 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro, a last-ditch Kremlin effort to reverse that nation’s path to NATO membership.
The internal security colonel considered to be another possible heir to the Wagner throne is Colonel Andrey Troshev. Colonel Troshev hails from the notorious OMON and SOBR units of the interior ministry that are responsible for pacifying unrest and tackling terrorist threats. Troshev is a highly decorated figure, holding two Orders of the Red Star for his efforts during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He also reportedly fought heroically during the Russian capture of Palmyra, Syria, in 2016. While Troshev has looked fit for the job during his rare media appearances, Russian media have claimed that his issues with alcoholism once forced his admission to the hospital. Troshev is a founding figure of Wagner and one of the commanders of the organization’s Syria expedition, so he would likely face few internal challenges to his loyalty.
The third option for Wagner chief, VDV officer Anton Elizarov, would represent a generational change in its high command. Unlike General Andreyev and Colonel Troshev, both veteran figures in their 60s, Elizarov is an active-duty Wagner commander in his early 40s. He has served in Libya, the Central African Republic, and Ukraine, where he participated in the fight for Soledar. Elizarov’s combat record checks all the right boxes for Wagner, demonstrating competence across the shadow army’s complete global portfolio, from Ukraine to the Middle East and core African battlegrounds. Before joining Prigozhin’s gang, Elizarov served in many elite units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, including the 7th Guards Mountain Air Assault Division of the VDV as well as the GRU’s special forces detachments. Under Elizarov, who uses the call sign Lotus in military communications, Wagner would likely come to resemble a private military company more than a network of assassins and death squads, as it likely would under the leadership of General Averyanov.
Though these three soldiers are the likeliest candidates to lead Wagner in the wake of Prigozhin’s death, Putin and his intelligence services may pick some other figure in an effort to further rein in the shadow army. Regardless, the new chief’s background and persona will shape Prigozhin’s legacy and the future of the organization.
2. Wagner’s High-Profile Interests in Africa
Whatever that future holds, Wagner is likely to remain the face of Russian neocolonialism in Africa. Given the group’s history in the Sahel and other sub-Saharan regions of the continent, the Russian elite will likely try to tame the Wagner tiger to ride it there rather than kill it.
Wagner’s reach in Africa is notoriously deep. Wagner-affiliated companies, such as Lobaye Invest, M Invest, and Meroe Gold, exploit vast natural resources from Sudan to Mali. The Ndassima gold mine in the Central African Republic has recently become one of the shadow army’s most important assets. To exploit its riches, which can generate up to $1 billion in a year, Wagner established a shell company, the Madagascar-registered Midas Resources, an entity sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department. In 2022, Midas secured a very lucrative, long-term contract for the Ndassima mine, turning Prigozhin’s mercenary army into a force in the gold mining industry. In league with Midas Resources, Wagner has also established a shell company, Diamville, for its diamond-mining interests in the Central African Republic. The company has developed a rich clientele from the Gulf to Europe.
Russia’s elite will not allow any senior Wagner figure to possess the revenues flowing in from these concerns. Yet it is also unlikely that the Kremlin will completely dismantle Wagner and risk losing a critical asset in Africa. This report will continue to assess Wagner’s legacy by following the fate of its affiliated shell companies.
3. Prigozhin’s Death and the Growth of Private Military Companies in Russia
While Wagner is by far the most famous private military company in Russia, it is not the only one. Sociologist Max Weber once defined the state as an organization that successfully “claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory,” and for much of the last century, the Kremlin has held that monopoly across the vast Eurasian steppe. The proliferation of private military groups within Russia, however, is undermining Moscow’s Weberian monopoly on violence. This presages trouble inside Russia’s borders.
The rise of security and military companies in Russia started with the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, the downsizing of the Russian military created legions of demobilized personnel. Former protectors of the Soviet Union left out in the cold, these fighters continued doing what they did best with the private armies that would employ them.
The collapse of the Soviet Union provided them with fertile training grounds to hone their craft as mercenaries. From Transnistria to Chechnya and Abkhazia, the post-Soviet armed conflicts of the 1990s witnessed the Russian intelligence and defense establishment mobilizing these soldiers of fortune in the service of its interests. When conflict erupted in the former Yugoslavia, Russia poured its paramilitaries into the Balkans, and some served under the influential Rubikon private security company.
Fast-forward to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the seed of paramilitarism within Russia has become an unmanageable growth. Even the Russian energy company Gazprom has recently entered the mercenary business, deploying its security firm Gazpromneft Security to protect its oil and gas facilities, as well as a small private military company, Potok, the once-hidden existence of which was interestingly publicized by Prigozhin himself.
Prominent Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, once a patron of Prigozhin’s information network, has enthusiastically deployed his paramilitaries to Ukraine. The Chechen strongman seeks to transform his combat formations into a private military company that might fill the vacuum left by Prigozhin’s demise. Even Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has laid the groundwork to establish a rival private entity to Wagner, the Patriot, which is currently sanctioned by the US Treasury Department.
Russia’s defense ministry has recently tried to rein in these private military companies by forcing their fighters to sign contracts with the state. But the Kremlin is finding that it cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Its official combat formations cannot restore Russia to great power status on their own, especially when promotions in the armed forces are dependent on loyalty and internal politics rather than military prowess. Thus, mercenaries find themselves indispensable to a government desperate to win a stumbling war.
If Putin fails in Ukraine, the country’s fractured military landscape will likely drive its political destiny. Wagner’s aborted mutiny was merely a symptom of this disease plaguing the Russian state. Prigozhin’s removal, spectacularly orchestrated as it was, will only serve as a palliative.