August 24, 2023

Institute for the Study of War: Wagner mercenary group heading for shutdown

Institute for the Study of War

The Wagner Group will likely no longer exist as a quasi-independent parallel military structure following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s almost certain assassination of Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin, and reported Wagner logistics and security head Valery Chekalov on August 23. The death of Wagner’s central leadership disrupts Wagner’s ability to reverse the effects of the Kremlin’s and the Russian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) campaign to weaken, subsume, and destroy the organization following the June 24 armed rebellion. The Russian MoD has reportedly established private military companies (PMCs) that have been recruiting current and former Wagner personnel to assume control over Wagner’s operations abroad. Russian sources claimed that the Kremlin refused to pay the Belarusian government for Wagner’s deployment to Belarus and that financial issues were already leading to reduced payments that were causing Wagner fighters to resign. Satellite imagery from August 1 and 23 shows that Wagner had dismantled almost a third of the tents at its camp in Tsel, Asipovichy, Belarus in the previous month, suggesting that the effort to weaken Wagner may have resulted in a notable flight of Wagner personnel from the contingent in Belarus. Some milbloggers denied claims that Wagner fighters are dismantling their camp in Tsel, however. The Ukrainian Resistance Center reported on August 23 that an unspecified number of Wagner personnel at camps in Belarus began preparations to return to Russia following Prigozhin’s death. The central Wagner leadership had brought Wagner to the height of its independence during the offensive to capture Bakhmut and was attempting to retain some semblance of that independence in the aftermath of Wagner’s rebellion. The elimination of this central leadership likely ends any remaining means Wagner had to operate independently of the Russian MoD. It remains unclear whether the Kremlin intends for Wagner to completely dissipate or intends to reconstitute it as a much smaller organization completely subordinate to the Russian MoD. A third option—restoring Wagner as a quasi-independent organization under a new commander loyal to the Kremlin—is possible but unlikely.

Putin delivered a brief de facto eulogy of Prigozhin and reportedly deceased Wagner leadership on August 24, and portrayed Prigozhin as his loyal subordinate up until his death, the armed rebellion notwithstanding. Putin characterized Prigozhin as having a “difficult fate” in which he made “serious mistakes,” and Putin noted that he had known Prigozhin since the early 1990s. Putin notably stated that Prigozhin “achieved the necessary results both for himself and what I [Putin] asked him for – for a common cause, as in these last months.” Putin’s comment implies that Prigozhin had been fulfilling Putin’s orders recently and throughout their acquaintance and notably refrains from suggesting that Prigozhin had ever betrayed Putin, but subtly indicates that Prigozhin’s loyalty through the years was not enough to offset the “serious mistake” of launching a rebellion against the Russian military leadership. Putin’s speech largely confirms ISW’s prior assessment that Prigozhin did not intend to oust Putin during his June 24 rebellion and instead saw himself as loyal to Putin while seeking to force Putin to fire the Russian military leadership as he had been demanding. A Russian insider source, citing an unnamed individual who knew Prigozhin, claimed that Prigozhin was confident that Putin would forgive him. Prigozhin likely underestimated how seriously his rebellion had personally humiliated Putin. Prigozhin had also apparently overestimated the value of his own loyalty to Putin. Putin places significant value on loyalty and has frequently rewarded loyal Russian officials and military commanders even when they have failed. Prigozhin’s rebellion was an act of significant insubordination despite his claim that he rebelled out of loyalty to Russia. Putin’s statement was therefore a warning to those currently loyal to Putin that some mistakes are too serious for loyalty to overcome.

Ukrainian forces conducted a limited raid on the western shore of occupied Crimea on August 24. Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) posted footage and announced that Ukrainian forces landed on the shores near Olenivka and Mayak (both 116km northeast of Sevastopol). The GUR reported that Ukrainian forces skirmished with Russian forces and raised a Ukrainian flag prior to leaving the shore. Most Russian sources dismissed the landing as insignificant, but some prominent milbloggers expressed concern about Russian defensive vulnerabilities in the western Black Sea and western Crimea.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Wagner Group will likely no longer exist as a quasi-independent parallel military structure following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s almost certain assassination of Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner founder Dmitry Utkin, and reported Wagner logistics and security head Valery Chekalov on August 23.
  • Putin delivered a brief de facto eulogy of Prigozhin and reportedly deceased Wagner leadership on August 24, and portrayed Prigozhin as his loyal subordinate up until his death, the armed rebellion notwithstanding.
  • The Wagner Council of Commanders have notably not released a public statement following the downing of Prigozhin’s plane.
  • Putin’s almost certain assassination of Wagner leadership has made it very clear that the Kremlin will be outwardly hostile to those that attempt to secure independence for their own parallel military structures.
  • The Russian information space largely refrained from linking the Kremlin and the Russian MoD to Prigozhin’s and Utkin’s assassination.
  • Ukrainian forces advanced closer to the Russian second line of defense in the Robotyne area in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 24, further widening their breach of Russian defensive lines in the area.
  • Ukrainian Southern Operational Command Spokesperson Captain First Rank Nataliya Humenyuk reported that Russian forces are conducting additional lateral redeployments from Kherson Oblast to the frontline in Zaporizhia Oblast, suggesting that Ukrainian forces have further degraded Russian defensive lines in the area.
  • Russian forces conducted offensive operations along the Kupyansk-Svatove-Kreminna line, near Bakhmut, along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line, and in western Zaporizhia Oblast on August 24, and reportedly advanced.
  • Ukrainian forces conducted offensive operations along at least two sectors of the front on August 24 and advanced near Bakhmut and in western Zaporizhia Oblast.
Share the Post: