Wagner Uprising 2023 – the new leader of the mercenaries


Lerato Khumalo

A year ago, the Wagner group’s uprising in Russia turned a lot of things upside down. But what has happened to the mercenaries since then? The traces point to Africa.

A year ago, the situation in Russia escalated: the notorious head of the Wagner mercenary group called for an uprising. Yevgeny Prigozhin was fed up with the Russian Defense Ministry allegedly holding back important ammunition deliveries for his mercenaries. Prigozhin had a clear opinion of the ministry’s leadership anyway: he considered Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov to be incompetent. This had to stop.

On June 23, 2024, Prigozhin withdrew his mercenaries from Ukraine and then had them march from Rostov-on-Don towards Moscow. Large parts of the world were watching Russia with bated breath. Does Prigozhin want to stage a coup against the Kremlin leadership? Will there be fighting between mercenaries and the army in the middle of Russia?

None of this happened. Just one day after the revolt began, it was history again. Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko allegedly mediated between the Kremlin and Prigozhin.

  • Revolt of the Wagner mercenaries: Was the coup against Putin just a fake?

The mercenary chief initially got off lightly, but was considered to be on the ropes. Last August, there was another bombshell: Prigozhin and the entire Wagner leadership team crashed in a plane near Moscow – the cause is unknown. The mercenary group then retreated into the shadows and initially remained less conspicuous. So is the machinations of the brutal private army over? No, says Wagner expert Karen Philippa Larsen in an interview with t-online.

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The logo of the Wagner mercenary group. (Source: IMAGO/Taidgh Barron/imago)

t-online: Ms. Larsen, since the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the general public has been quiet about the Wagner mercenary group. At most, there are rumors about Wagner’s activities. Does the private army still exist?

Karen Philippa Larsen: The Wagner group still exists, but in a very different structure than we knew it under Yevgeny Prigozhin’s leadership. Some Wagner mercenaries are still active in Ukraine, but they are linked to the Russian National Guard, which is directly subordinate to the Kremlin. Then there are Wagner groups in Africa. But these are also much more closely linked to state structures than before. Putin has nationalized the mercenary group in a way.

Please explain this in more detail.

It is, of course, somewhat paradoxical. When we say that a company is nationalised, it means that it was private to begin with. Private armies are usually just that, but Wagner was never a completely private company.

Although the mercenary group worked largely independently of the Kremlin before Prigozhin’s death, it always acted in the interests of Russia. It was never a private army in the classic sense, carrying out orders for any client with sufficient financial resources. Wagner only provided his services to those whose interests were also the interests of the Kremlin.

And ultimately, of course, Wagner was also dependent on the Kremlin. Without their proximity to the Russian leadership, they would not have received any weapons. And without the support of the mercenaries, Putin would have to do without an instrument of power that is important to him.

(Source: Inge Lynggaard Hansen)

Karen Philippa Larsen conducts research at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) on private armies in Russia, especially the Wagner Group. She examines the mercenary groups as actors in national and international politics.

So what has changed in the structure of the mercenary army?

Much of what is currently happening with the Wagner Group is still in flux. It seems as if the new leaders of the mercenaries have not yet found a new structure. However, this is also because several other commanders died in the plane crash, in addition to Prigozhin and Dmitri Utkin, the military leader of the organizations. A power vacuum has emerged within the group.

Which actors are now moving into this vacuum?

On the one hand, there is of course Pavel Prigozhin, the son of the former leader. Compared to his father, he is less public and rarely appears on social media, as Yevgeny Prigozhin did. Nevertheless, he has taken over the remains of his father’s corporate conglomerate. Pavel Prigozhin is now responsible for the business side of Wagner’s operations. And he is also said to be responsible for the group’s new position close to the Kremlin and the National Guard.