Wagner fractures in Syria, Libya amid conflict with Russia’s Defense Ministry

A month after Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash, Russian authorities are attempting to assert control over the parallel military structure.

“Prigozhin is alive.” The phrase remains among the most popular queries in Russia’s Yandex search engine a month after the crash of the Embraer Legacy jet on Aug. 23 that killed Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Russian media outlets are also speculating about why nothing much is happening with Prigozhin’s foreign and Russian assets so far. Moreover, thousands of Wagner’s mercenaries, despite the legislative and unofficial demands of the Russian Ministry of Defense to move under the control of the agency, continue to conduct combat operations abroad.

Trouble in Mali and the Central African Republic

Some doubt his demise because Wagner continues to survive. Its mercenaries are most active in Mali, the place where Prigozhin recorded his last address on the eve of the plane crash. Wagner’s affiliated Telegram channels are quite full of new photos of Wagner fighters “on a raid,” “in convoys” or “landing from a helicopter.”

For instance, Wagner is actively engaged in combat operations on the side of the Malian Armed Forces in clashes with the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad in the Goa region. Over the past few weeks, two Wagner Mi-8 helicopters and an An-26 transport plane also suddenly crashed in Mali and the Central African Republic, raising more suspicions over the group’s standing with the Kremlin.

In the Central African Republic, for the first time, the body of one of Wagner’s mercenaries fell into the hands of a rebel group known as Return, Reclamation and Rehabilitation. Even without Prigozhin, Dmitri Utkin and Valery Chekalov, who were responsible for combat training and logistics and died in the Aug. 23 crash, Wagner is still involved in serious fighting.

Enter: Yunus-Bek Yevkurov

The diplomatic activity of Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who visited Wagner’s arenas of operation — Syria, Libya, Bamako, Mali, Burkina Faso and Central African Republic — late last month, is not as innocuous to Wagner as the tone of his famous conversation with Prigozhin during the mutiny.

As far as can be judged from both Al-Monitor’s and open data sources, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov is persuading African authorities to reject direct cooperation with Wagner. In return, they are offered official support, military-technical cooperation and private military companies directly affiliated with Russian military intelligence.

The military is reportedly still offering to let Wagner soldiers transfer to another PMC, Redut, which is expanding its presence in Syria and starting to work in Libya. Local authorities — be it the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s so-called Libyan National Army or even the Malian Armed Forces — are not formally resisting Moscow’s will, but contrary to the wishes of the Russian Defense Ministry, they are not initiating the withdrawal of Russian mercenaries.

Brownies for Hifter

Hifter visited Moscow on Sept. 26, according to Al-Monitor sources familiar with Wagner’s work in Libya, not made only because of the devastating flood in Libya, but also concerned establishing an official Russian military facility in Tobruk or Benghazi, as was previously agreed upon during Yevkurov’s August trip.

“It is understandable that Hifter is trying to get more brownie points from the Russian side, but the issue of Wagner’s presence is extremely acute, not only because of the restructuring of the ‘private’ presence that Moscow is now promoting, but also because of the group’s logistical support,” an informed source close to Russian diplomatic corps told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

“There are a lot of problems associated with this, like the Russian agencies’ ban on using Syria’s Hmeimim airbase as a transit hub and conflicts like the one in mid-September,” the source added. Russian authorities asked their ally, the Syrian government, to refuse to cooperate with Wagner following the mutiny in June.

On Sept. 11-12 in Syria’s Homs, the Russian air force almost shot down a Wagner military transport plane coming in for a landing at the T4 airfield. In addition to Russian service members, the plane was also carrying more than 100 Syrian mercenaries recruited by Wagner to fight on Hifter’s side. According to an Al-Monitor source with ties to Wagner, Prigozhin “tried to expand the fleet of aircraft independent of the Defense Ministry and made several purchases” during the Ukraine campaign.

According to Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels, the situation was managed through negotiations between Yevkurov and the mercenaries, who threatened to strike an unofficial Russian military facility in Libya. The Syrian government, which Moscow had asked not to help Wagner with logistics, nevertheless granted mercenaries access to the T4 airfield, which had recently been used by Iranians.

Wagner’s fragmentation

However, Wagner’s current leadership — Prigozhin’s son Pavel, security chief Mikhail Vatanin, current military leader Anton “Lotus” Elizarov and other warlords and civilian functionaries — will not be able to maintain autonomy. The process of fragmentation began immediately after Prigozhin’s death.

First, some of Wagner’s former mercenaries in Redut and the so-called expeditionary corps, have returned to the Ukrainian front in the area of Bakhmut.

Second, some of Wagner’s instructors, in cooperation with the regional authorities of Ukraine’s neighboring Rostov Oblast and a veterans organization, have begun training local territorial defense units.

Third, Russia is preparing for the official transfer of volunteer armed groups under the Russian national guard, Rosgvardiya, and their possible use abroad. Some Wagner mercenaries from the 1st Assault Battalion have reportedly already signed contracts with the agency and were sent to Ukraine before the law was officially adopted.

Yelizarov’s negotiations with the Rosgvardiya on the full re-subordination of the entire PMC under Russia, including foreign divisions, have been stymied by the requirement to sign individual contracts, which segregate the group.

At the same time, the Rosgvardiya does not have any serious experience working abroad and hypothetically can only serve as a formal cover for the actions of Wagner’s remnants.

A serious issue for Wagner is the question of its self-sufficiency in competition with the Defense Ministry, which so far has been wary of acting tougher to avoid a decline in Russian credibility in the countries where the mercenaries are present. Part of the Russian business — Beta, Tourstatus, Lakhta Park Premium, Lakhta Park and Lakhta Plaza — was reassigned to Pavel Prigozhin, but their revenue has shrunk many times over the past year from 2.4 billion to 655 million rubles ($25 million to $6.7 million).

The income from Wagner’s foreign assets (Euro Police, M Invest, Mercury llc, Lobaye Invest and a number of other oil and gold mining companies) was often deposited in anonymous funds and cryptocurrency wallets, and it is unclear whether Prigozhin’s family members or Wagner’s warlords have access to them.

Syria is most complicated

While Wagner’s backbone is still able to maneuver in Africa, the situation in Syria is much more complicated due to the presence of official troops and Wagner’s involvement in oil and gas production, said Al-Monitor’s source with ties to the Russian diplomatic corps.

Wagner’s structures have been receiving a percentage of profits since 2017 for oil and gas production in the territories liberated from IS, but over the years, the Assad government has racked up a considerable debt to Prigozhin’s structures despite fairly regular payments.

According to sources close to Prigozhin’s former structures, Moscow has promised the Syrians to forgive their debt to Wagner in the event of the group departure and its replacement by Redut, but Damascus still fears work disruptions. Those fears have increased since, according to some sources, subsidiaries of JSC Stroytransgaz construction are also going to curtail their work in Syria.

Overall, the Kremlin remains dependent on shadow diplomacy. At the same time, many Russian experts say the disgraced Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who suddenly appeared in Algeria and was fired as commander of the Russian Air Force because of Prigozhin’s mutiny, will operate in the sphere of shadow diplomacy and act under the Kremlin’s protection as a kind of irritant to the top Russian military leadership.

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