Are the cracks in the Kremlin increasing?
The fate of the Wagner Group after the death of Prigogine
According to Iran Gate, the end of life for the founders and charismatic leaders of the Prigogine and Dmitry Utkin and other important members of the organization in the plane crash in the Tver region on August 24th will mark a season of uncertainty and turmoil for the Wagner Group.
The news of the death of the head of the private paramilitary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigogine, raises many questions about the future activities of mercenaries in various fields, including issues related to geopolitics and the balance of power in the Kremlin. After leaving the battlefield in Ukraine, where it once again proved its important and influential role in maintaining positions gained since the start of Russia’s invasion, the Wagner Group was forced to reorganize and redefine its goals.
After the Justice March led by Prigogine in June, the group was compelled to undergo a restructuring and redefine its objectives. This march had initiated the process of integrating Wagner mercenaries into the official Russian army. Gradually, Wagner’s performance weakened and a process of erosion began. They relocated their headquarters from Russia to Belarus and focused on operations in Africa.
The departure of charismatic founders and leaders of the Wagner Group, such as Prigozhin and Outkin, along with other important members of the organization, following the plane crash last week in the Tver region, has not only caused deep mourning among the group’s mercenaries, but also put the survival of this group at risk. According to Radio Liberty, more than 100 tents out of 273 present have been packed up, and around 2,000 Wagner fighters have left Belarus.
In Telegram channels related to the Wagner Group, there is talk of transfers to Africa, and based on established theories, experts expect that other private military companies, such as Gazprom Patriot or Redut, belonging to Eligarshy Gennady Timchenko, are undergoing changes and preparations that could allow the Kremlin to maintain its influence in Africa.
The option of merging Wagner mercenaries into the Russian army, which these days is being demonstrated through memorial ceremonies in various Russian cities, does not seem very appropriate or easy. Furthermore, one should not ignore or completely dismiss the hypotheses of retaliatory or terrorist actions in Russia by Wagner personnel against military officials, politicians, and certain government institutions. However, some supporters of Wagner have made statements with the aim of calming spirits and urging them not to reveal themselves, but to wait for further signals, which could come from Sergei Chubko, the commander of the garrison in Belarus.
Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine, Volodymyr Havrylov, believes that Prigozhin’s death signifies the end of Wagner. The entire organization relied on the charisma of its leader and deputy founder, and with their departure, nothing can function as before and move forward. There are still many mercenaries, but they are demoralized, lacking funding, and lack a coherent path.
The most prominent fact is that there are no significant consequences for engaging in Ukraine, as the Russian Ministry of Defense had previously organized the military hierarchy, including the duties and positions of Wagner members, to confront another wave of organized war. In terms of domestic politics, the killing of Peregin could be an opportunity for President Vladimir Putin to strengthen his reputation among the general public and, more importantly, among the Kremlin elites.
In a video message in June, the President of Russia said that traitors to the homeland will be punished, but since then many Russian citizens and various analysts have always been surprised at how Peregin continues to move freely and has not been arrested, even after the uprising and meeting with the Kremlin leader.
Therefore, the Preyugin case has initiated a series of speculations, hypotheses, and scenarios that can effectively be summarized in two Russian concepts. On one hand, it refers to a confidential agreement between Putin and Preyugin, where everything that has happened since June is nothing more than a masquerade, a military doctrine of Russia, meaning the use of deception and various denials to conceal true intentions. This allowed Putin to identify traitors and enemies within his army and the political scene, while enabling Preyugin to exit the stage and disappear from the sight of his numerous enemies.
On the other hand, the Razborka debate revolves around settling scores, often with violence, between the different factions that make up Russia’s vertical power structure. In recent months, we have witnessed intense clashes, more than just verbal disputes, between Wagner’s chief and the heads of the army and security organizations. It is highly likely that we will never be certain which hypothesis prevails.
However, with the departure of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, President Vladimir Putin wants to demonstrate that he is politically strong and firmly holds the reins of power, just as he has managed the differences between elites and exploited them to his advantage, just as he has done since he first came into power.
Of course, this does not mean that Putin is a weak leader. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the gradual erosion of the Kremlin’s stability and weakened the political stability of the country, which is a fundamental principle of Putinism. However, it is still too early to say that Putin’s weakness will lead to his dismissal and a change of regime.
Currently, the plane crash with the main Wagner team eliminates the existing tensions in the Kremlin, considering the two important upcoming elections: the local elections on September 10, including the election of the mayor of Moscow, and the presidential elections in March 2024. Beyond the expected weak results due to executive and legal constraints, due to repressive policies towards non-parliamentary opponents and the monopolization of government media for President Vladimir Putin, these elections are important.
To avoid any political scandal that could destabilize election campaigns, the Kremlin leader will certainly continue with the strategy of erosion warfare in Ukraine and is prepared to lead the country for another six years.
According to some analysts, although the problem of perestroika has completely disappeared, Putin still faces complex political conditions in managing the Kremlin, where Siloviki, meaning military forces, have entered politics and gained power, strengthening the military apparatus that has not had a good relationship with Defense Minister Shoigu and has not appreciated him. It seems that anyone who intends to challenge them must study their future movements very precisely and deeply.
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