After a failed mutiny, what next for the Wagner mercenaries?

Maria Maalouf

Military analysts in the West are carefully studying the remarks by Russia’s mutinous mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin last week as he welcomed Wagner Group mercenaries to Belarus.
He told them to be respectful to their hosts, to train the Belarusian armed forces, and to be ready for new missions and a “new journey to Africa.”
The main issue with the Wagner Group is how they will operate after their failed June 23-24 mutiny: a march on Moscow that suddenly stopped after Vladimir Putin struck a deal with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to have the Wagner troops stationed in the former Soviet republic.
The mutiny made Putin look weak and threatened. Therefore, the destiny of the Wagner Group and its 25,000 fighters will be determined by the Russian president, because he does not want to appear before the world as weak or threatened.
There are a number of strategic factors that Putin will employ to keep the Wagner Group under his authority, and a few strategic realities that could determine its future. For sure, Putin will deny the Wagner chief’s allegations. First, Prigozhin said his mutiny was not targeting Putin and that he was not trying to remove the president from power. Instead, he was aiming to settle scores with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and military chief Valery Gerasimov.
Putin is supporting the two most senior military officials in his cabinet against Prigozhin and his allegations. This will deprive the Wagner leader of much his group’s legitimacy and legal status. If Prigozhin continues to harbor animosity toward the defense ministry, the Russian leadership will curtail much of his militia’s activity outside Russia — because it would not be clear whether any military action by Wagner would be for its own advantage, or in the interests of Russian national security.
Wagner has previously served Russian foreign policy. Its forces fought with the Russian regular army in annexing Crimea in 2014. It fought Daesh in Syria, it took part in missions in the Central African Republic and Mali, and recently it captured the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
However, Putin will not allow Wagner to take any further part in the fighting in Ukraine. He wants to win the war against the West and Kyiv using only the armed forces of Russia. The military situation for Putin is not totally desperate, since this summer’s Ukrainian counter-offensive has so far largely failed to dislodge Russian troops from the positions they have occupied since the invasion began in February last year. Putin will impose as many limitations as possible to hinder and impede any military assignments for the Wagner Group, in Ukraine or elsewhere. Wagner’s presence in Belarus could be a long-term commitment to avoid their involvement in future wars in Africa and in the Middle East. As their registration with the defense ministry continues, the Russian government will be able to know exactly how many Wagner Group fighters are engaged in wars in places such as Syria and Libya.
Wagner may in fact transfer most if not all of its troops from Syria to Belarus. While they were deployed in Syria as early as 2015, the trend has been one of moving Wagner military personnel from Syria to Ukraine. This did not leave the Russian forces in Syria in any way weak or vulnerable. This is why Wagner may be forced to pull all of its military units from Syria without much strategic loss for Moscow.
Moreover, it is not clear what the future lies for the Wagner Group in Libya. They have been there since 2014. They are siding with the government of the eastern part of the country commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. They supported him in his attack on Tripoli in 2019. However, Wagner’s numbers there are not that large, perhaps no more than 2,000 fighters. Putin will seek a political and military freeze in Libya to be able to control all the forces loyal to Wagner and not require any help from them in Libya. Wagner Group could pull out, or be militarily inactive.
However, the most difficult situation for Putin and the Wagner Group is in Sudan, and the conflict between the regular army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. A shadowy Russian company called M-Invest— based in St. Petersburg, Prigozhin’s home city — has an office in Khartoum, and an agreement with the Sudanese government to mine for gold. In fact, the company is a front for the Wagner Group, and was employed by the former dictator Omar Bashir to suppress protests in late 2018.
It is not clear whether Putin will allow Wagner to continue to operate in Sudan. He may order it to be inactive. He may also change the nature of its missions to one of intelligence gathering. But the situation is so unstable in Sudan that no foreign government, including Russia, will make any long-term commitment.
The Russian government has a great deal of strategic ambiguity when it comes to the Wagner Group and its operations in the Middle East. Antipathy in the Kremlin suggests that Wagner’s future in the Middle East will not exceed the scope of the missions assigned to it in the past. Russia will probably gradually phase the militia out in Syria, Libya, and Sudan. Whether they are replaced with other troops loyal to Moscow will depend on the progress of the conflicts in those countries. But Russia will strive not to lose wars there — it may institute a series of military doctrines to allow Moscow to exercise power in Syria, Libya, and Sudan without any reliance on mercenary troops.