The recent death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the Wagner Group, has left Washington relatively unfazed. Officials refused to comment on the specific circumstances of his demise, emphasizing that they expected this outcome after his failed rebellion against Moscow. The Biden administration maintains that Prigozhin’s death does not alter their perspective on Russia or its conflict in Ukraine. While questions about Wagner’s future persist, experts suggest that Prigozhin’s absence could pave the way for Putin to consolidate control and suppress internal rivalries. Regardless, the administration will need to adapt to a transformed Wagner Group, potentially operating with a different leader and displaying a pseudo-independence in Africa. The removal of Prigozhin may also have unintended consequences for Putin’s war on Ukraine, raising challenges and providing an opportunity for Kyiv and its Western supporters.
Response in Official Washington
While the news of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death stunned the world, the response within official Washington was a collective shrug. Officials demurred from commenting on the circumstances of the downing of a flight with Prigozhin aboard, stressing instead that everyone knew this was the likely outcome of his failed mutiny against Moscow in June and that it doesn’t change the U.S. calculation on Russia or its war in Ukraine.
Asked during his vacation in Lake Tahoe if Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the crash of Prigozhin’s private plane, carrying him and nine others, President Joe Biden said “there’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin’s not behind, but I don’t know enough to know the answer.” Biden’s response to questions about Putin’s involvement indicates a level of uncertainty regarding Putin’s role in the incident.
Prigozhin’s Death and Its Implications
Confirmation has been made that Yevgeny Prigozhin was aboard the doomed aircraft. Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner Group and a once-close Putin confidant, had widely been considered a dead man walking ever since his June insurrection. However, there is no mourning for his death, with officials emphasizing the brutality of the Putin regime and the need to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom against such repressive regimes.
Continuity in Administration’s Thinking and Operations
While officials seek more intelligence about the incident, they expect Putin to stay the course in Ukraine. The absence of Prigozhin, who openly criticized the Kremlin’s conduct of the invasion, could help Putin consolidate control and tamp down internal rivalries. Experts warn that the administration will encounter a different Wagner Group now that Prigozhin is gone. Moscow may allow the mercenaries to act with pseudo independence, likely under the leadership of a quieter figure.
Changes in the Wagner Group
Experts predict that the Wagner Group will undergo significant changes following Prigozhin’s death. Moscow may let the mercenaries act more independently, considering their low-profile nature as a means to avoid threatening the regime. The leadership of the Wagner Group will likely undergo a transition, and there will be challenges in replicating Prigozhin’s skills and charisma.
Integration of Wagner Forces into the Official Military
The Russian Defense Ministry plans to bring some Wagner forces into the official military, potentially deploying them as special forces in Ukraine or elsewhere. This integration could impact Russia’s projection of power and its military strategy.
Potential Consequences of Prigozhin’s Removal
Experts predict growing frustration within the ranks due to the decapitation of Wagner’s leadership. This frustration, combined with potential battlefield losses, could complicate Putin’s war on Ukraine. However, it could also boost Kyiv’s counteroffensive and inspire confidence in Ukraine’s Western backers to provide further support. Prigozhin’s removal may have far-reaching implications for the ongoing conflict.
Immediate Impact on U.S. Policy
For now, there seems to be no immediate effect on U.S. policy. Officials will continue to gather intelligence and assess the situation. Eric Green, a former top Russia specialist at the NSC, believes that it will be challenging for Russia to project power effectively in Africa without Prigozhin’s managerial skills and charisma.
The Fate of Wagner Mercenaries in Belarus
More than 3,000 Wagner mercenaries are currently in Belarus, where they have been training Belarusian special forces near the Polish border. This presence has raised concerns from NATO and Western powers. The options for these mercenaries’ future are uncertain, as their return to Russia could be met with skepticism if they served alongside Prigozhin during the failed revolt. Loyalty to Prigozhin is still evident in Russia, as images circulating online showed the windows of Wagner’s headquarters in St. Petersburg lit up in the shape of a cross.
In conclusion, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death has prompted various reactions and speculations both within official Washington and among experts. While U.S. officials emphasize the brutality of the Putin regime and the need to support Ukraine, they also expect Putin to stay the course in Ukraine. The removal of Prigozhin has implications for the Wagner Group and its future actions, with experts predicting changes in leadership and the group’s modus operandi. The integration of Wagner forces into the official military and the potential consequences of Prigozhin’s removal on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine are also topics of concern. In the immediate term, there has been no immediate impact on U.S. policy, but the situation continues to be monitored closely. The fate of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus and the loyalty they display towards Prigozhin further complicate the situation. Overall, Prigozhin’s death has stirred questions and uncertainties, and its full implications are yet to be seen.