Analysis: The death of the private military group’s leader may leave Putin more secure, but in the Middle East and Africa, it leaves Russia’s political influence and reputation in a state of uncertainty.

On 23 August, a jet crashed over Kuzhenkino in Russia’s Tver Oblast, killing Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder Dmitry Utkin and logistics chief Valery Chekalov.
The incident occurred exactly two months after the private military company (PMC) launched an insurrection against Russia’s military leadership and President Vladimir Putin.
As the Wagner Group has PMCs stationed in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mali, and the Central African Republic (CAR), the decapitation of its senior leadership plunged Russia’s counterinsurgency and political influence campaigns into a state of uncertainty.
The Kremlin will likely quell unease amongst Wagner’s clients by placing its PMCs under the Russian Defense Ministry’s supervision.
Nevertheless, the memory of Wagner’s insurrection continues to tarnish Russia’s standing as a great power, and Prigozhin’s death complicates Wagner’s short-term ability to expand to new theatres.

At the time of Prigozhin’s death, the Wagner Group maintained a contingent of between 250 to 450 PMCs in Syria, or approximately 10% of Russia’s ground force contingent in the country.
These troops guarded oil reserves in Syria’s Badia Desert region and trained Syrian Arab Army (SAA) elite units, such as the 5th Assault Corps that aided President Bashar al-Assad’s triumph in the 2016 Battle of Palmyra.
Due to Wagner’s contracts with Assad’s government, which includea $90 million annual payout to the affiliated Evro Polis for guarding Syria’s oil reserves, and personal ties to Syrian military personnel, expelling them could undermine critical Russian operations in Syria.
To minimise potential disruptions, the Kremlin has taken steps to make Wagner’s Syria operations dependent on Russian Defense Ministry oversight.

These efforts began prior to Prigozhin’s death, even though President Vladimir Putin reportedly assured Prigozhin of Wagner’s continued autonomy in the Middle East and Africa.
Using Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian Embassy in Damascus as interlocutors, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu convinced the Syrian government to block Wagner forces from independently using Khmeimim Airbase as a resupply facility.
Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov reportedlyinstalled himself as the “curator” of Wagner forces in Syria.
Despite concerns that recalcitrant Wagner fighters might prefer to hand over their assets to Iran than the Russian Defense Ministry, this integration process is set to continue in the months ahead.

In Libya, the Wagner Group has 2,000 PMCs that guard major oil ports and help Libya National Army (LNA) chieftain Khalifa Haftar preserve his hegemony over the country’s east. Much like in Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry will seek to place these Wagner forces under its umbrella.
One day before Prigozhin’s death, the Russian Defense Ministrydispatched a Yevkurov-led delegation to meet with Haftar in Benghazi. This delegation pledged to cooperate with the LNA against “international terrorism,” and offered military training to the warlord’s forces.
As Wagner historically carried out sniper and air defence training for the LNA, Yevkurov’s training offer clearly infringed on Prigozhin’s traditional turf.
As Haftar’s relationship with Prigozhin was strained by the Wagner chief’s support for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and pressure tactics to accrue hard currency from the LNA, he will likely welcome the Russian Defense Ministry’s direct involvement.
The ouster of former Libyan Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha in May 2023, who Russia supported as a potential unifier of Libyan society, weakens Moscow’s relationship with the Tripoli-based authorities.
This could encourage the Kremlin to deepen its reliance on Haftar and encourage Wagner forces to carry out political interference on his behalf when Libya’s presidential elections are held.

Sub-Saharan Africa
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the Wagner Group carried out operations with significantly less state oversight than in Syria or Libya. Therefore, the task of substantively integrating them with the Russian Defense Ministry could be more complicated.
Russia’s history of balancing relationships with multiple factions in armed conflicts in Africa could also constrain the freedom of action of PMCs. Under state control, any provisions of military assistance will be deemed to reflect the Kremlin’s official position.
Wagner’s undeclared presence in Sudan could experience particularly drastic changes in a post-Prigozhin era.
Although Lavrov engaged with both Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) head General Abdel Fattah el-Burhan and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) chief Mohammed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo during his February 2023 Khartoum visit, Prigozhin aligned with Hemedti after Sudan’s intra-military conflict erupted in April 2023. Prigozhin allegedly sent surface-to-air missiles to RSF forces, and was rewarded with gold bars on his final African trip.

As Prigozhin’s actions deviated from the Kremlin line of neutrality, the RSF may no longer be able to rely on Russian military support.
Former US diplomat and CIA analyst Cameron Hudson recently claimed that “the biggest loser aside from Prigozhin is Hemedti in Sudan,” and munitions supply uncertainties might partially explain Hemedti’s half-hearted “permanent ceasefire” push.
Even if Wagner stops aiding the RSF under Kremlin conservatorship, it will likely continue guarding gold mines 200 miles north of Khartoum, as these facilities provide the Russian economy with vital hard currency.
In the CAR and Mali, Wagner forces will likely carry out business-as-usual operations under the façade of Defense Ministry integration.
CAR President Fausatin-Archange Touadera assigned a deputy to meet with Prigozhin at the 27-28 July Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg, and reportedly distanced himself from the Wagner chief on Putin’s direct orders.

With the extension of his presidency secured via a controversial 30 July referendum, Touadera is well-equipped to retain power as command structure changes occur inside Wagner’s ranks.
Wagner’s business interests in CAR’s gold, diamond, timber, and beverage industries will likely be placed under Kremlin conservatorship, but their profitability is unclear as Prigozhin and Chekalov’s sanctions-busting know-how is no longer present.
The Wagner Group’s flailing counterterrorism campaign in Mali could potentially receive a boost from Prigozhin’s death. In stark contrast to its distant relationship with Hemedti, the Russian state has flaunted its alignment with Mali’s interim President Assimi Goita and vetoed the extension of UN sanctions against the junta on 30 August.
As Wagner’s 1,000-strong PMC contingent in Mali has struggled to accrue heavy weaponry since August 2022, the Russian Defense Ministry’s takeover could lead to more reliable arms shipments.

The Wagner mutiny’s enduring damage to Russia’s prestige
Even if Wagner’s military operations are not disrupted by Prigozhin’s death, his mutiny dealt a serious blow to Russia’s prestige in the Middle East and Africa.
As the events of  23-24 June unfolded, most countries stayed silent or issued neutral statements, and even stalwart Russian partners like Iran called Prigozhin’s coup attempt an “internal affair.”
Media outlets in both regions published a flurry of exposes on Putin’s growing vulnerability. Displays of mourning for Prigozhin, such as Touadera advisor Fidele Gouandjika’s “I am Wagner” salute, will also rankle Putin.
Russia will try to recover its damaged soft power by intensifying its diplomatic outreaches to both regions and ramping up the activities of its state media machinery.
Putin’s visit to China’s October 2023 Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit will give him an opportunity to shore up core partnerships. Yevkurov’s 31 August visit to Burkina Faso, which included discussions on tighter military cooperation with Russia,underscores the resilience of its authoritarian solidarity-based alliances in Africa.

The flurry of anti-colonial messaging on Russian Telegram channels after Gabonese President Ali Bongo’s August 30 overthrow suggests that the Kremlin is co-opting Prigozhin’s flagship narratives to earn soft power.
Nevertheless, uncertainties about Wagner’s long-term relationship with the Russian Defense Ministry and the Kremlin’s inability to carry out deniable operations could blunt the expansion of Russia’s security partnerships.
The Niger junta’s request for help from Wagner as it sought to fend off a possible Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) military intervention might be the last request of its kind for some time.
While Putin’s regime is more secure with Prigozhin’s death, his self-professed legacy of making Russia an anti-Western great power in a multipolar world has taken a big blow.

The New Arab Newspaper