What future awaits Russia’s Wagner army and its boss, Prigozhin?

Observers say Yevgeny Prigozhin is ‘doomed’ after turning on Russian President Vladimir Putin, known for vindictiveness towards turncoat allies.

Yevgeny Prigozhin smiling as he leaves Rostov on Don. He is gripping the hand of a supporter on the street.
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin agreed to leave Russia and relocate to Belarus [Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Back in 2013, the year after Vladimir Putin’s return to presidency and the year before Moscow annexed Crimea, Aleksandra Garmazhapova got an undercover job.

The investigative reporter briefly worked as an “online operator” typing up hundreds of pro-Kremlin comments from a snow-white office outside St Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and Putin’s hometown.

The office reportedly hosted a “troll farm” that belonged to Yevgeny Prigozhin, known at the time as “Putin’s chef” for his catering services to the Kremlin.

Garmazhapova’s story was a major scoop that put the now infamous “troll farms” on the map and eventually got their owner blacklisted by Washington for meddling in the US presidential election in 2016.

She is confident that after Wagner’s march on Moscow, that stopped only 200km (124 miles) south of the Russian capital, “Putin’s chef” is a doomed man.

“He’s not going to live long,” said Garmazhapova, who lives in Prague and was recently accused of “spreading fakes about the Russian army”.

She now runs a group helping thousands of Russian men escape mobilisation.

“We remember that Vladimir Putin is a pretty vindictive character, and he won’t forget the fact that he was humiliated in front of the entire world,” she told Al Jazeera.

After Prigozhin agreed to march Wagner back to southwestern Russia, Putin dropped incursion charges against him and his men and allowed them to relocate to Belarus.

Even if Prigozhin is pressured to leave Belarus, he still has strongholds in Syria and several sub-Saharan nations, where Wagner fought and still has lucrative security contracts and stakes in timber trade and mining.

“Africa awaits him, Syria awaits, there’s no one down there to replace him,” Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner mercenary who fled to France and wrote about his experiences, told Al Jazeera.

“His projects there can be called successful.”

Alas, on Tuesday, the Al Hadath television channel in Saudia Arabia claimed that Russian military police raided Wagner headquarters in Syria and arrested four Wagner commanders.

Africa may become Prigozhin’s last resort, reporter Garmazhapova said.

“It can’t be ruled out that Prigozhin will have to spend the rest of his life in the Central African Republic or some other African nation,” she said.

But Putin has indeed been notorious for punishment, especially to turncoat allies and colleagues.

One of them was Aleksander Litvinenko, an intelligence officer who accused Putin of allegedly ordering several residential buildings blown up so that attacks could be blamed on Chechen separatists.

Litvinenko, who defected to the United Kingdom, was lethally poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006 after Putin repeatedly called him a “traitor”.

‘Truly expelled from the Russian elite’

Analysts have been less inclined to think about Prigozhin’s imminent murder, but are puzzled about what’s going to happen to him and tens of thousands of Wagner fighters.

“Is all of Wagner – or what is left of it – going to be incorporated into Russia’s armed forces? If so, what will happen to Wagner units outside of its immediate vicinity – in Syria, Africa, and elsewhere?” Kevork Oskanian of the UK’s Exeter University told Al Jazeera.

“Beyond the appearance that Prigozhin has been well and truly expelled from the Russian elite because of his miscalculation, it is really difficult to say,” he said.

Prigozhin’s life and career have been truly protean.

At 62, he has the charisma of former US President Donald Trump and the business acumen of Eric Prince, the founder of the Blackwater private army, according to John Lechner, an author based in Washington, DC, who is writing a book on Prigozhin’s operations in Ukraine, Middle East and Africa.

“He is a mix of people such as Prince, Trump, founders of Silicon Valley companies, and, of course, this mafia type, who speaks prison slang,” Lechner told Al Jazeera.

“He knows how to build a company’s culture, knows how to make people admire him, be loyal to him.”


Contrary to media reports, Prigozhin did not found Wagner, but joined the nascent military company around 2015 as a food supplier, Lechner said.

“I can imagine a step from providing food to providing people, soldiers. In principle, he replaced what he provides,” he said.

Food was what made Prigozhin famous.

Putin hosted several dignitaries in Prigozhin’s riverboat restaurant, and awarded him contracts to supply food to the military and public schools.

The food was not as good as the delicacies served to Putin, and hundreds of servicemen and schoolchildren have reportedly been hospitalised after partaking in it.

But Putin did not seem to care about the poisonings – and his “chef’s” checkered past.

Prigozhin spent most of the 1980s in jail after being convicted of armed robberies and recruiting minors into a criminal gang.

Recruitment and knowledge of prison slang are what Prigozhin excelled at – especially when touring dozens of penitentiaries last year to enlist tens of thousands of inmates.

Wagner was founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces officer with a penchant for Nazi ideology and the music of Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer, Richard Wagner.

The group fought for pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine in 2014.

One of them was Igor Strelkov, who fell out with Prigozhin after his men allegedly killed separatist leaders who disobeyed Moscow.

Strelkov maintains that Prigozhin’s Belarusian banishment means that his powerful allies within the Kremlin still back him.

In a Tuesday Telegram post, he claimed that Prigozhin will turn into “another [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky,” a Russian tycoon who opposed Putin and served 10 years in jail.

“The difference is that Khodorkovsky ‘wanted [a coup], but didn’t dare try, but the ‘chef’ ‘tried but chickened out,’” Stelkov wrote.

‘Not outlawed’

On Tuesday morning, Prigozhin’s private jet landed near the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

“Yes, he is in Belarus. As I promised him – if you choose to switch sides with us for a while, we’ll help you,” said Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko, who brokered a truce between Prigozhin and Putin.

But Wagner’s operations in Russia have not been terminated.

Its recruitment centres in five St Petersburg sports clubs still enlist aspiring mercenaries, the Bumaga publication, an independent news website based in St Petersburg, found out.

Wagner “has not been liquidated or outlawed, everything keeps on working,” one of the managers told Bumaga.

Several publications connected to Prigozhin’s media empire are blocked, and companies affiliated with him stopped working, Bumaga reported.

The Wagner Center in a luxurious skyscraper in St Petersburg has also remained closed.

“Because of the current situation and good weather, the Center recommends its residents and staffers to spend the weekend outdoors and in good company!” its administration posted on Saturday.

Belarus exile

Prigozhin’s presence in Belarus will be a constant threat to Putin – especially if thousands of his mercenaries refuse to join the Russian army and move to the bases that Belarusian authorities are reportedly building.

“Wagner in Belarus will hang over Putin,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

Prigozhin may even try to seize the Kremlin again – via the Smolensk road Napoleon used in 1812 to invade Russia and take Moscow.

“A march towards Smolensk and Moscow can be as fast as the one to Rostov-on-Don [where the Saturday’s rebellion began] and farther towards the capital,” Kushch said.

Wagner will operate in Belarus with even more impunity given the weakness of Lukashenko’s police and army, he said.

“Let’s not bury Wagner quite yet. Belarusian law enforcement agencies will counter Wagner even less than the Russian guards,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera