Russia will struggle to salvage the Wagner empire

Prigozhin’s demise may be an attempt to show strength but the world still sees weakness, especially as Russian positions in Africa come under question.

Russian officers from the Wagner group
Russian officers from the Wagner group are seen near Central African president Faustin-Archange Touadéra as part of his security detail during his referendum campaign in Bangui, on July 17, 2023 [File: Reuters/Leger Kokpakpa]

It took Russian President Vladimir Putin some 24 hours to break his silence on the reported death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian businessman behind the notorious Wagner Group. Putin described him as “a talented businessman” who “worked not only in our country, and worked with results”, but who had made some “serious mistakes in life”.

While the Kremlin still refuses to officially confirm the death of the mercenary boss in an August 23 plane crash, to the Russian president, he is clearly dead: He spoke of the man once known as “Putin’s chef” in the past tense.

Prigozhin had it coming. After all, he challenged his patron by starting a mutiny that exposed the fragility of the Russian security state. In late June, Wagnerites took over the Rostov-on-Don headquarters of the Southern Military District, the command centre of Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. They also marched on Moscow, making it within 200km of the capital city and encountering little opposition. The squabble ended in a truce, with Wagner bending the knee and ostensibly moving its forces from Ukraine to Belarus.

Having called the mutiny “an act of treason”, Putin appeared to “forgive” Prigozhin, personally meeting with him and Wagner commanders and having him attend the Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg.

Reflecting on the Wagner chief’s demise, Russian commentator Alexander Baunov evoked parallels with the 1970s film classic, The Godfather. He pointed out that whenever mafia bosses would decide to eliminate a challenger, they would first reach out and make peace with him.

Over the past two decades, Putin seems to have also embraced another mantra of the criminal world: You either demonstrate strength or you fall prey.

Prigozhin’s fate sends a message to the whole Russian elite. Whoever dares to mount a direct challenge to Putin’s authority will most certainly pay the highest of prices. The regime tolerates no challenge, much less an armed mutiny.

It mattered little that Prigozhin’s quarrel was not with the Kremlin, but with the defence ministry, one of his clients. The ministry had generously paid for contracts with his companies, helping him amass wealth and influence. Even Wagner, his mercenary force, was an extension of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence.

But as Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine did not go according to plan, tensions between Prigozhin and defence ministry officials grew.

The mercenary boss lashed out at the bad boyars, not the good tsar.  His social media antics were often aimed at soliciting the Kremlin’s intervention against his adversaries in the military bureaucracy. Arguably, the mutiny had the same purpose, too. Except that Putin did not see it that way, took it as a challenge to his rule, and ultimately took the side of Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov, his loyal servants.

Prigozhin’s death, however, does not solve the Kremlin’s many problems. Putin will likely still struggle to recoup his street credibility as a strongman. Yes, you can imprison, poison or destroy rivals and critics with ease, but that would not ease the growing discontent of the elites and general population.

Prigozhin’s exit would also not erase the fact that the mutiny occurred in the first place and exposed the weakness of the regime. Nor that the war in Ukraine is, at best, a botched affair, a fact that the Wagner chief loved to hammer back home whenever he had a chance.

Nor that Putin was compelled to act in the crudest of ways to neutralise Prigozhin. The Russian president clearly can no longer manage his entourage, including their fights and rivalries, through the judicious application of carrots and sticks.

Russia’s global adversaries, and also fellow travellers and partners, gathered recently at the BRICS summit will not fail to notice all this. The mutiny made Putin look weak and Prigozhin’s death is unlikely to fix that.

Furthermore, it is not certain whether the Russian state or another proxy agent will be able to fill the gap in sub-Saharan Africa left behind by Wagner’s crumbling empire. Replacing the mercenary group will not be a straightforward affair.

Much hinged on Prigozhin’s informal ties to local leaders in places like Mali or the Central African Republic and it is not entirely clear if Russian defence officials will be able to replace him. The Russian government will also have to assume a more visible position in Libya, which could restart frictions with other powers involved, including Turkey, Egypt and the UAE.

If Putin successfully mangages the transition and Russia retains its role across Africa, that could earn him back some respect on the world stage. If he fails, the Kremlin will sustain further damage to its reputation.

In his early days, Putin prided himself on being an effective manager, skillfully steering the so-called power vertical. But as of now, he increasingly appears to his own population and the world as a weak autocrat who is struggling to manage a crisis of his own making.

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.