Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova spoke to current and former Wagner mercenaries, and other people with working knowledge of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s business empire, about what will happen to the Wagner Group now that its leader has been killed. The general consensus is that Prigozhin personally controlled most of Wagner Group’s activities, from missions in Ukraine and Africa to finances and general organization. Without him, the private military company seems likely to crumble.
Yevgeny Prigozhin from Wagner (picture Meduza)
by Lilia Yapparova
Some former Wagner fighters expressed surprise that Prigozhin wasn’t more concerned with his personal safety. Others wanted to retaliate against the Defense Ministry or Vladimir Putin, whom they assumed were responsible for shooting down or blowing up Prigozhin’s private jet, though they doubted that any organized effort at revenge could cohere at this point. Meduza in English shares an abridged translation of the responses of former mercenaries and sources close to Russia’s Defense Ministry about what consequences, if any, could follow the deaths of Prigozhin and members of his his innermost circle.
On the evening of August 23, residents of the village of Kuzhenkino, in the Tver region, saw something 'sparkling in the sky'. After a few minutes, some 'pieces of iron' fell to the ground, emitting black smoke. They were the wreckage of the airplane that was carrying Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and the mercenary cartel’s commander, Dmitry Utkin. Their subordinates and colleagues have issued no reaction or statement on the crash, though several makeshift memorials to the victims have appeared in various Russian cities.
Wagner-fighter: 'Some of us panicked and some of us prayed'
'It seems like the commanders are planning to write a statement, but it will be addressed primarily to fighters,' one Wagner fighter who recently returned from Ukraine told Meduza. 'Some of us panicked and some of us prayed. We’re all a little out of sorts now. And many are mad: they want revenge. What are they not prepared to do! Heading for the Kremlin with guns. Everyone understands that this was revenge. The president doesn’t allow such things.'
Two months after mutiny
The plane blew up exactly two months after Prigozhin launched a rebellion against Russia’s military brass. 'We were all waiting for this,' said a Wagner veteran who’s now fighting on a contract with the Russian army but still maintains contact with the Wagner Group command. 'The only question was when. I thought they’d whack him in Africa, but they did it like this. He signed his own sentence with that march. He should have stuck with it till the end or not started it at all.
Active Wagner fighters and veterans admit that they’re unlikely to do anything serious in response to Prigozhin’s death. 'It’s sad, of course. Yevgeny Viktorovich was a serious dude, we called him dad,' one mercenary, who was recently invited to work with the Wagner contingent in Africa, explained. 'But time has already passed, you know? If this had happened on June 27, right after the march, there would have been a reaction. But now…some people are on vacation, some are building their own lives. Others have gone to work for the Defense Ministry.'
'No worries, they’ll gnaw on this shit on social media for two weeks and then forget about it,' added a Wagner Group veteran who signed a contract with an official military department. 'Some of the guys are now stuck in Belarus, some are in Africa, and the rest are evenly spread out over the territory of the Russian Federation. Everyone was dispersed in advance — the country’s leadership protected itself. Some have been calling me to ask how to join me.'
Currently active Wagner fighters agreed with him. 'I’m in the hospital now, actually,' said one. 'I haven’t received any salary or any insurance payments [for my Wagner service in Ukraine]. And I can’t get through to anyone — their phones are turned off.'
Prigozhin had previously staged his own death twice — in 2019 and 2022. But his inner circle stopped believing he’d done it a third time within hours of the plane crash.
'For both [earlier] fakes, we had concrete protocols about where to post information and how to file it,' explained a source familiar with the workings of Prigozhin’s empire. 'And in the end, everything went through the boss’ close networks. This time, there was nothing prepared — everything went through [Russian media personality Ksenia] Sobchak. In short, it was fully fucked. And it’s unclear what happens next.'
‘Too big for his britches’
On August 23, Prigozhin and his closest associates were returning to St. Petersburg from Africa after a layover in Moscow. Two days earlier, from Africa, Prigozhin had sent out his final video address — he said that Wagner Group would make Russia 'even greater on all continents.'
The fallout from the June rebellion and the plane crash have so far not affected Wagner Group’s work in Africa, three sources told Meduza. 'I was called there at the end of July,' said one Wagnerite. 'They promised to pay me just like before, the work was also the same as before, that is, without the Defense Ministry.' But one Wagner veteran noted that 'The guys are complaining that we were in Ukraine since the beginning of the SVO [ the ‘special military operation’], we laid a ton of groundwork, and then they sent us to fucking Africa where we’ll degrade again.'
Putin's comments on the crash
'The first accounts tell that [in the plane] there were people of the Wagner-company. I would like to say that these are people who substantially contributed to our common fight with the neonazi regime in Ukraine. We remember that, know it and will never forget.
I knew Prigozhin for a long time, from the beginning of the '90s. He was a man with a complicated fate and he made serious mistakes in his life, but he also reached the necessary results, for himself, but, as I would like to stress, also for our common cause. like in the last couple of months. He was a talented man and a talented businessman.'
24 hours after the crash Putin gave his comments
However, a Meduza source in the Defense Ministry said right after the rebellion that Wagner would not be allowed to continue working in Africa. 'We’ll replace them. There are people!' The independent outlet iStories reported that the Russian authorities were trying to replace Prigozhin’s people in Africa with two different structures: a private military company called Convoy, created by the Russian-installed head of annexed Crimea Sergey Aksyonov, and another one called Redut, which is controlled by the Russian military. 'Shoigu wanted to take over himself,' one veteran of Wagner’s campaign in Syria told Meduza.
Several sources told Bellingcat journalist Christo Grozev that Prigozhin tried to interfere with those plans, which was why he traveled to Mali. The Telegram channel VChK-OGPU maintained the same story.
'He got too big for his britches,' a source in Russia’s Defense Ministry told Meduza’s correspondent. 'But he was still gorging himself and waving the Russian flag. Without the flag, he’s no one and his mercenaries are no one.'
The leadership of the Central African Republic, where Prigozhin’s groups were strongest, said that they didn’t see the businessman’s death as a particular problem. 'The Russian authorities are maintaining control. Our partnership is with the Russian state,' Pascal Koyagbele, the country’s Ministry for Strategic Investment, told the Wall Street Journal.
One of the last pictures of Prigozhin, presumably in Mali (picture twitter)
‘The country has lost its military elite’
Prigozhin’s plane crashed 50 kilometers (around 30 miles) from Vladimir Putin’s residence in Valdai. At the time of the crash, the president was handing out awards to Defense Ministry employees on the anniversary of the Battle of Kursk. During the ceremony, the Wagner-affiliated Telegram channels RSOTM and Grey Zone posted that 'as a result of the actions of enemies of Russia' the country had 'lost its military elite', clarifying that they meant the real elite, and not 'those who buy themselves titles and positions'.
According to witnesses, from the ground it appeared that one of the airplane’s wings flew 'off to the side', and that the jet itself started to 'wobble' downwards 'little by little', 'like a leaf' Some experts who studied video footage of the event noted that, after an explosion on board, all of the jet’s control systems could have failed instantly.
Three Telegram channels connected with Russia’s security services say that they’re investigating a terrorist attack on board. One witness reportedly said that a box of expensive wine was loaded onto the plane just before takeoff. Or a bomb may have been planted in the landing gear compartment. A source in the Defense Ministry told Meduza that the plane exploded in flight rather than being shot down.
However, there is some evidence to contradict that version of events. One of the videos of the crash shows a cloud that resembles the contrail from a missile, and witnesses on the ground reported two explosions in the air preceding the crash. Launching two missiles against a target is standard practice — it increases the chances of a successful strike. A Western official who spoke to the Financial Times also believes that Prigozhin’s plane was shot down.
If the plane really was shot down, it would mean that the crew working the air defenses did not hesitate. The alleged mechanism of the strike was described as follows:
'The people sitting at the launch console were prepared to strike a civilian aircraft. Otherwise there would have been a discussion over the radio, which would not have allowed them to shoot in time: it takes four or five minutes to open fire. Therefore, we think that the air defense crew was ‘ours,’ that they were prepared in advance for the strike, and that they were loyal officers who understand who was flying from where to where. When Prigozhin’s plane entered firing range, it was destroyed.'
When Meduza’s correspondent asked who could have handed down such an order, the Defense Ministry source said 'No one knows that! And no one will find out.'
Neonazi Dmitry Utkin (nickname Wagner) gave his name to Prigozhin's mercenary army. He perished in the crash (picture twitter)
‘A man with a complex fate’
Meduza’s sources among the mercenaries are surprised that the Wagner founder was so incautious. 'It’s his own fault, he was traveling all over Russia!' said one.
They also didn’t think highly of Prigozhin’s personal security. 'Everything there was fucked up and totally casual', said another source. 'For example, there was a rule that Prigozhin and Utkin — the two main leaders — shouldn’t fly together.'
But some of his former subordinates think there was another reason for Prigozhin’s carelessness:
'When the Wagnerites were summoned to the Kremlin, Putin yelled at them for three hours'
'When he and the commanders were summoned to the Kremlin to meet with Putin [immediately after the rebellion], the president yelled at the whole lot of them for three hours. Straight up yelled. But then he didn’t touch them! Maybe Zhenya [Prigozhin] decided that Putin got it out of his system: ‘He didn’t kill us right away, so he won’t ever kill us’? He considered himself indestructible. He decided that he was immortal.'
Meduza’s sources are not optimistic about what will happen to the Wagner Group now that Prigozhin is gone. Regardless of who ends up in charge, they’re certain that there’s no future for the private military company.
'I don’t see a worthy replacement for the Prigozhin-Utkin pair', said former Wagner mercenary Marat Gabidullin. 'It will be a movement based on inertia by people who can’t live another way. Who have forgotten how to live a different life.'
On the evening of August 24, Vladimir Putin offered his condolences to the families of those killed in the crash. Of Prigozhin, he said 'He was a person with a complex fate' who 'got the necessary results', including when asked by Putin directly.
Prigozhin during the March to Moscow, on 24 June. Putin called him a traitor.
This article was published by Meduza.