‘temporary easing’

Will Wagner’s Yevgeny Prigozhin leverage Africa propaganda machine?

By Mathieu Olivier

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Posted on June 26, 2023 14:06

 © Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. REUTERS
Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin leaves the headquarters of the Southern Military District amid the group’s pullout from the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. REUTERS

Two days after clashing with the Russian army and deploying his men to Moscow, pressure from the Kremlin forced Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to make a U-turn. The Kremlin has announced that he has been offered exile, but the saga may not be over. The businessman, who’s now an enemy of Russia, might at some point seek to capitalise on his influence in Africa.

On Saturday 24 June, Prigozhin asserted – in a series of videos on his social media platforms – that he and his men would stop at nothing to take control of the Russian military apparatus. According to them, the military was guilty of attacking a Wagner position in Ukraine the previous day and, more broadly, of not providing them with the necessary logistical support.

The head of the Russian mercenaries stated that he would not hesitate to use his claimed 50,000 men, who would destroy any obstacles in their path. Troop deployments had been reported up to 400 kilometres from Moscow, where Vladimir Putin was forced to react. Describing Prigozhin’s actions as a “rebellion”, the Russian president said it was a “stab in the back of our country“.

Meanwhile, the Russian justice system announced that it would pursue legal action against Prigozhin and his men. The leader of Wagner, in a subsequent statement shared on his Telegram channels, reiterated his accusations against the government and the Russian army.

He specifically accused them of abandoning Wagner in Africa and diverting funds intended to assist countries on the continent, such as Mali and the Central African Republic.

U-turn

Then, all of sudden, the tension dropped just as it reached its peak. In the evening, the Kremlin announced that it had reached an agreement with Prigozhin.

According to the statement, the head of Wagner had agreed to leave Ukraine for Belarus, where he would live in a sort of gilded exile. He would take with him the mercenaries who had participated in his short-lived insurgency.

In exchange, neither Prigozhin nor his men would face prosecution. The Wagner troops who did not take part in the rebellion could be integrated into the regular Russian army and continue fighting on the Ukrainian front.

It’s a temporary easing, but this cohabitation seems impossible.

On Sunday 25 June, according to some reports, Prigozhin had already left for Belarus, the main ally of Moscow in its war against Ukraine. He was expected to be welcomed there by President Alexander Lukashenko, who would act as a guarantor of the agreement between Wagner’s boss and the Kremlin.

Is this the end of the story? Many observers doubt it, considering the blow this episode seems to have dealt to Putin’s apparent omnipotence.

Can the Russian president settle for a form of exile in Belarus for his former chef? “It’s a temporary easing, but this cohabitation seems impossible. Putin knows he must show an uncompromising stance towards acts of rebellion, at the risk of seeing them increase,” says a Russian specialist.

Assets

Should the head of the Kremlin sacrifice his troublesome lieutenant? Or will he spare him in the name of higher interests, and at the risk of appearing weak?

Prigozhin has a number of significant assets, including his presence in Africa. In Mali and the Central African Republic, his group has been operating for several years, pursuing private interests while also serving those of the Kremlin.

He has facilitated France’s loss of influence, particularly in the Sahel region, as well as deepening the divide that currently separates Paris and Bamako.

This achievement could serve as a bargaining chip for Prigozhin in the highly likely event that his conflict with Putin continues. “We will have to assess the extent to which Wagner’s men are loyal to their leader or whether they can be integrated into the Russian army,” says the expert.

“If Prigozhin can rely on the loyalty of tens of thousands of men, he can leverage assets, such as his propaganda machine’s presence in Africa, something the Kremlin will not want to give up.”

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