After Prigozhin’s Death, a High-Stakes Scramble for His Empire

After Prigozhin’s Dying, a Excessive-Stakes Scramble for His Empire

African leaders allied with Russia had grown used to coping with Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the swaggering, profane mercenary chief who traveled the continent by personal jet, providing to prop up shaky regimes with weapons and propaganda in return for gold and diamonds.

However the Russian delegation that toured three African nations final week was led by a really totally different determine, the starchy deputy protection minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Wearing a khaki uniform and a “telnyashka” — the horizontally-striped undergarment of Russian armed forces — he signaled conformity and restraint, giving assurances wrapped in well mannered language.

“We’ll do our greatest that can assist you,” he mentioned at a information convention in Burkina Faso.

The distinction with the flamboyant Mr. Prigozhin couldn’t have been sharper, and it aligned with the message the Kremlin was delivering: After Mr. Prigozhin’s loss of life in a aircraft crash final month, Russia’s operations in Africa have been coming beneath new administration.

It was a glimpse of a shadowy battle now taking part in out on three continents: the battle for the profitable paramilitary and propaganda empire that enriched Mr. Prigozhin and served Russia’s navy and diplomatic ambitions — till the Wagner chief staged a failed mutiny towards the Kremlin in June.

Interviews with greater than a dozen present and former officers in Washington, Europe, Africa and Russia — in addition to 4 Russians who labored for Mr. Prigozhin — painting a tug of battle over his belongings amongst main gamers in Russia’s energy construction, together with two totally different intelligence companies. A lot of these interviewed spoke on situation of anonymity, to debate delicate diplomatic and intelligence points.

The battle is sophisticated, these individuals mentioned, by the lingering allegiance to Mr. Prigozhin in his personal military, the place some are bridling at being subsumed inside Russia’s protection ministry and as a substitute backing a switch of energy to Mr. Prigozhin’s son.

“Wagner isn’t just in regards to the cash — it’s a form of faith,” mentioned Maksim Shugalei, a political marketing consultant for Mr. Prigozhin, including that he was proud to be a part of the mercenary power. “It’s unlikely that this construction will completely disappear. For me, that is unattainable.”

The interviews additionally revealed extra about President Vladimir V. Putin’s marketing campaign to discredit Mr. Prigozhin after the insurrection, together with his declaration to a bunch of media figures that the Wagner chief was a profiteer who had made billions from “gold and bling.”

The accounts recommend that even in loss of life, Mr. Prigozhin stays a defining determine of Mr. Putin’s Russia — encapsulating the secrecy, infighting and contradictory techniques of the Kremlin because it wages battle towards Ukraine.

He was “an indication of dysfunction, a screaming thermometer,” mentioned Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst in Moscow who mentioned he knew Mr. Prigozhin. “In case you take away the thermometer, it doesn’t change the state of affairs.”

The scramble for Mr. Prigozhin’s belongings — which he assembled as he traded on his multifaceted means to serve Mr. Putin in return for presidency contracts — has far-reaching implications. His paramilitary group was Russia’s best preventing power in Ukraine within the final 12 months, and its dissipation raises questions on Russia’s means to mount new offensives. His media group, full with a web based “troll farm,” was instrumental in undercutting democratic establishments around the globe.

Nowhere does Wagner’s operation now carry extra worth for Russia than in African nations together with Libya and the Central African Republic, the place its mercenaries have gained belief and wealth by propping up strongmen and autocrats. These efforts helped improve Russia’s affect on the continent whereas weakening Western powers like France and the USA.

Western officers briefed on confidential intelligence assessments say two Russian spy companies — the international intelligence service, the S.V.R., and the navy intelligence company, the G.R.U. — are vying to take over key elements of Mr. Prigozhin’s operations. Two officers, from totally different governments, mentioned that the S.V.R. was more likely to soak up Wagner’s propaganda and on-line disinformation retailers concentrating on international nations, whereas the Protection Ministry and the G.R.U. might absorb Wagner’s mercenary operation.

There have been indicators on Mr. Yevkurov’s swing by Africa that the navy intelligence department will play a key function in no matter occurs subsequent: the delegation included one among Russia’s high spies, Gen. Andrei V. Averyanov, recognized for having led an elite unit specializing in subversion, sabotage and assassination overseas.

Movies launched by Burkina Faso and Mali confirmed Normal Averyanov subsequent to Mr. Yevkurov as they courted the nations’ leaders. Western officers see the final as a number one candidate to supervise a minimum of a few of the former Wagner operations as a part of an evolving system that includes a number of personal navy firms.

The Kremlin declined to touch upon the way forward for Mr. Prigozhin’s empire.

“That is none of our enterprise in any respect, and we aren’t coping with it in any means,” mentioned Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman.

By this spring, Mr. Prigozhin had morphed from a secretive oligarch enriched by authorities catering and development contracts to a populist warlord and politician. He recruited tens of 1000’s of prisoners to swell Wagner’s ranks and harangued Russia’s navy management for alleged corruption and incompetence.

He was simply as busy making enemies within the Russian Protection Ministry behind the scenes. He held his personal prisoner-exchange negotiations with Ukraine’s navy intelligence company, separate from the common military, leveraging his private relationship with Mr. Putin to deliver Wagner fighters house as a substitute of enlisted Russian service members, in line with a number of individuals with information of the talks.

All of the whereas, members of Russia’s ruling elite puzzled over why the Kremlin was permitting Mr. Prigozhin to assault the nation’s high brass so viciously and publicly. Two individuals near the Kremlin mentioned that Mr. Putin appeared to have his personal imaginative and prescient of how you can handle the warlord, and his aides appeared powerless to affect it.

Then, on June 23, Mr. Prigozhin launched his mutiny, seizing the southern metropolis of Rostov-on-Don and marching on Moscow. Andrei Krasnobayev, the editor of 1 Prigozhin information website, mentioned he didn’t see Mr. Prigozhin’s insurrection coming, regardless of the Wagner chief’s more and more vitriolic diatribes.

“Many colleagues name him a psychopath,” he mentioned, referring to different journalists. “I didn’t get that sense.”

When Mr. Prigozhin aborted his rebellion, accepting a cope with the Kremlin, it appeared his profession was completed, even when he was fortunate to have escaped along with his life. For the subsequent a number of weeks, he receded into the background, his whereabouts a thriller.

A key query was what would occur to his mercenary fighters. As Kremlin officers mulled their future, they despatched a number of thousand to Belarus “to park them there,” in line with a Western official, offering time to kind out which senior officers have been complicit in Mr. Prigozhin’s insurrection and to bolster Moscow’s defenses towards any future assault.

Because it deliberate the destiny of Wagner’s fighters, the Kremlin additionally launched into a multipronged effort to knock down Mr. Prigozhin’s popularity as an anti-establishment truth-teller, portraying him as a self-centered entrepreneur motivated by greed.

On June 27, Mr. Putin held a closed-door assembly with senior Russian media figures on the Kremlin. In keeping with an individual current, Mr. Putin claimed that Mr. Prigozhin had made $4 billion in Africa on “gold and bling.” Mr. Putin’s level, the individual mentioned, gave the impression to be that Mr. Prigozhin had enriched himself and had no purpose to complain.

State tv started to tarnish Mr. Prigozhin’s picture; one outlet, as an example, confirmed a van full of containers of money and a lavish residence, full with a helicopter — all mentioned to belong to Mr. Prigozhin.

After working to discredit Mr. Prigozhin, the Kremlin tried to get the Russian public to overlook about him. On June 30, Mr. Prigozhin’s media conglomerate, the Patriot Media Group, introduced it was shutting down, days after its web sites have been blocked by Russia’s web censor.

Then, in line with a New York Instances evaluation of Russian tv transcripts compiled by a nonprofit referred to as the GDELT Venture, Mr. Prigozhin just about disappeared from the airwaves. On most days between July 13 and Aug. 22, his title was not talked about in any respect on any of the 4 main state-controlled channels.

However even because the Kremlin sought to reduce him, Mr. Prigozhin nonetheless had one roll of the cube left — on the continent the place his pursuits nonetheless lay intact.

The battle in Ukraine made remarkably little distinction to Mr. Prigozhin’s sprawling pursuits in Africa. Whereas some Wagner forces in Africa have been redeployed to Ukraine within the early weeks of the battle, most stayed in place. However the failed mutiny in June positioned ‌Mr. Prigozhin’s African operations‌ beneath immense stress.

By means of July and August, he traversed the continent at a frenzied tempo, in search of to guarantee his allies and shore up his enterprise pursuits, in line with Western officers and others monitoring his actions. He instructed Wagner troops in Belarus to arrange for a “new journey to Africa” — the place, French intelligence estimated, about 4,000 Wagner mercenaries have been already stationed.

American officers mentioned Mr. Prigozhin additionally sought to squeeze new earnings from his in depth African ventures, which have been energetic in a minimum of a half-dozen nations. Wagner’s operations bolstered tottering navy regimes, traded in diamonds, gold and lumber, unfold disinformation and even made schlock films to glorify their exploits.

(Even so, Mr. Putin’s declare that Mr. Prigozhin’s African operations had made him $4 billion appeared enormously exaggerated, the officers added.)

Within the months main as much as his insurrection, Mr. Prigozhin had grown more and more daring. This spring he tried to tilt the steadiness in Sudan’s civil battle by smuggling surface-to-air missiles to a infamous paramilitary group, Western and United Nations officers mentioned. In February, U.S. officers warned the president of Chad that Mr. Prigozhin was plotting to kill him.

Days after the mutiny, in late June, senior Wagner officers flew to japanese Libya to satisfy with the strongman Khalifa Hifter, whom they’d helped to assault Tripoli in 2019. Their message, in line with Mohamed Eljarh, a safety analyst who speaks commonly to Mr. Hifter’s interior circle: regardless of the drama in Russia, it was enterprise as regular in Libya.

In truth, issues have been about to get extra worrisome. On June 30, a mysterious drone strike hit Wagner’s principal base in japanese Libya, elevating questions on Wagner’s vulnerability.

Then senior Kremlin officers started to make their very own journeys to Africa, providing the message that Russia was reshaping its enterprise there.

Main the cost was Mr. Yevkurov, whose previous expertise as an airborne commander and a regional governor gave him navy and political bona fides. Mr. Prigozhin had publicly humiliated him throughout the mutiny, holding him hostage and berating him.

Now Mr. Yevkurov had a possibility to take revenge. Touring by Syria, one other main Wagner outpost, and several other African nations, he sought to deliver Wagner forces extra firmly beneath Moscow’s management.

It was a high-wire act: The minister needed to persuade not solely African and Syrian leaders to change loyalties, but in addition Wagner veterans who have been trustworthy to Mr. Prigozhin and would possibly chafe on the Protection Ministry’s inflexible command, specialists mentioned.

The competitors heated up. In late July, coordinated rallies in favor of Wagner erupted in Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic. “Thanks Russia! Thanks Wagner!” some demonstrators cheered.

A couple of weeks later, Mr. Prigozhin flew again to Africa for a fast tour.

In Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, he visited his fighters and met with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra at his riverside palace to debate new enterprise offers, a Western diplomat and a senior European navy official mentioned. A day later, he obtained a delegation from Sudan — the identical paramilitaries Wagner had provided with missiles — who offered Mr. Prigozhin with a crate of gold bars, The Wall Avenue Journal reported.

In Libya, his aircraft made two stops, French officers mentioned. And he paused to movie a video handle, his first for the reason that mutiny, that confirmed him in a desert — analysts mentioned it was in Mali — wearing camouflage and hoisting an assault rifle. Wagner was increasing in Africa, he mentioned.

However Mr. Yevkurov was additionally making recent rounds. On Aug. 22, a day after Mr. Prigozhin’s video was launched, the Russian minister arrived in Libya for his personal talks with Mr. Hifter. The connection was being reset, he informed the Libyan commander, in line with Mr. Eljarh, the analyst. Wagner fighters would keep on however Russian navy intelligence can be in cost.

Earlier than leaving, Mr. Yevkurov offered Mr. Hifter with a pistol — a symbolically charged reward in a rustic the place the ousted Libyan dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, famously had a gold-plated pistol.

The next day, Mr. Prigozhin flew again to Moscow, the place he held conferences with Russian officers, Mr. Putin later mentioned in televised remarks. Then he boarded a flight to his house, St. Petersburg, alongside along with his two high deputies: Dmitri V. Utkin, Wagner’s principal commander, and Valery Y. Chekalov, its logistics chief.

Nineteen minutes after takeoff the jet started to maneuver erratically earlier than plunging 30,000 toes in about one minute, crashing right into a subject in a fireball.

The truth that the mercenary group’s three high leaders had boarded the identical flight surprised Mr. Shugalei, the political fixer for Mr. Prigozhin, who mentioned that the boys by no means traveled collectively to permit for an orderly succession after an assault.

“Three key individuals who by no means gathered collectively for sure causes — as a result of every might exchange the opposite if it got here to it — acquired on the identical aircraft,” mentioned Mr. Shugalei, who reported on to Mr. Prigozhin, in line with the European Union’s determination to impose sanctions towards him. “To me, that is the principle thriller.”

To many Ukrainians, Russians, Syrians and Africans, Mr. Prigozhin introduced ache and struggling. His propaganda retailers and troll farms harassed Russian journalists and opposition figures. His forces have been accused of ugly battle crimes in Syria, massacres in a number of African nations and torture of prisoners in Ukraine.

His mercenaries additionally didn’t stem Islamist violence in nations the place they deployed, like Mali, the place on Thursday 49 civilians and 15 troopers have been killed in assaults, the federal government mentioned.

However Mr. Prigozhin additionally bred a faithful following, amongst them Mr. Shugalei, who spent greater than a 12 months in jail in Libya whereas Mr. Prigozhin campaigned for his eventual launch.

Interviewed for this text, Mr. Shugalei, who is predicated in St. Petersburg, rejected the concept that the Russian authorities might totally take over Wagner, or function as successfully as Wagner did, and described Mr. Prigozhin’s little-known son, Pavel, as a possible inheritor to his empire.

“I feel he’s acquired to tackle a few of the issues,” he mentioned, referring to Pavel Prigozhin. “So far as I do know, he’s ready to.”

In Washington, officers following the tug of battle over Mr. Prigozhin’s legacy say it’s too quickly to inform the way it will shake out.

Some agree that Pavel Prigozhin, who’s in his 20s, will certainly attempt to assert management over his father’s firm. The USA sanctioned him final 12 months and mentioned he controls three St. Petersburg actual property firms. Final 12 months, his father mentioned that his son had fought in Syria and “was and is consistently in scorching spots as a part of the Wagner P.M.C.” (personal navy firm), a declare that would not be verified.

He might be able to retain a few of his father’s home belongings, which the unbiased Russian information outlet Agentstvo just lately mentioned made about $800 million in 2022, on the present trade price. However he would want the Kremlin’s imprimatur to proceed abroad, the place governments are shopping for Moscow’s geopolitical backing as a lot as native militia companies.

American officers now say there are a dozen personal firms that would additionally turn out to be concerned in overseeing paramilitary operations. The main candidate, maybe, is P.M.C. Redut, which has shut ties to the miliary intelligence company and which one Wagner-linked Telegram account just lately slammed for not fulfilling “the unique contract phrases” that it promised its recruits.

There may be nonetheless a robust market in Africa’s weakest nations for Wagner’s central providing — regime safety. And the demise of Mr. Prigozhin has solely whetted the urge for food of some African nations for a stronger relationship with the Kremlin — particularly these beforehand cautious of Wagner, like Burkina Faso.

When Mr. Yevkurov arrived there final week, he was greeted by Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, the nation’s 35-year-old chief, who seized energy in a navy coup final 12 months. Certainly one of a number of West African leaders to sever ties with the previous colonial energy, France, in recent times, Mr. Traoré had held a heat assembly with Mr. Putin at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July. “Russia is a part of Africa’s household,” he mentioned then.

Mr. Yevkurov’s go to, with the spymaster Normal Averyanov by his facet, solidified that relationship. Russia was open to strengthened cooperation “in all spheres,” the Burkina Faso presidency mentioned in a press release. The next day, Mr. Yevkurov continued to Mali.

By then, Mr. Prigozhin had been buried in St. Petersburg’s Porokhovskoye Cemetery — a graveyard constructed for an 18th-century ammunition manufacturing unit. Riot police and nationwide guardsmen sealed off the location and introduced bomb-sniffing canine to Mr. Prigozhin’s grave.

The subsequent day got here one other video from Mr. Prigozhin, revealed by a Wagner-linked Telegram account. It was apparently recorded throughout his final journey to Africa in August, a beforehand unreleased response to rumors that he was lifeless.

Addressing “those that like to speak about my liquidation,” he mentioned: “Every little thing’s tremendous.”

Valerie Hopkins, Elian Peltier, Paul Sonne, Ekaterina Bodyagina, Alina Lobzina, Oleg Matsnev and Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting.

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