After Prigozhin’s death, a high-stakes scramble for his empire

Some in the Wagner group bridle at being subsumed within Russia’s defence ministry, backing instead a transfer of power to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s son

African leaders allied with Russia had grown used to dealing with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the swaggering, profane mercenary leader who travelled the continent by private jet, offering to prop up shaky regimes with guns and propaganda in return for gold and diamonds.

But the Russian delegation that toured three African countries last week was led by a very different figure, the starchy deputy defence minister, Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Dressed in a khaki uniform and a “telnyashka” – the horizontally striped undergarment of Russian armed forces – he signalled conformity and restraint, giving assurances wrapped in polite language.

“We will do our best to help you,” he said at a news conference in Burkina Faso.

The contrast with the flamboyant Prigozhin could not have been sharper, and it aligned with the message the Kremlin was delivering: after Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash last month, Russia’s operations in Africa were coming under new management.


It was a glimpse of a shadowy battle playing out on three continents: the fight for the lucrative paramilitary and propaganda empire that enriched Prigozhin and served Russia’s military and diplomatic ambitions – until the Wagner leader staged a failed mutiny against the Kremlin in June.

Interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials in Washington, Europe, Africa and Russia – as well as four Russians who worked for Prigozhin – portray a tug of war over his assets among major players in Russia’s power structure, including two different intelligence agencies. Many of those interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity, to discuss sensitive diplomatic and intelligence issues.

The fight is complicated, these people said, by the lingering allegiance to Prigozhin in his private army, where some are bridling at being subsumed within Russia’s defence ministry and instead backing a transfer of power to Prigozhin’s son.

“Wagner is not just about the money – it’s a kind of religion,” said Maksim Shugalei, a political consultant for Prigozhin, adding that he was proud to be part of the mercenary force. “It’s unlikely that this structure will totally disappear. For me, this is impossible.”

The interviews also revealed more about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s campaign to discredit Prigozhin after the rebellion, including his declaration to a group of media figures that the Wagner leader was a profiteer who had made billions from “gold and bling”.

The accounts suggest that even in death, Prigozhin remains a defining figure of Putin’s Russia – encapsulating the secrecy, infighting and contradictory tactics of the Kremlin as it wages war against Ukraine.

He was “a sign of dysfunction, a screaming thermometer”, said Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst in Moscow who said he knew Prigozhin. “If you take away the thermometer, it doesn’t change the situation.”

The scramble for Prigozhin’s assets – which he assembled as he traded on his multifaceted ability to serve Putin in return for government contracts – has far-reaching implications. His paramilitary group was Russia’s most effective fighting force in Ukraine in the past year, and its dissipation raises questions about Russia’s ability to mount new offensives. His media group, complete with an online “troll farm”, was instrumental in undercutting democratic institutions around the world.

Nowhere does Wagner’s operation carry more value for Russia than in African countries including Libya and Central African Republic, where its mercenaries have gained trust and wealth by propping up strongmen and autocrats. Those efforts helped increase Russia’s influence on the continent while weakening western powers such as France and the United States.

Western officials briefed on confidential intelligence assessments say two Russian spy agencies – the foreign intelligence service, the SVR, and the military intelligence agency, the GRU – are vying to take over key aspects of Prigozhin’s operations. Two officials, from different governments, said the SVR was likely to absorb Wagner’s propaganda and online disinformation outlets targeting foreign countries, while the defence ministry and the GRU could take in Wagner’s mercenary operation.

There were signs on Yevkurov’s swing through Africa that the military intelligence branch will play a key role in whatever happens next: the delegation included one of Russia’s top spies, Gen Andrei V Averyanov, known for having led an elite unit specialising in subversion, sabotage and assassination abroad.

Videos released by Burkina Faso and Mali showed Averyanov next to Yevkurov as they courted the countries’ leaders. Western officials see the general as a leading candidate to oversee at least some of the former Wagner operations as part of an evolving system featuring multiple private military companies.

The Kremlin declined to comment on the future of Prigozhin’s empire. “This is none of our business at all, and we are not dealing with it in any way,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson.

A campaign to discredit Prigozhin

By this spring, Prigozhin had morphed from a secretive oligarch enriched by government catering and construction contracts to a populist warlord and politician. He recruited tens of thousands of prisoners to swell Wagner’s ranks and harangued Russia’s military leadership for alleged corruption and incompetence.

He was just as busy making enemies in the Russian defence ministry behind the scenes. He held his own prisoner-exchange negotiations with Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, separate from the regular army, leveraging his personal relationship with Putin to bring Wagner fighters home instead of enlisted Russian service members, according to several people with knowledge of the talks.

All the while, members of Russia’s ruling elite puzzled over why the Kremlin was allowing Prigozhin to attack the country’s top brass so viciously and publicly. Two people close to the Kremlin said Putin appeared to have his own vision of how to manage the warlord, and his aides seemed powerless to influence it.

Then, on June 23rd, Prigozhin launched his mutiny, seizing the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and marching on Moscow. Andrei Krasnobayev, the editor of one Prigozhin news site, said he didn’t see Prigozhin’s rebellion coming, despite the Wagner leader’s increasingly vitriolic diatribes.

“Many colleagues call him a psychopath,” he said, referring to other journalists. “I didn’t get that sense.”

When Prigozhin aborted his uprising, accepting a deal with the Kremlin, it appeared his career was finished, even if he was lucky to have escaped with his life. For the next several weeks, he receded into the background, his whereabouts a mystery.

A key question was what would happen to his mercenary fighters. As Kremlin officials mulled their future, they sent several thousand to Belarus “to park them there”, according to a western official, providing time to sort out which senior officers were complicit in Prigozhin’s rebellion and to reinforce Moscow’s defences against any future attack.

As it planned the fate of Wagner’s fighters, the Kremlin also embarked on a multipronged effort to knock down Prigozhin’s reputation as an anti-establishment truth-teller, portraying him as a self-centred entrepreneur motivated by greed.

On June 27th, Putin held a closed-door meeting with senior Russian media figures at the Kremlin. According to a person present, Putin claimed that Prigozhin had made $4 billion (€3.7 billion) in Africa on “gold and bling”. Putin’s point, the person said, appeared to be that Prigozhin had enriched himself and had no reason to complain.

State television began to tarnish Prigozhin’s image; one outlet, for instance, showed a van stuffed with boxes of cash and a lavish residence, complete with a helicopter – all said to belong to Prigozhin.

After working to discredit Prigozhin, the Kremlin tried to get the Russian public to forget about him. On June 30th, Prigozhin’s media conglomerate, the Patriot Media Group, announced it was shutting down, days after its websites were blocked by Russia’s internet censor.

Then, according to a New York Times analysis of Russian television transcripts compiled by a non-profit organisation called the GDELT Project, Prigozhin virtually disappeared from the airwaves. On most days between July 13th and August 22nd, his name was not mentioned at all on any of the four leading state-controlled channels.

But even as the Kremlin sought to minimise him, Prigozhin still had one roll of the dice left – on the continent where his interests still lay intact.

The battle for Africa

The war in Ukraine made remarkably little difference to Prigozhin’s sprawling interests in Africa. While some Wagner forces in Africa were redeployed to Ukraine in the early weeks of the war, most stayed in place. But the failed mutiny in June placed Prigozhin’s African operations under immense pressure.

Through July and August, he traversed the continent at a frenzied pace, seeking to assure his allies and shore up his business interests, according to western officials and others tracking his movements. He instructed Wagner troops in Belarus to prepare for a “new journey to Africa” – where, French intelligence estimated, about 4,000 Wagner mercenaries were already stationed.

US officials said Prigozhin also sought to squeeze new profits from his extensive African ventures, which were active in at least a half-dozen countries. Wagner’s operations bolstered tottering military regimes, traded in diamonds, gold and lumber, spread disinformation and even made schlock movies to glorify their exploits.

(Even so, Putin’s claim that Prigozhin’s African operations had made him $4 billion seemed greatly exaggerated, the officials added.)

In the months leading up to his rebellion, Prigozhin had grown increasingly bold. This spring he tried to tilt the balance in Sudan’s civil war by smuggling surface-to-air missiles to a notorious paramilitary group, western and United Nations officials said. In February, US officials warned the president of Chad that Prigozhin was plotting to kill him.

Days after the mutiny, in late June, senior Wagner officials flew to eastern Libya to meet strongman Khalifa Hifter, whom they had helped to assault Tripoli in 2019. Their message, according to Mohamed Eljarh, a security analyst who speaks regularly to Hifter’s inner circle: despite the drama in Russia, it was business as usual in Libya.

In fact, things were about to get more worrisome. On June 30th, a mysterious drone strike hit Wagner’s main base in eastern Libya, raising questions about Wagner’s vulnerability.

Then senior Kremlin officials began to make their own trips to Africa, offering the message that Russia was reshaping its business there.

Leading the charge was Yevkurov, whose past experience as an airborne commander and a regional governor gave him military and political bona fides. Prigozhin had publicly humiliated him during the mutiny, holding him hostage and berating him.

Now Yevkurov had an opportunity to take revenge. Travelling through Syria, another major Wagner outpost, and several African countries, he sought to bring Wagner forces more firmly under Moscow’s control.

It was a high-wire act: The minister had to convince not only African and Syrian leaders to switch loyalties, but also Wagner veterans who were faithful to Prigozhin and might chafe at the defence ministry’s rigid command, experts said.

The competition heated up. In late July, co-ordinated rallies in favour of Wagner erupted in Mali, Burkina Faso and Central African Republic. “Thank you Russia! Thank you Wagner!” some demonstrators cheered.

A few weeks later, Prigozhin flew back to Africa for a quick tour.

In Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, he visited his fighters and met president Faustin-Archange Touadéra at his riverside palace to discuss new business deals, a western diplomat and a senior European military official said. A day later, he received a delegation from Sudan – the same paramilitaries Wagner had supplied with missiles – who presented Prigozhin with a crate of gold bars, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In Libya, his plane made two stops, French officials said. And he paused to film a video address, his first since the mutiny, that showed him in a desert – analysts said it was in Mali – dressed in camouflage and hoisting an assault rifle. Wagner was expanding in Africa, he said.

But Yevkurov was also making fresh rounds. On August 22nd, a day after Prigozhin’s video was released, the Russian minister arrived in Libya for his own talks with Hifter. The relationship was being reset, he told the Libyan commander, according to Eljarh. Wagner fighters would stay on but Russian military intelligence would be in charge.

Before leaving, Yevkurov presented Hifter with a pistol – a symbolically charged gift in a country where the ousted Libyan dictator, Muammar Gadafy, famously had a gold-plated pistol.

The following day, Prigozhin flew back to Moscow, where he held meetings with Russian officials, Putin later said in televised remarks. Then he boarded a flight to his home, St Petersburg, along with his two top deputies: Dmitri V Utkin, Wagner’s main commander, and Valery Y Chekalov, its logistics chief.

Nineteen minutes after take-off the jet began to move erratically before plunging 30,000 feet in about one minute, crashing into a field in a fireball.

The fact that the mercenary group’s three top leaders had boarded the same flight stunned Shugalei, the political fixer for Prigozhin, who said that the men never travelled together to allow for an orderly succession after an attack.

“Three key people who never gathered together for certain reasons – because each could replace the other if it came to it – got on the same plane,” said Shugalei, who reported directly to Prigozhin, according to the European Union’s decision to impose sanctions against him. “To me, this is the main mystery.”

For Wagner, an uncertain future

To many Ukrainians, Russians, Syrians and Africans, Prigozhin brought pain and suffering. His propaganda outlets and troll farms harassed Russian journalists and opposition figures. His forces were accused of gruesome war crimes in Syria, massacres in several African countries and torture of prisoners in Ukraine.

His mercenaries also failed to stem Islamist violence in countries where they deployed, such as Mali, where on Thursday 49 civilians and 15 soldiers were killed in attacks, the government said.

But Prigozhin also bred a devoted following, among them Shugalei, who spent more than a year in prison in Libya while Prigozhin campaigned for his eventual release.

Interviewed for this article, Shugalei, who is based in St Petersburg, rejected the idea that the Russian government could fully take over Wagner, or operate as effectively as Wagner did, and described Prigozhin’s little-known son, Pavel, as a potential heir to his empire.

“I think he’s got to take on some of the problems,” he said, referring to Pavel Prigozhin. “As far as I know, he’s prepared to.”

In Washington, officials following the tug of war over Prigozhin’s legacy say it is too soon to tell how it will shake out.

Some agree that Pavel Prigozhin, who is in his 20s, will indeed try to assert control over his father’s company. The United States sanctioned him last year and said he controls three St Petersburg property companies. Last year, his father said his son had fought in Syria and “was and is constantly in hot spots as part of the Wagner PMC” (private military company), a claim that could not be verified.

He may be able to retain some of his father’s domestic assets, which the independent Russian news outlet Agentstvo recently said made about $800 million (about €750 million) in 2022, at the current exchange rate. But he would need the Kremlin’s imprimatur to continue overseas, where governments are buying Moscow’s geopolitical backing as much as local militia services.

US officials say there are a dozen private companies that could also become involved in overseeing paramilitary operations. The leading candidate, perhaps, is PMC Redut, which has close ties to the military intelligence agency and which one Wagner-linked Telegram account recently slammed for not fulfilling “the original contract terms” that it promised its recruits.

There is still a strong market in Africa’s weakest countries for Wagner’s central offering – regime protection. And the demise of Prigozhin has only whetted the appetite of some African countries for a stronger relationship with the Kremlin – especially those previously wary of Wagner, such as Burkina Faso.

When Yevkurov arrived there last week, he was greeted by Capt Ibrahim Traoré, the country’s 35-year-old leader, who seized power in a military coup last year. One of several West African leaders to sever ties with the former colonial power, France, in recent years, Traoré had held a warm meeting with Putin at a Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg in July. “Russia is part of Africa’s family,” he said then.

Yevkurov’s visit, with spymaster Averyanov by his side, solidified that relationship. Russia was open to a strengthened co-operation “in all spheres”, the Burkina Faso presidency said in a statement. The following day, Yevkurov continued to Mali.

By then, Prigozhin had been buried in St Petersburg’s Porokhovskoye Cemetery – a graveyard built for an 18th-century ammunition factory. Riot police and national guardsmen sealed off the site and brought bomb-sniffing dogs to Prigozhin’s grave.

The next day, another video came from Prigozhin, published by a Wagner-linked Telegram account. It was apparently recorded during his last trip to Africa in August, a previously unreleased response to rumours that he was dead.

Addressing “those who like to talk about my liquidation”, he said: “Everything’s fine.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times