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Inside the mercenary group as fighters vow revenge

A small memorial formed outside Wagner headquarters in St Petersburg as confirmation arrived that Yevgeny Prigozhin and other senior leaders were on the private jet that crashed outside Tver with the loss of all passengers.

The first responses from Wagner outlets promised revenge. One affiliated Telegram channel threatened “a second march of justice on Moscow”. Another warned of “catastrophic consequences”.

But anger swiftly gave way to tributes to the late leader – “He will be the best in hell,” said one supporter – and efforts to calm the troops. Leading Wagner outlet Reverse Side of the Medal warned against “rocking the boat in an already stormy reservoir”, suggesting this could lead to “repressive actions against fighters and commanders”.

Messages in Wagner groups expressed fears that members of the faction are now being hunted by agencies of the regime.

The group has already received a crippling blow that it appears unlikely to recover from. “Wagner has been decapitated,” reported Russian crime outlet Cheka as the list of casualties filtered through. Beyond Prigozhin, the plane crash also killed Wagner founder and right-hand man Dmitry Utkin, as well as logistics chief Valery Chekalov.

Emergency specialists carry a body bag near wreckages of the private jet linked to Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin at the crash site in the Tver region, Russia, August 24, 2023. REUTERS/Marina Lystseva TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Aftermath of the crash as emergency workers clear the site (Photo: Reuters)

“The Wagner organisation is done,” said Anton Barbashin, editorial director of Russian political analysis journal Riddle, predicting that “some units will be reorganised under a different brand under the leadership of Russian military intelligence.”

The purge was already well underway in the aftermath of the failed uprising in June.

Wagner fighters had been withdrawn from combat in Ukraine and offered a choice of serving in the Russian military or exile in Belarus. Public advertising and recruitment posters were torn down. Prigozhin’s business interests had been shuttered and his media empire disbanded.

Russian officials had flown out to meet African leaders and reassure them that the security services they were receiving from Wagner would continue, but under the direction of the state.

That process appears to be gathering pace, with indications that a new facility built to house Wagner troops in Belarus is being dismantled.

The death of Prigozhin, recently a high profile public figure who shared stages with President Vladimir Putin, barely received a passing mention on Russia’s main news bulletins.

Parts of the existing infrastructure may be retained, and some senior figures could retain influence. Cheka reported that Wagner’s leader in the Ural mountains, Andrei Borisenko, has “active support from local authorities” in a territory that “is becoming a new regional stronghold of private military companies.”

The group is expected to nominate a new leader in due course, albeit over a much diminished force.

Wagner channels say Prigozhin’s funeral will be a major event in his home city of St Petersburg, with his former comrades turning out in force to pay tribute. The guest list and speakers will be pored over for indications of the group’s future.

But as the purge continues, any new leader will be filling Prigozhin’s shoes at their own risk.

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