European officials are cautiously watching the fallout from the apparent death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose short-lived attempt to overthrow the Russian defense leadership in late June put him in the crosshairs of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin’s reported death Wednesday — in a plane crash on a sunny, cloudless day traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg — was not particularly surprising, coming on the two-month anniversary of his mutiny attempt.
However, it has still raised a flurry of questions, such as how Prigozhin’s death changes the security situation in Europe and if there’s any opportunity for Ukraine or Putin’s other foes within and outside Russia to exploit the situation.
“Together with our neighbors we are closely monitoring situation around the Wagner troops,” a Baltic official told The Hill.
“Any provocations by the Wagner troops along our borders would be met with a firm response. We consider the deployment of the Wagner troops in Belarus as an escalation by the Russian Federation and Belarus.”
The first reaction from Ukrainian officials was a pointed message to the West and its supporters to hold back from pushing Kyiv into negotiations with Moscow, pointing to a deal brokered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko that ended Prigozhin’s march on Moscow in late June, supposedly in exchange for amnesty.
“Prigozhin signed a special death warrant for himself the moment he believed in Lukashenko’s bizarre ‘guarantees’ and Putin’s equally absurd ‘word of honor,’” Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Head of the Office of President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“A good lesson to all the ‘doves of peace’ who still believe in the possibility of negotiating with Putin under the condition of a ‘ceasefire and arms supply termination.’”
An estimated few thousand of Prigozhin’s Wagner forces were transferred to Belarus as part of the deal brokered by Lukashenko, although many details of the deal remain unknown.
Baltic states are watching closely whether those Wagner troops remain in Belarus. Their arrival in the beginning of July prompted a heightened security posture to protect against any provocations that may occur across the border.
Belaruski Hajun, an activist group that tracks troop movements within Belarus, wrote on Telegram that at least two camps associated with Wagner fighters were being dismantled, but that these operations were underway between the end of July and August.
Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland share the largest share of the border with Belarus, where commercial trade and the flow of people transit over multiple crossings. Lithuania last week announced it would close two of its six border crossings with Belarus in an effort to impose more control over the flow of goods and people.
The border closures prompted the U.S. Embassy of Belarus, which operates in Vilnius, to issue a security alert for Americans to depart Belarus immediately.
Prigozhin’s death leaves open the leadership of the Wagner group. The private military company was on the front lines of Russia’s war in Ukraine, leading the successful but costly effort to seize Bakhmut. However, its mercenary forces withdrew from Ukraine around the same time as the short-lived rebellion, and it’s unclear if they might return.
Wagner also operates as private security contractors in countries in Africa, and its forces have been accused of heinous abuses against civilians and exploitation of natural resources in mining businesses.
“Wagner Group was decapitated,” said Wojciech Lorenz, head of the International Security Program of the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International Affairs.
“It will limit its usefulness as a tool of psychological operations against Poland from Belarus. But Russia will still need private military companies to act mainly in Africa, so Wagner Group, even if rebranded as other groups, will remain active threatening Western interests and security.”
Wagner Telegram channels have pinned the blame for the crash on Russian defense forces, raising some speculation of Wagner’s remaining leaders seeking to avenge Prigozhin’s death, perhaps with a second march to Moscow.
However, experts and officials are skeptical of such a possibility, given the group’s relative state of disarray.
After the mutiny attempt, Putin called for formally integrating Wagner forces into the Russian military.
Ariel Cohen, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said that loyalty among Wagner forces toward Prigozhin is likely to make it more difficult for Putin to integrate these forces into the Russian army.
“The question now arises: What will happen with the Wagner Group assets in Russia, Belarus, African countries, and Syria?” Cohen said.
The U.S. and other NATO allies have warned against Wagner forces threatening territory of the alliance, saying that they viewed no distinction between the private military company and the Russian military.
Still, European capitals were largely muted in their reactions the day after Prigozhin’s reported death.
The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense, which provides daily defense intelligence updates on Russia’s war in Ukraine and the state of Russia, did not mention Prigozhin’s death in its latest bulletin.
Instead, it noted how Putin made an Aug. 19 visit to Rostov-on-Don, the headquarters for the Russian military’s southern operations against Ukraine and that was seized by Prigozhin in his mutiny attempt June 24.
“Putin highly likely wishes to project his authority and to portray the senior military command as functioning as usual,” the assessment read.
Tatiana Stanovaya, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, wrote on X that for Putin, “Prigozhin’s death should serve as a lesson to any potential successors.”
“I see no reason why Putin would need Prigozhin in any capacity after the mutiny,” she wrote.
“Prigozhin was only needed for some time after the mutiny to smoothly dismantle Wagner in Russia and move it to Belarus under new leadership.”
Source : The Hill