A New Era of Control: Putin's Strategy Post-Prigozhin’s Rebellion

What happened to Wagner after Prigozhin's death? - Putin got what he wanted and now has complete control over the army and the state

by Sededin Dedovic
A New Era of Control: Putin's Strategy Post-Prigozhin’s Rebellion
© Dennis Grombkowski / Getty Images

When the head of the Russian paramilitary unit Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, sent his mercenaries in an attack on Moscow in a brief rebellion last year, President Vladimir Putin looked weak and vulnerable. But just a year after the most serious challenge to his authority in nearly a quarter-century in power, the Kremlin leader now appears more secure than ever.

Prigozhin died in a plane crash two months after the rebellion, during which his Wagner fighters seized the headquarters of the Russian army in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, shot down a military plane, and marched halfway to the capital before Belarus brokered a deal to end the 24-hour uprising.

Afterward, Putin implemented a new rule: no one will be allowed the same level of autonomy again. "Before Prigozhin's rise, we didn't have cases where the commander of a strong military unit could simultaneously control financial, political, and media resources," said Nikolai Petrov, a fellow at the Chatham House research center for international affairs, describing the unique position the mercenary leader had gained in the run-up to his rebellion, reports AFP.

Putin allowed Prigozhin to have all those levers, not only because of their close personal relationship but also because Russia's ground offensive in Ukraine was losing momentum and he needed Wagner's manpower.

Yevgeny Prigozhin© Associated Press / Youtube channel

It was a costly mistake, and it forced Putin to prioritize control and loyalty in resource allocation from then on, Petrov said.

Not only is "no one disloyal to Putin now," but the 71-year-old has sought "direct and constant control over the most important players," he said. In recent weeks, the president has ordered radical changes in the country's military establishment, which was one of Prigozhin's demands before the rebellion.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has been dismissed, and several high-ranking military officials have been arrested on corruption charges. Putin appointed technocratic economist Andrey Belousov as his new defense chief, avoiding once again "any influential leader" who could promote the military's interests at the top, Petrov said.

UK Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace (L), and Defence Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergei Shoigu (C), are seen © Handout / Getty Images

The reshuffle marked a reversal from a year ago when Putin supported his defense chiefs facing Prigozhin's accusations of widespread corruption, strategic incompetence, and poor handling of the invasion of Ukraine.

The key difference is that Putin ordered the change out of necessity, not political pressure. "The fact that he can take these steps and challenge the interests and livelihoods of high-ranking military figures is a sign of his strength, not weakness," said Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Putin also demonstrated his power with a convincing victory of 87% in the March presidential elections, without any real opposition, which international observers criticized. "The vote showed that Putin can devise whatever he wants and make the population accept it," Gould-Davies said.

"It's an expression of his dominance and power to get away with this, rather than the official, published outcome in any way reflecting real support," he added. The result was "symbolic": the exaggerated margin of victory was not because Putin "likes to get as many votes as possible," but he had to show that his popularity was "much higher than before the war," Petrov told AFP.

Putin's only real political rival, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic prison colony in February while serving a 19-year sentence, further consolidating his power. "If we take that together with other repressive measures and exemplary prison sentences handed down to other people, he has now intimidated and frightened a large part of the population," Gould-Davies said.

That does not mean Kremlin support is deep, he warned. During the rebellion on June 23-24, 2023, former President Dmitry Medvedev warned that the Russian nuclear arsenal should not fall into the hands of "bandits," and other regional officials issued lukewarm statements calling for calm.

Career in Africa

In February, the BBC obtained documents revealing that Moscow was offering a regime survival package in exchange for access to strategically important natural resources—access previously favored by the Wagner group.

The plan was proposed by the so-called Russian expeditionary group, nicknamed the African Corps, commanded by former GRU General Andrey Averyanov. He had previously overseen covert operations specializing in targeted assassinations and destabilizing foreign governments.

Experts told the BBC that the African Corps has effectively replaced Wagner in West Africa. On Telegram, the unit boasted about offering recruits salaries up to 110,000 rubles per year and service under competent commanders with extensive combat experience.

Dan Storyev from the monitoring group OVD told the BBC that Prigozhin's legacy largely belongs to those aligned with the Kremlin. "There are people organizing protests in Russia, but they are focused on anti-war activism and have nothing to do with Prigozhin," Storyev stated. Source: AFP / BBC