Putin reignites tensions over Wagner’s future with successor push

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to appoint a successor to lead the Wagner Group is reigniting public tensions over the future of the mercenary company.

Wagner’s next leader has been unclear after the death of the company’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in an August plane crash, however Putin has moved swiftly to exert more oversight after Prigozhin led an aborted rebellion against him in June.

But senior Wagner fighters may be trying to hold onto their influence. There are rumors circulating on Wagner Telegram channels that fighters could back Prigozhin’s son, the 25-year-old Pavel Prigozhin, or someone else connected to Wagner’s old guard to lead the military company.

While Wagner officers are still resistant to a Kremlin-controlled command structure, they are unlikely to mount a challenge anytime soon.

Putin has pushedto absorb the company into the Russian military while maintaining the name and brand, which continues to wield power and influence across the globe. Last week, he also announced that he had tapped Andrei Troshev, a retired Russian colonel known by his call sign “gray-hair” and a former Wagner commander, to oversee all mercenary forces in Ukraine.

Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor of international affairs and national security for the University of New Haven, said the latest developments have shown Wagner is “no longer independent.”

“Wagner Group as a coherent entity is over,” he said. “The story of Wagner Group is in its last chapter. And really what we’re talking about now is an epilogue well beyond its peak.”

Putin’s deputy defense minister, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, has traveled abroad to several countries in Africa, apparently to shore up Russian support amid questions about global Wagner operations after the rebellion. That suggests he will play a key role in overseeing the company’s future for the Kremlin.

Analysts believe Putin has absorbed the newest Wagner fighters, who are largely made up of convicts pulled from prison by Prigozhin to fight in Ukraine. They will fall under Troshev’s command in Ukraine but effectively will be controlled by Yevkurov and the Russian Defense Ministry.

Meanwhile, analysts believe, veteran Wagner fighters will be left to their work across the globe, mostly in the Middle East and Africa where they have brought benefits for the Kremlin through ties with local governments to exploit natural resources. Those soldiers will likely continue operating under the Wagner banner, but only in name and so long as they don’t cross Putin.

Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the “easy problem” was to nationalize the newer Wagner fighters, while the much more difficult challenge is managing what he calls the “old guard” in Wagner.

Many of the senior fighters detest the new Wagner recruits and have long disliked Troshev, explained McFate, a former U.S. paratrooper and former mercenary who has personally talked with Wagner members in the past.

“The big question is, if [Putin] can’t get those Wagner Group guys in Africa — or at least a significant portion of them — under his thumb, then he loses a great power competition against the U.S. and China in Africa,” said McFate.

McFate said that Putin will need Wagner as an “invisible hand in Africa that does the Kremlin’s bidding,” but will have to ensure the old guard is well paid and has enough independence to be content.

“If Russia tries to be heavy-handed and tries to pull these guys back into Ukraine, or tries to put them on a short leash in Africa,” McFate said, “that may not go well.”

Wagner Group has not entirely surrendered to the Kremlin, though it’s doubtful the company has enough power to defy Putin.

In a Telegram post, a main Wagner channel hinted they would not be supporting Troshev, one of the founding members of Wagner who was the chief of staff for the company’s operations in Syria.

The channel said Troshev has served as an intermediary between Wagner and the Russian government but lost his command after the rebellion, which Prigozhin loyalists call the “March of Justice.”

“After sharp criticism of the March of Justice and Troshev’s perception of this event in a sharply negative way, the attitude towards him within the company worsened,” the channel wrote, adding rather cryptically: “Therefore, rest assured — the orchestra has played and will play by its own rules.”

The British Defense Ministry said before the rebellion that Troshev may have encouraged Wagner fighters to sign contracts that would have allowed the Kremlin to gain more influence over them. The contracts were a major impetus toward the rebellion.

“Many Wagner veterans likely consider him a traitor,” British government analysts wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Last week, another Wagner-affiliated channel shared Prigozhin’s will, which shows that his son Pavel would inherit most of his fortune — including Concord, the umbrella company that included the late mercenary chief’s ventures.

The Institute for the Study of War assessed this week that “some Wagner personnel are interested in rallying around a Prigozhin-linked alternative” to Troshev, indicating it was possible Pavel could assume control.

However, the analysts interviewed for this story cast doubt that Pavel would actually assume control of the company, even if under the influence of prominent Wagner officials.

“This is ridiculous. He’s an heir apparent, and it would be the dumbest move that Putin could do to give Prigozhin’s son some kind of platform from which to avenge his father’s death,” said Schmidt from the University of New Haven. “That is the farthest thing from likely.”

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