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After Prigozhin’s Dying, a Excessive-Stakes Scramble for His Empire


African leaders allied with Russia had grown used to coping with Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the swaggering, profane mercenary chief who traveled the continent by personal jet, providing to prop up shaky regimes with weapons and propaganda in return for gold and diamonds.

However the Russian delegation that toured three African nations final week was led by a really totally different determine, the starchy deputy protection minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Wearing a khaki uniform and a “telnyashka” — the horizontally-striped undergarment of Russian armed forces — he signaled conformity and restraint, giving assurances wrapped in well mannered language.

“We’ll do our greatest that can assist you,” he stated at a information convention in Burkina Faso.

The distinction with the flamboyant Mr. Prigozhin couldn’t have been sharper, and it aligned with the message the Kremlin was delivering: After Mr. Prigozhin’s demise in a airplane crash final month, Russia’s operations in Africa have been coming underneath new administration.

It was a glimpse of a shadowy battle now taking part in out on three continents: the struggle for the profitable paramilitary and propaganda empire that enriched Mr. Prigozhin and served Russia’s army and diplomatic ambitions — till the Wagner chief staged a failed mutiny towards the Kremlin in June.

Interviews with greater than a dozen present and former officers in Washington, Europe, Africa and Russia — in addition to 4 Russians who labored for Mr. Prigozhin — painting a tug of struggle over his belongings amongst main gamers in Russia’s energy construction, together with two totally different intelligence businesses. Lots of these interviewed spoke on situation of anonymity, to debate delicate diplomatic and intelligence points.

The struggle is sophisticated, these folks stated, by the lingering allegiance to Mr. Prigozhin in his personal military, the place some are bridling at being subsumed inside Russia’s protection ministry and as a substitute backing a switch of energy to Mr. Prigozhin’s son.

“Wagner is not only in regards to the cash — it’s a sort of faith,” stated Maksim Shugalei, a political guide for Mr. Prigozhin, including that he was proud to be a part of the mercenary drive. “It’s unlikely that this construction will completely disappear. For me, that is not possible.”

The interviews additionally revealed extra about President Vladimir V. Putin’s marketing campaign to discredit Mr. Prigozhin after the rebel, together with his declaration to a bunch of media figures that the Wagner chief was a profiteer who had made billions from “gold and bling.”

The accounts recommend that even in demise, Mr. Prigozhin stays a defining determine of Mr. Putin’s Russia — encapsulating the secrecy, infighting and contradictory techniques of the Kremlin because it wages struggle towards Ukraine.

He was “an indication of dysfunction, a screaming thermometer,” stated Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst in Moscow who stated he knew Mr. Prigozhin. “Should you take away the thermometer, it doesn’t change the scenario.”

The scramble for Mr. Prigozhin’s belongings — which he assembled as he traded on his multifaceted potential to serve Mr. Putin in return for presidency contracts — has far-reaching implications. His paramilitary group was Russia’s simplest preventing drive in Ukraine within the final yr, and its dissipation raises questions on Russia’s potential to mount new offensives. His media group, full with a web based “troll farm,” was instrumental in undercutting democratic establishments world wide.

Nowhere does Wagner’s operation now carry extra worth for Russia than in African nations together with Libya and the Central African Republic, the place its mercenaries have gained belief and wealth by propping up strongmen and autocrats. These efforts helped enhance Russia’s affect on the continent whereas weakening Western powers like France and the US.

Western officers briefed on confidential intelligence assessments say two Russian spy businesses — the overseas intelligence service, the S.V.R., and the army intelligence company, the G.R.U. — are vying to take over key facets of Mr. Prigozhin’s operations. Two officers, from totally different governments, stated that the S.V.R. was prone to take in Wagner’s propaganda and on-line disinformation retailers focusing on overseas nations, whereas the Protection Ministry and the G.R.U. may absorb Wagner’s mercenary operation.

There have been indicators on Mr. Yevkurov’s swing by means of Africa that the army intelligence department will play a key function in no matter occurs subsequent: the delegation included one in every of Russia’s high spies, Gen. Andrei V. Averyanov, recognized for having led an elite unit specializing in subversion, sabotage and assassination overseas.

Movies launched by Burkina Faso and Mali confirmed Common Averyanov subsequent to Mr. Yevkurov as they courted the nations’ leaders. Western officers see the final as a number one candidate to supervise at the very least among the former Wagner operations as a part of an evolving system that includes a number of personal army firms.

The Kremlin declined to touch upon the way forward for Mr. Prigozhin’s empire.

“That is none of our enterprise in any respect, and we’re not coping with it in any method,” stated Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman.

By this spring, Mr. Prigozhin had morphed from a secretive oligarch enriched by authorities catering and building contracts to a populist warlord and politician. He recruited tens of hundreds of prisoners to swell Wagner’s ranks and harangued Russia’s army management for alleged corruption and incompetence.

He was simply as busy making enemies within the Russian Protection Ministry behind the scenes. He held his personal prisoner-exchange negotiations with Ukraine’s army intelligence company, separate from the common military, leveraging his private relationship with Mr. Putin to convey Wagner fighters dwelling as a substitute of enlisted Russian service members, based on a number of folks with data of the talks.

All of the whereas, members of Russia’s ruling elite puzzled over why the Kremlin was permitting Mr. Prigozhin to assault the nation’s high brass so viciously and publicly. Two folks near the Kremlin stated that Mr. Putin appeared to have his personal imaginative and prescient of easy methods to handle the warlord, and his aides appeared powerless to affect it.

Then, on June 23, Mr. Prigozhin launched his mutiny, seizing the southern metropolis of Rostov-on-Don and marching on Moscow. Andrei Krasnobayev, the editor of 1 Prigozhin information web site, stated he didn’t see Mr. Prigozhin’s rebel coming, regardless of the Wagner chief’s more and more vitriolic diatribes.

“Many colleagues name him a psychopath,” he stated, referring to different journalists. “I didn’t get that sense.”

When Mr. Prigozhin aborted his rebellion, accepting a take care of the Kremlin, it appeared his profession was completed, even when he was fortunate to have escaped together with his life. For the subsequent a number of weeks, he receded into the background, his whereabouts a thriller.

A key query was what would occur to his mercenary fighters. As Kremlin officers mulled their future, they despatched a number of thousand to Belarus “to park them there,” based on a Western official, offering time to type out which senior officers have been complicit in Mr. Prigozhin’s rebel and to bolster Moscow’s defenses towards any future assault.

Because it deliberate the destiny of Wagner’s fighters, the Kremlin additionally launched into a multipronged effort to knock down Mr. Prigozhin’s repute as an anti-establishment truth-teller, portraying him as a self-centered entrepreneur motivated by greed.

On June 27, Mr. Putin held a closed-door assembly with senior Russian media figures on the Kremlin. In line with an individual current, Mr. Putin claimed that Mr. Prigozhin had made $4 billion in Africa on “gold and bling.” Mr. Putin’s level, the particular person stated, seemed to be that Mr. Prigozhin had enriched himself and had no motive to complain.

State tv started to tarnish Mr. Prigozhin’s picture; one outlet, for example, confirmed a van full of containers of money and a lavish residence, full with a helicopter — all stated to belong to Mr. Prigozhin.

After working to discredit Mr. Prigozhin, the Kremlin tried to get the Russian public to overlook about him. On June 30, Mr. Prigozhin’s media conglomerate, the Patriot Media Group, introduced it was shutting down, days after its web sites have been blocked by Russia’s web censor.

Then, based on a New York Occasions evaluation of Russian tv transcripts compiled by a nonprofit known as the GDELT Mission, Mr. Prigozhin nearly disappeared from the airwaves. On most days between July 13 and Aug. 22, his title was not talked about in any respect on any of the 4 main state-controlled channels.

However even because the Kremlin sought to reduce him, Mr. Prigozhin nonetheless had one roll of the cube left — on the continent the place his pursuits nonetheless lay intact.

The struggle in Ukraine made remarkably little distinction to Mr. Prigozhin’s sprawling pursuits in Africa. Whereas some Wagner forces in Africa have been redeployed to Ukraine within the early weeks of the struggle, most stayed in place. However the failed mutiny in June positioned ‌Mr. Prigozhin’s African operations‌ underneath immense stress.

Via July and August, he traversed the continent at a frenzied tempo, in search of to guarantee his allies and shore up his enterprise pursuits, based on Western officers and others monitoring his actions. He instructed Wagner troops in Belarus to organize for a “new journey to Africa” — the place, French intelligence estimated, about 4,000 Wagner mercenaries have been already stationed.

American officers stated Mr. Prigozhin additionally sought to squeeze new income from his in depth African ventures, which have been energetic in at the very least a half-dozen nations. Wagner’s operations bolstered tottering army regimes, traded in diamonds, gold and lumber, unfold disinformation and even made schlock motion pictures to glorify their exploits.

(Even so, Mr. Putin’s declare that Mr. Prigozhin’s African operations had made him $4 billion appeared drastically exaggerated, the officers added.)

Within the months main as much as his rebel, Mr. Prigozhin had grown more and more daring. This spring he tried to tilt the stability in Sudan’s civil struggle by smuggling surface-to-air missiles to a infamous paramilitary group, Western and United Nations officers stated. In February, U.S. officers warned the president of Chad that Mr. Prigozhin was plotting to kill him.

Days after the mutiny, in late June, senior Wagner officers flew to jap Libya to satisfy with the strongman Khalifa Hifter, whom they’d helped to assault Tripoli in 2019. Their message, based on Mohamed Eljarh, a safety analyst who speaks usually to Mr. Hifter’s interior circle: regardless of the drama in Russia, it was enterprise as common in Libya.

The truth is, issues have been about to get extra worrisome. On June 30, a mysterious drone strike hit Wagner’s predominant base in jap Libya, elevating questions on Wagner’s vulnerability.

Then senior Kremlin officers started to make their very own journeys to Africa, providing the message that Russia was reshaping its enterprise there.

Main the cost was Mr. Yevkurov, whose previous expertise as an airborne commander and a regional governor gave him army and political bona fides. Mr. Prigozhin had publicly humiliated him throughout the mutiny, holding him hostage and berating him.

Now Mr. Yevkurov had a possibility to take revenge. Touring by means of Syria, one other main Wagner outpost, and several other African nations, he sought to convey Wagner forces extra firmly underneath Moscow’s management.

It was a high-wire act: The minister needed to persuade not solely African and Syrian leaders to modify loyalties, but in addition Wagner veterans who have been devoted to Mr. Prigozhin and may chafe on the Protection Ministry’s inflexible command, consultants stated.

The competitors heated up. In late July, coordinated rallies in favor of Wagner erupted in Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic. “Thanks Russia! Thanks Wagner!” some demonstrators cheered.

A number of weeks later, Mr. Prigozhin flew again to Africa for a fast tour.

In Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic, he visited his fighters and met with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra at his riverside palace to debate new enterprise offers, a Western diplomat and a senior European army official stated. A day later, he obtained a delegation from Sudan — the identical paramilitaries Wagner had equipped with missiles — who introduced Mr. Prigozhin with a crate of gold bars, The Wall Road Journal reported.

In Libya, his airplane made two stops, French officers stated. And he paused to movie a video handle, his first because the mutiny, that confirmed him in a desert — analysts stated it was in Mali — wearing camouflage and hoisting an assault rifle. Wagner was increasing in Africa, he stated.

However Mr. Yevkurov was additionally making recent rounds. On Aug. 22, a day after Mr. Prigozhin’s video was launched, the Russian minister arrived in Libya for his personal talks with Mr. Hifter. The connection was being reset, he advised the Libyan commander, based on Mr. Eljarh, the analyst. Wagner fighters would keep on however Russian army intelligence could be in cost.

Earlier than leaving, Mr. Yevkurov introduced Mr. Hifter with a pistol — a symbolically charged present in a rustic the place the ousted Libyan dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, famously had a gold-plated pistol.

The next day, Mr. Prigozhin flew again to Moscow, the place he held conferences with Russian officers, Mr. Putin later stated in televised remarks. Then he boarded a flight to his dwelling, St. Petersburg, alongside together with his two high deputies: Dmitri V. Utkin, Wagner’s predominant commander, and Valery Y. Chekalov, its logistics chief.

Nineteen minutes after takeoff the jet started to maneuver erratically earlier than plunging 30,000 ft in about one minute, crashing right into a area in a fireball.

The truth that the mercenary group’s three high leaders had boarded the identical flight surprised Mr. Shugalei, the political fixer for Mr. Prigozhin, who stated that the boys by no means traveled collectively to permit for an orderly succession after an assault.

“Three key individuals who by no means gathered collectively for sure causes — as a result of every may exchange the opposite if it got here to it — acquired on the identical airplane,” stated Mr. Shugalei, who reported on to Mr. Prigozhin, based on the European Union’s determination to impose sanctions towards him. “To me, that is the principle thriller.”

To many Ukrainians, Russians, Syrians and Africans, Mr. Prigozhin introduced ache and struggling. His propaganda retailers and troll farms harassed Russian journalists and opposition figures. His forces have been accused of ugly struggle crimes in Syria, massacres in a number of African nations and torture of prisoners in Ukraine.

His mercenaries additionally didn’t stem Islamist violence in nations the place they deployed, like Mali, the place on Thursday 49 civilians and 15 troopers have been killed in assaults, the federal government stated.

However Mr. Prigozhin additionally bred a faithful following, amongst them Mr. Shugalei, who spent greater than a yr in jail in Libya whereas Mr. Prigozhin campaigned for his eventual launch.

Interviewed for this text, Mr. Shugalei, who relies in St. Petersburg, rejected the concept the Russian authorities may totally take over Wagner, or function as successfully as Wagner did, and described Mr. Prigozhin’s little-known son, Pavel, as a possible inheritor to his empire.

“I feel he’s acquired to tackle among the issues,” he stated, referring to Pavel Prigozhin. “So far as I do know, he’s ready to.”

In Washington, officers following the tug of struggle over Mr. Prigozhin’s legacy say it’s too quickly to inform the way it will shake out.

Some agree that Pavel Prigozhin, who’s in his 20s, will certainly attempt to assert management over his father’s firm. America sanctioned him final yr and stated he controls three St. Petersburg actual property firms. Final yr, his father stated that his son had fought in Syria and “was and is continually in sizzling spots as a part of the Wagner P.M.C.” (personal army firm), a declare that would not be verified.

He could possibly retain a few of his father’s home belongings, which the unbiased Russian information outlet Agentstvo lately stated made about $800 million in 2022, on the present trade price. However he would want the Kremlin’s imprimatur to proceed abroad, the place governments are shopping for Moscow’s geopolitical backing as a lot as native militia providers.

American officers now say there are a dozen personal firms that would additionally grow to be concerned in overseeing paramilitary operations. The main candidate, maybe, is P.M.C. Redut, which has shut ties to the miliary intelligence company and which one Wagner-linked Telegram account lately slammed for not fulfilling “the unique contract phrases” that it promised its recruits.

There’s nonetheless a powerful market in Africa’s weakest nations for Wagner’s central providing — regime safety. And the demise of Mr. Prigozhin has solely whetted the urge for food of some African nations for a stronger relationship with the Kremlin — particularly these beforehand cautious of Wagner, like Burkina Faso.

When Mr. Yevkurov arrived there final week, he was greeted by Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, the nation’s 35-year-old chief, who seized energy in a army coup final yr. Considered one of a number of West African leaders to sever ties with the previous colonial energy, France, in recent times, Mr. Traoré had held a heat assembly with Mr. Putin at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July. “Russia is a part of Africa’s household,” he stated then.

Mr. Yevkurov’s go to, with the spymaster Common Averyanov by his facet, solidified that relationship. Russia was open to strengthened cooperation “in all spheres,” the Burkina Faso presidency stated in an announcement. The next day, Mr. Yevkurov continued to Mali.

By then, Mr. Prigozhin had been buried in St. Petersburg’s Porokhovskoye Cemetery — a graveyard constructed for an 18th-century ammunition manufacturing facility. Riot police and nationwide guardsmen sealed off the location and introduced bomb-sniffing canines to Mr. Prigozhin’s grave.

The following day got here one other video from Mr. Prigozhin, printed by a Wagner-linked Telegram account. It was apparently recorded throughout his final journey to Africa in August, a beforehand unreleased response to rumors that he was useless.

Addressing “those that like to speak about my liquidation,” he stated: “All the things’s effective.”

Valerie Hopkins, Elian Peltier, Paul Sonne, Ekaterina Bodyagina, Alina Lobzina, Oleg Matsnev and Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting.

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