“‘Africa’s all going to sh—. They wouldn’t let him do any operations anymore and nobody’s going to take them over, because you need Zhenya for that. He was the only one crazy enough to make it work.’”
Those words are ascribed to a person described by the Financial Times as a longtime acquaintance of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the referenced “Zhenya,” and the question on the table is what becomes of the Wagner Group’s operations, and the Kremlin’s ambitions, in Africa, after the apparent demise on Aug. 23 of Prigozhin under circumstances described euphemistically as murky.
For a time after the equally murky mutiny staged in June by Prigozhin, nicknamed Putin’s chef, against the Kremlin’s military leaders if not against President Vladimir Putin himself, it was speculated that Prigozhin would not pay with his life for the rebellion because he was too valuable to Russia’s desire to build influence in, and extract wealth from, Africa.
In Africa, Wagner’s full suite of malignant product offerings has reportedly been on show, from election interference and disinformation campaigns — recall that Prigozhin also headed the St. Petersburg–based troll farm the Internet Research Agency, infamous for alleged roles in the U.K.’s Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. — to the sowing of chaos and the seeding of anti-Western and antidemocracy sentiment. Outright military activities have been undertaken in service to juntas and Kremlin-aligned strongmen.
Believed to have died alongside Prigozhin — there were no survivors when the plane dropped from the sky north of Moscow — was Dmitry Utkin, frequently described as Prigozhin’s No. 2 at Wagner but, in actuality, the private militia’s founder, mastermind and, in the estimation of German Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow András Rácz, the “real owner” of Wagner.
Utkin — said to have named the mercenary force after the German composer favored by the Nazi leadership, in the event that his “SS” neck tattoo was oversubtle — was reputed to have himself been a savage fighter on the ground in eastern Ukraine and northern Africa and to have set the Wagner tone.
“Taking Utkin off the board, if you will,” Jason Blazakis of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies was quoted as having told the FT, “is going to [be] a serious setback for Wagner in its operations.”