World

After Prigozhin’s Death, a High-Stakes Scramble for His Empire

African leaders allied with Russia had grown used to dealing with Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the swaggering, profane mercenary leader who traveled the continent by private jet, offering to prop up shaky regimes with guns and propaganda in return for gold and diamonds.

But the Russian delegation that toured three African countries last week was led by a very different figure, the starchy deputy defense minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Dressed in a khaki uniform and a “telnyashka” — the horizontally-striped undergarment of Russian armed forces — he signaled conformity and restraint, giving assurances wrapped in polite language.

“We will do our best to help you,” he said at a news conference in Burkina Faso.

The contrast with the flamboyant Mr. Prigozhin could not have been sharper, and it aligned with the message the Kremlin was delivering: After Mr. Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash last month, Russia’s operations in Africa were coming under new management.

It was a glimpse of a shadowy battle now playing out on three continents: the fight for the lucrative paramilitary and propaganda empire that enriched Mr. Prigozhin and served Russia’s military and diplomatic ambitions — until the Wagner leader staged a failed mutiny against the Kremlin in June.

A screen grab of a YouTube video shows Yunus-bek Yevkurov, a Russian deputy defense minister, at left, meeting with Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, the interim president of Burkina Faso, right.Credit…via YouTube

Interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials in Washington, Europe, Africa and Russia — as well as four Russians who worked for Mr. Prigozhin — portray a tug of war over his assets among major players in Russia’s power structure, including two different intelligence agencies. Many of those interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity, to discuss sensitive diplomatic and intelligence issues.

The fight is complicated, these people said, by the lingering allegiance to Mr. Prigozhin in his private army, where some are bridling at being subsumed within Russia’s defense ministry and instead backing a transfer of power to Mr. Prigozhin’s son.

“Wagner is not just about the money — it’s a kind of religion,” said Maksim Shugalei, a political consultant for Mr. Prigozhin, adding that he was proud to be part of the mercenary force. “It’s unlikely that this structure will totally disappear. For me, this is impossible.”

The interviews also revealed more about President Vladimir V. Putin’s campaign to discredit Mr. Prigozhin after the rebellion, including his declaration to a group of media figures that the Wagner leader was a profiteer who had made billions from “gold and bling.”

The accounts suggest that even in death, Mr. Prigozhin remains a defining figure of Mr. Putin’s Russia — encapsulating the secrecy, infighting and contradictory tactics of the Kremlin as it wages war against Ukraine.

He was “a sign of dysfunction, a screaming thermometer,” said Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst in Moscow who said he knew Mr. Prigozhin. “If you take away the thermometer, it doesn’t change the situation.”

The scramble for Mr. Prigozhin’s assets — which he assembled as he traded on his multifaceted ability to serve Mr. Putin in return for government contracts — has far-reaching implications. His paramilitary group was Russia’s most effective fighting force in Ukraine in the last year, and its dissipation raises questions about Russia’s ability to mount new offensives. His media group, complete with an online “troll farm,” was instrumental in undercutting democratic institutions around the world.

Images taken from a drone while embedded with the 93rd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Army show destroyed buildings in Bakhmut, Ukraine, where Wagner fighters eventually gained control.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Nowhere does Wagner’s operation now carry more value for Russia than in African countries including Libya and the Central African Republic, where its mercenaries have gained trust and wealth by propping up strongmen and autocrats. Those efforts helped increase Russia’s influence on the continent while weakening Western powers like France and the United States.

Western officials briefed on confidential intelligence assessments say two Russian spy agencies — the foreign intelligence service, the S.V.R., and the military intelligence agency, the G.R.U. — are vying to take over key aspects of Mr. Prigozhin’s operations. Two officials, from different governments, said that the S.V.R. was likely to absorb Wagner’s propaganda and online disinformation outlets targeting foreign countries, while the Defense Ministry and the G.R.U. could take in Wagner’s mercenary operation.

There were signs on Mr. Yevkurov’s swing through Africa that the military intelligence branch will play a key role in whatever happens next: the delegation included one of Russia’s top spies, Gen. Andrei V. Averyanov, known for having led an elite unit specializing in subversion, sabotage and assassination abroad.

Videos released by Burkina Faso and Mali showed General Averyanov next to Mr. Yevkurov as they courted the countries’ leaders. Western officials see the general as a leading candidate to oversee at least some of the former Wagner operations as part of an evolving system featuring multiple private military companies.

Gen. Andrei V. Averyanov, left, and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, right, are seen in a screen grab from a video released by Mali state media, as they met with leaders in Mali.Credit…via YouTube

The Kremlin declined to comment on the future of Mr. Prigozhin’s empire.

“This is none of our business at all, and we are not dealing with it in any way,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman.

A Campaign to Discredit Prigozhin

By this spring, Mr. Prigozhin had morphed from a secretive oligarch enriched by government catering and construction contracts to a populist warlord and politician. He recruited tens of thousands of prisoners to swell Wagner’s ranks and harangued Russia’s military leadership for alleged corruption and incompetence.

In this image from a video provided by his press service, Yevgeny Prigozhin asks Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to withdraw the remaining Ukrainian forces from the city of Bakhmut.Credit…Prigozhin Press Service, via Associated Press

He was just as busy making enemies in the Russian Defense Ministry behind the scenes. He held his own prisoner-exchange negotiations with Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, separate from the regular army, leveraging his personal relationship with Mr. Putin to bring Wagner fighters home instead of enlisted Russian service members, according to several people with knowledge of the talks.

All the while, members of Russia’s ruling elite puzzled over why the Kremlin was allowing Mr. Prigozhin to attack the country’s top brass so viciously and publicly. Two people close to the Kremlin said that Mr. Putin appeared to have his own vision of how to manage the warlord, and his aides seemed powerless to influence it.

Then, on June 23, Mr. Prigozhin launched his mutiny, seizing the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and marching on Moscow. Andrei Krasnobayev, the editor of one Prigozhin news site, said he didn’t see Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion coming, despite the Wagner leader’s increasingly vitriolic diatribes.

Fighters of the Wagner mercenary group are deployed on a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in June.Credit…Reuters

“Many colleagues call him a psychopath,” he said, referring to other journalists. “I didn’t get that sense.”

When Mr. Prigozhin aborted his uprising, accepting a deal with the Kremlin, it appeared his career was finished, even if he was lucky to have escaped with his life. For the next several weeks, he receded into the background, his whereabouts a mystery.

A key question was what would happen to his mercenary fighters. As Kremlin officials mulled their future, they sent several thousand to Belarus “to park them there,” according to a Western official, providing time to sort out which senior officers were complicit in Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion and to reinforce Moscow’s defenses against any future attack.

As it planned the fate of Wagner’s fighters, the Kremlin also embarked on a multipronged effort to knock down Mr. Prigozhin’s reputation 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 meeting with senior Russian media figures at the Kremlin. According to a person present, Mr. Putin claimed that Mr. Prigozhin had made $4 billion in Africa on “gold and bling.” Mr. Putin’s point, the person said, appeared to be that Mr. Prigozhin had enriched himself and had no reason to complain.

State television began to tarnish Mr. Prigozhin’s image; one outlet, for instance, showed a van stuffed with boxes of cash and a lavish residence, complete with a helicopter — all said to belong to Mr. Prigozhin.

After working to discredit Mr. Prigozhin, the Kremlin tried to get the Russian public to forget about him. On June 30, Mr. Prigozhin’s media conglomerate, the Patriot Media Group, announced it was shutting down, days after its websites were blocked by Russia’s internet censor.

Then, according to a New York Times analysis of Russian television transcripts compiled by a nonprofit called the GDELT Project, Mr. Prigozhin virtually disappeared from the airwaves. On most days between July 13 and Aug. 22, his name was not mentioned at all on any of the four leading state-controlled channels.

But even as the Kremlin sought to minimize him, Mr. Prigozhin still had one roll of the dice left — on the continent where his interests still lay intact.

The Battle for Africa

The war in Ukraine made remarkably little difference to Mr. Prigozhin’s sprawling interests in Africa. While some Wagner forces in Africa were redeployed to Ukraine in the early weeks of the war, most stayed in place. But the failed mutiny in June placed ‌Mr. Prigozhin’s African operations‌ under immense pressure.

Through July and August, he traversed the continent at a frenzied pace, seeking to assure his allies and shore up his business interests, according to Western officials and others tracking his movements. He instructed Wagner troops in Belarus to prepare for a “new journey to Africa” — where, French intelligence estimated, about 4,000 Wagner mercenaries were already stationed.

Supporters of the military junta in Niger display a photo of Yevgeny Prigozhin during a protest in August against a threatened military intervention by other West African states. Credit…Issifou Djibo/EPA, via Shutterstock

American officials said Mr. Prigozhin also sought to squeeze new profits from his extensive African ventures, which were active in at least a half-dozen countries. Wagner’s operations bolstered tottering military regimes, traded in diamonds, gold and lumber, spread disinformation and even made schlock movies to glorify their exploits.

(Even so, Mr. Putin’s claim that Mr. Prigozhin’s African operations had made him $4 billion seemed greatly exaggerated, the officials added.)

In the months leading up to his rebellion, Mr. Prigozhin had grown increasingly bold. This spring he tried to tilt the balance in Sudan’s civil war by smuggling surface-to-air missiles to a notorious paramilitary group, Western and United Nations officials said. In February, U.S. officials warned the president of Chad that Mr. Prigozhin was plotting to kill him.

Days after the mutiny, in late June, senior Wagner officials flew to eastern Libya to meet with the strongman Khalifa Hifter, whom they had helped to assault Tripoli in 2019. Their message, according to Mohamed Eljarh, a security analyst who speaks regularly to Mr. Hifter’s inner circle: despite the drama in Russia, it was business as usual in Libya.

In fact, things were about to get more worrisome. On June 30, a mysterious drone strike hit Wagner’s main base in eastern Libya, raising questions about Wagner’s vulnerability.

Then senior Kremlin officials began to make their own trips to Africa, offering the message that Russia was reshaping its business there.

Leading the charge was Mr. Yevkurov, whose past experience as an airborne commander and a regional governor gave him military and political bona fides. Mr. Prigozhin had publicly humiliated him during the mutiny, holding him hostage and berating him.

Now Mr. Yevkurov had an opportunity to take revenge. Traveling through Syria, another major Wagner outpost, and several African countries, he sought to bring Wagner forces more firmly under Moscow’s control.

It was a high-wire act: The minister had to convince not only African and Syrian leaders to switch loyalties, but also Wagner veterans who were faithful to Mr. Prigozhin and might chafe at the Defense Ministry’s rigid command, experts said.

Russian mercenaries are seen shopping at a mall in Bangui, in the Central African Republic, in 2022.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

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

A few weeks later, Mr. Prigozhin flew back to Africa for a quick 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 discuss new business deals, a Western diplomat and a senior European military official said. A day later, he received a delegation from Sudan — the same paramilitaries Wagner had supplied with missiles — who presented Mr. Prigozhin with a crate of gold bars, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In Libya, his plane made two stops, French officials said. And he paused to film a video address, his first since the mutiny, that showed him in a desert — analysts said it was in Mali — dressed in camouflage and hoisting an assault rifle. Wagner was expanding in Africa, he said.

But Mr. Yevkurov was also making fresh rounds. On Aug. 22, a day after Mr. Prigozhin’s video was released, the Russian minister arrived in Libya for his own talks with Mr. Hifter. The relationship was being reset, he told the Libyan commander, according to Mr. Eljarh, the analyst. Wagner fighters would stay on but Russian military intelligence would be in charge.

Before leaving, Mr. Yevkurov presented Mr. Hifter with a pistol — a symbolically charged gift in a country where the ousted Libyan dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, famously had a gold-plated pistol.

In this photo provided by the media office of the Libyan military strongman Khalifa Hifter, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, left, offers Mr. Hifter a pistol as a gift.Credit…Media Office of Khalifa Hifter, via Agence France-Presse

The following day, Mr. Prigozhin flew back to Moscow, where he held meetings with Russian officials, Mr. Putin later said in televised remarks. Then he boarded a flight to his home, St. Petersburg, along with his two top deputies: Dmitri V. Utkin, Wagner’s main commander, and Valery Y. Chekalov, its logistics chief.

Nineteen minutes after takeoff the jet began to move erratically before plunging 30,000 feet in about one minute, crashing into a field in a fireball.

The fact that the mercenary group’s three top leaders had boarded the same flight stunned Mr. Shugalei, the political fixer for Mr. Prigozhin, who said that the men never traveled together to allow for an orderly succession after an attack.

“Three key people who never gathered together for certain reasons — because each could replace the other if it came to it — got on the same plane,” said Mr. Shugalei, who reported directly to Mr. Prigozhin, according to the European Union’s decision to impose sanctions against him. “To me, this is the main mystery.”

For Wagner, an Uncertain Future

To many Ukrainians, Russians, Syrians and Africans, Mr. Prigozhin brought pain and suffering. His propaganda outlets and troll farms harassed Russian journalists and opposition figures. His forces were accused of gruesome war crimes in Syria, massacres in several African countries and torture of prisoners in Ukraine.

His mercenaries also failed to stem Islamist violence in countries where they deployed, like Mali, where on Thursday 49 civilians and 15 soldiers were killed in attacks, the government said.

But Mr. Prigozhin also bred a devoted following, among them Mr. Shugalei, who spent more than a year in prison in Libya while Mr. Prigozhin campaigned for his eventual release.

Maksim Shugalei, a political adviser for the Wagner group, after his release from prison in Libya in 2020.Credit…via Maksim Shugalei

Interviewed for this article, Mr. Shugalei, who is based in St. Petersburg, rejected the idea that the Russian government could fully take over Wagner, or operate as effectively as Wagner did, and described Mr. Prigozhin’s little-known son, Pavel, as a potential heir to his empire.

“I think he’s got to take on some of the problems,” he said, referring to Pavel Prigozhin. “As far as I know, he’s prepared to.”

In Washington, officials following the tug of war over Mr. Prigozhin’s legacy say it is too soon to tell how it will shake out.

The P.M.C. Wagner Center, associated with the founder of the Wagner private military group Yevgeny Prigozhin, in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 2022.Credit…Olga Maltseva/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Some agree that Pavel Prigozhin, who is in his 20s, will indeed try to assert control over his father’s company. The United States sanctioned him last year and said he controls three St. Petersburg real estate companies. Last year, his father said that his son had fought in Syria and “was and is constantly in hot spots as part of the Wagner P.M.C.” (private military company), a claim that could not be verified.

He may be able to retain some of his father’s domestic assets, which the independent Russian news outlet Agentstvo recently said made about $800 million in 2022, at the current exchange rate. But he would need the Kremlin’s imprimatur to continue overseas, where governments are buying Moscow’s geopolitical backing as much as local militia services.

American officials now say there are a dozen private companies that could also become involved in overseeing paramilitary operations. The leading candidate, perhaps, is P.M.C. Redut, which has close ties to the miliary intelligence agency and which one Wagner-linked Telegram account recently slammed for not fulfilling “the original contract terms” that it promised its recruits.

There is still a strong market in Africa’s weakest countries for Wagner’s central offering — regime protection. And the demise of Mr. Prigozhin has only whetted the appetite of some African countries for a stronger relationship with the Kremlin — especially those previously wary of Wagner, like Burkina Faso.

When Mr. Yevkurov arrived there last week, he was greeted by Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, the country’s 35-year-old leader, who seized power in a military coup last year. One of several West African leaders to sever ties with the former colonial power, France, in recent years, Mr. Traoré had held a warm meeting with Mr. Putin at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July. “Russia is part of Africa’s family,” he said then.

A photo provided by Russian state media shows President Vladimir Putin, right, meeting the Burkina Faso leader, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July.Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Yevkurov’s visit, with the spymaster General Averyanov by his side, solidified that relationship. Russia was open to strengthened cooperation “in all spheres,” the Burkina Faso presidency said in a statement. The following day, Mr. Yevkurov continued to Mali.

By then, Mr. Prigozhin had been buried in St. Petersburg’s Porokhovskoye Cemetery — a graveyard built for an 18th-century ammunition factory. Riot police and national guardsmen sealed off the site and brought bomb-sniffing dogs to Mr. Prigozhin’s grave.

The next day came another video from Mr. Prigozhin, published by a Wagner-linked Telegram account. It was apparently recorded during his last trip to Africa in August, a previously unreleased response to rumors that he was dead.

Addressing “those who like to talk about my liquidation,” he said: “Everything’s fine.”

Police in St. Petersburg, Russia, surrounded the Porokhovskoye Cemetery where Yevgeny Prigozhin was buried last month.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

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

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