Russian Private Military Companies Move to Take Over Wagner Fighters

Security groups loyal to the Kremlin are moving to take control of Wagner’s military forces in Ukraine and Africa in the wake of the death of its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Mercenary groups with ties to Russian security forces and oligarchs close to the Kremlin are moving to absorb thousands of Wagner soldiers. In doing so, the Kremlin is seeking to commandeer experienced troops for the war in Ukraine and retain the influence Wagner had earned in parts of Africa.

Last month, Prigozhin’s plane crashed outside Moscow in what U.S. intelligence officials believe was an assassination. It followed Prigozhin’s mutiny in June, where he threatened to topple Russia’s military establishment—the biggest challenge yet to the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Now, in the wake of Prigozhin’s death, the Kremlin is moving to take over Wagner’s valuable military assets, including many battle-tested and skilled soldiers who were deployed in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin had built a presence in a half-dozen countries in the Middle East and Africa, counting some 6,000 fighters who often provide security to local political leaders, sometimes in return for access to valuable resources. According to African and Western officials, the Kremlin is also beginning to take control of those units.

A number of private military groups with ties to the Kremlin have sent soldiers to fight in Ukraine in recent months, often as a way of currying favor with Putin. They include groups founded by intelligence officers, financed by oligarchs close to Putin and controlled by state companies.

One of those companies, Redut, is now recruiting Wagner soldiers who fought in Ukraine, according to one person close to Russia’s Defense Ministry. The ministry and the Kremlin didn’t return requests for comment.

Redut, a security contractor for Russian companies operating in the Middle East, was founded by former Russian paratroopers and officers in military intelligence in 2008.

The U.S. government, which sanctioned the group in February, says Redut still has ties to Russian military intelligence.

Redut is financed by Gennady Timchenko, an oligarch with close ties to Putin, according to testimony a Wagner defector gave to the British Parliament in July. Timchenko didn’t return requests for comment. The defector told U.K. lawmakers that Redut’s fighters deployed in Syria receive munitions from the Russian army in the Middle East nation.

Redut is acting as a recruitment vehicle for the Defense Ministry to attract former Wagner fighters who wouldn’t willingly sign contracts with the regular army on account of its past hostility with Wagner, according to the person close to Russia’s defense ministry. Prigozhin promised to remove Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during his short-lived armed march on Moscow in June.

“The Ministry of Defense is using every opportunity to attract people into its ranks,” said Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

Following the mutiny, some senior commanders abandoned Wagner to join Redut. Telegram channels close to Wagner have said a former Wagner officer is overseeing the recruitment effort for Redut.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said in July that it had taken possession of hundreds of tanks, rocket launchers and artillery pieces from Wagner after Prigozhin’s failed mutiny. Russian military units have also taken over Wagner’s positions and bases in east Ukraine.

An official in Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said that many Wagner members who fought in Ukraine have been torn over whether to sign contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry

He also said the Wagner fighters who have joined private military groups have been spread across the front lines so that those who backed Prigozhin’s mutiny are never concentrated in one unit.

He said that, in some cases, former Wagner soldiers can serve under their former commanders but as part of a private military group.

Redut and Convoy, another mercenary group with ties to the Defense Ministry and the Kremlin, are jockeying to replace Wagner in its operations abroad, according to African and Western security officials and Russian outlets.

Redut is openly trying to poach Wagner fighters eager to go to Africa. “Wagner is in the past,” says one advertisement posted on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent to Facebook, on Aug 15. “If you are really interested in real work in Africa, then the Ministry of Defense and the Redut PMC are your choice!” Redut didn’t return a request for comment.

Some of Prigozhin’s fighters have joined Convoy, although it hasn’t actively tried to poach them, the group’s deputy commander Vasily Yashchik said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Convoy is led by Konstantin Pikalov who previously ran Wagner’s African military operations before breaking with Prigozhin. The European Union sanctioned Pikalov in February and has said he planned the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic in July 2018.

Just before Prigozhin’s death, Pikalov said Convoy would operate in eight African countries, without naming them. “We will give African military personnel new weapons and show them how to use them,” he told Russian investigative website iStories.

Pikalov couldn’t be reached and his deputy didn’t comment on the allegations.

Yashchik said Pikalov was part of recent official visits abroad by Russian defense ministry officials. He didn’t name the countries but they have included trips to Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic where Wagner is present. In an advertisement posted on Telegram on Aug. 21, Convoy said it is recruiting volunteers to direct Russian reconnaissance and attack drones in Africa.

According to Cheka-OGPU, a Telegram channel viewed by Western officials as a conduit for information from Moscow’s security agencies, Dmitry Rogozin, an influential Russian lawmaker and former defense minister, lobbied for Convoy to replace Wagner in Africa during a meeting with Anton Vaino, a top Putin adviser, in early August.

Convoy, which has been called up as a reserve contingent for the Russian Defense Ministry in the past, received hundreds of millions of rubles last year from oligarch and close Putin associate Arkady Rotenberg and from state-controlled VTB bank, according to the Dossier Center, a Russian investigative outlet founded by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Rotenberg couldn’t be reached and VTB didn’t return a request for comment.

Elsewhere, on the day before Prigozhin died, Russia’s deputy defense minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov landed in Libya—which was Wagner’s first foray into Africa—and met warlord Khalifa Haftar, according to a Libyan official and a security contractor briefed on the meeting.

Yevkurov told him another private military company would take over Wagner’s units there, according to Libyans briefed on the meeting. A private military group would pay the soldiers, but would be tightly controlled by officers Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU, sent to Libya for that purpose, they said.

These people said Pikalov was present during the trip and his firm is the top contender to replace Wagner in the North African nation.

Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, Russia is set to send another private military group to replace Wagner, said Fidele Gouandjika, a presidential security adviser in the African country, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

European security officials say members of the Russian military have also appeared in Bangui in the Central African Republic, to oversee the transition of Wagner units to a private military group. It wasn’t clear which group would receive the Wagner units.

Matthew Luxmoore, Benoit Faucon