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What will happen to the Wagner Group without leader Yevgeny Prigozhin?


Sean McFate is following the plane crash and the aftermath. He's an expert on mercenary groups and a professor at National Defense University here in the United States. Mr. McFate, welcome back.

SEAN MCFATE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's pick up where Charles Maynes left off. He talked about the loyalty of the thousands of Wagner mercenaries. Were they personally loyal to Yevgeny Prigozhin?

MCFATE: Most of them were not. They're loyal to the paycheck. They're mercenaries.

INSKEEP: OK. Does that mean that anyone else in Russia can now pick up as long as they're paying the money and command that force?

MCFATE: Not really. I mean, it - probably what's going to happen is that somebody within the Wagner organization will step up and take Prigozhin's CEO slot but with - who's more respectful of Putin and has Putin's blessing because Wagner wasn't just, you know, one guy in charge of a lot of different individuals. It had some hierarchy and etc. So I think we'll see some replacement like that.

INSKEEP: But will this firm continue at all? Because, of course, part of the controversy that turned Prigozhin against Vladimir Putin was a move to essentially take away his soldiers, take away his troops and enroll them in the regular Russian military.

MCFATE: It'll continue. It may not have the name Wagner, you know, but when Prigozhin marched on Moscow and then when Putin blew out, you know, Prigozhin's plane from the air, likely, this is how mercenaries and masters negotiate because there's no court of law. They do it through force. We've seen this throughout history. And I think that Putin needs a force like Wagner in Africa to carry out Russia's interests there, which is basically creating juntas in Africa that are not Western-facing, but Moscow-facing and extracting gold and other minerals to fuel the war in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: What do you think would have made Yevgeny Prigozhin think that he could continue moving around Russia safely?

MCFATE: I think Prigozhin - you know, he's not like Navalny. He's not a political opponent that you can safely lock into jail and forget about forever. He's a man with an army at his back. He's more like, you know, Julius Caesar or Marius from ancient Rome, and that makes him very political. But we've also known from history, like Xenophon in ancient Greece, that as soon as a mercenary leader leaves the protection of his mercenaries, perhaps via corporate jet, he's vulnerable. And - you know, and he overstepped many boundaries. So it's a great question in the category of, what was he thinking?

INSKEEP: Do you imagine - and I guess we just have to say we're imagining here. We don't know about the private conversations. But do you imagine that Putin himself might personally have assured Prigozhin, don't worry? You're fine. It's all good. We'll work this out over time.

MCFATE: Putin is an old-school, Machiavellian tyrant, and Prigozhin has a huge ego. So that's a completely reasonable hypothetical assumption.

INSKEEP: You think that Putin himself might have lured this man into a false sense of security, is what you're saying.

MCFATE: This is - Putin's a guy who goes and assassinates, you know, former KGB agents from the 1980s and their daughters in U.K. just for vendettas. So, yes, I think he's a very vengeful man. He's an old-fashioned strongman. And he sent all of Russia and all of the world a message with this plane that, yeah, I'm the guy in charge. And if you're going to go after the king, you best not miss.

INSKEEP: OK. One other thing to wrap up here. We've talked about Prigozhin and Putin. We've talked about the Wagner Group's soldiers. We've talked about the Wagner Group's influence in West Africa. There is finally the question of Ukraine, where the Wagner Group seemed, for a while, to be the most effective or at least ineffective fighting force that the Russians have. Can the Wagner Group still be a significant player within Ukraine?

MCFATE: It can. Its role will change slightly. So the Wagner Group is actually two groups - an old guard and a new guard. The old guard came in with Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces officer who was also killed supposedly on this plane. And they're recruited from pretty high-end elements, like paratroopers and special forces. And the new guard was dumper out of jails last summer to become cannon fodder in places like eastern Ukraine. And their purpose is simply to die. And the old guard and new guard hate each other. And the old guard is mostly in Africa, and the new guard is mostly in Ukraine and Belarus. And they still - Russia still needs cannon fodder because this is part of the Russian way of war, if you look back at Stalingrad, for example. So they'll still be there, but they'll be under the command of the Russian Ministry of Defense.

INSKEEP: Got you. Sean McFate, author of "The Modern Mercenary," thanks so much.

MCFATE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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