Friday, September 29, 2023

“In Russia we are witnessing a war in the shadows”

Satellite images reportedly show that the Wagner fields in Belarus are being dismantled. Do you confirm this information?

Absolutely. In fact, we are witnessing a dismantling of these fields. Now we have to ask ourselves why they settled in Belarus earlier. In my opinion, the Kremlin placed them there temporarily, while it thought about what would happen to these mercenaries. Now it seems that Putin is increasingly clear about what he wants to do with them…

What exactly is Putin’s new plan for these mercenaries?

Wagner’s men must be divided into two groups: those from the Ukraine and those from the Middle East and Africa. Russia doesn’t necessarily have troops it can deploy to Africa or the Middle East, but it still has enormous interests in those regions. That’s why you need Wagner on this continent. That is why a Russian delegation, led by the Deputy Minister of Defense, Yunusbek Yevkurov, traveled to Africa, to the countries where Wagner performs. The goal was to show that Russian operations were continuing on the continent and that the Kremlin was regaining control. In other words: that the Prigozhin era had effectively ended. There was a bond of trust between Wagner and African leaders. The Kremlin now wants to regain this trust.

We are witnessing a shadow war in Russia. It is not a topic that is discussed much but internal tensions arise over Wagner’s future. We increasingly have the impression that there is a constant struggle for influence between the various Russian intelligence services. There is a kind of competition to regain control over Wagner. Two intelligence services confront each other: the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and, on the other hand, the Military Intelligence Service (GRU). It seems that the SVR is oriented towards Wagner’s propaganda activities, while the GRU is more interested in paramilitary operations. A division is emerging.

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We were also talking about “Putin’s poisoner”, Andreï Averyanov, who was proposed to take over Wagner?

Different names are circulating… In any case, Averyanov, who holds a prominent position in the military intelligence service, participated in the official trip to Africa. Everyone is trying to gain the biggest slice of the pie that is Prigozhin’s legacy. Now, I wouldn’t speculate on who will lead the paramilitary group. In any case, the new leader will face two great challenges: gaining the trust of the African leaders and that of the mercenaries. In Russia we are used to giving orders and enforcing them. That’s why it’s special in this case, because we’re dealing with mercenaries, who have always led their lifestyle. Therefore, they are reluctant to come under the control of the Russian Defense. They want to remain loyal to the organization created by Prigozhin. They try to impose their candidate as Prigozhin’s successor, that is, his son Pavel Prigozhin.

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Is Prigozhin’s son likely to succeed his father?

In my opinion, this is very questionable. First of all, Pavel is very young. He must be about twenty years old. Prigozhin always boasted about his son, who apparently fought in Syria, but not much is known about him. In any case, the Kremlin is not going to allow this to happen. Putin wants to regain control over all of Wagner’s activities. But if Pavel manages to establish himself as loyal to the Russian president, the Kremlin could use him. But, at first glance, it doesn’t seem obvious…

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What about Wagner’s troops in Ukraine?

In any case, we no longer have a truly independent Wagner unit in Ukraine. Part of Prigozhin’s men joined the Russian army directly, voluntarily. They act under the command of the Russian General Staff. They are distributed among several units in order to mix them with other troops so that they cannot pose a new threat. The Russians need all the fighters. Especially since Wagner’s troops are the most experienced.

Last week we witnessed tensions between Wagner and the Russian General Staff. The Russian army tried to prevent a rotation of mercenaries to Syria. What should we think?

This clearly shows the gap that exists between the Russian leaders and the mercenaries. This shows that there is always distrust on one side or the other, because they have different interests. Wagner wants to maintain as much independence as possible, while the Kremlin wants to control the mercenaries. What happened has lifted the veil a little on this fight that until now had remained in the shadows.

After this incident, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) stated that the Kremlin was “seriously concerned” about Wagner. Do you share this observation?

Yes enough. There is a lot at stake for Russia, both in Ukraine and in Africa. But, even more so, the Kremlin absolutely does not want to experience a new mutiny. Therefore, it is imperative to take control of this militia and put it under the control of a Putin loyalist. In my opinion, the Russian president will carry out his plans for the paramilitary group. In any case, it is clear that he will not give in and will not take any more risks. We can still say that Putin is being hit in the face, given that he agreed to the creation of the Wagner group.

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After Prigozhin’s death, the Polish Prime Minister considered that the militia would now be more dangerous. Are we seeing such developments on the ground?

Wagner’s role has diminished dramatically. We need to recontextualize these words. Poland is in a special situation, given the borders it shares with Belarus and Ukraine. But just because Wagner’s leader is dead doesn’t mean the militia is out of control. Rather, I have the impression that Wagner has lost a lot of influence.

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Poland assured, a month ago, that Wagner was going to try to attack its territory. Isn’t this happening right now?

Until now, that hasn’t been the case at all. Poland launches propaganda against the West. He was also looking for a pretext to send reinforcements near the border with Belarus. But this invasion never happened. Wagner’s troops no longer have the necessary means. After the coup attempt, they were demobilized and disarmed. When they were sent to Belarus, they no longer had heavy weapons. If Wagner’s men were to launch an operation in a NATO member country, they would need this heavy weaponry. Without that, it would be too risky…

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