Gesine Weber: The Strategic Challenges Have Grown
The presumed death of Yevgeny Prigozhin has sparked only cautious reactions in Paris, Berlin, and Brussels. Voices from the three capitals underline that it is too early to jump to conclusions. They are all too aware that they lack all the facts and may never have them.
But given all the speculation and uncertainty, European governments are highly unlikely to alter their approach to Ukraine’s counteroffensive. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have already said that they believe the counteroffensive will take time, and that negotiations will eventually be necessary, though they should start only when Ukraine deems it appropriate. Overall, European governments have been (unexpectedly) clear and unified about messaging this. Any change in this approach could be justified only by a significant change on the battlefield.
Domestic developments in Russia, however, point to two other strategic challenges that Europeans are facing but failing to address at either the EU or the national level. First, the Wagner Group’s presence in the Sahel remains a major security concern for the EU, and particularly for France, especially as new questions arise about this formerly private military force’s longer-term leadership, objectives, and strategies in a geographically close and geopolitically important region. Second, there is Russia itself. Europe needs to develop—urgently—a longer-term strategy to deal with its giant eastern neighbor. There is now no sign that this is happening.
- Gesine Weber, Fellow, GMF Risk and Geostrategy
David Salvo: Russia’s Malign Influence Operations Outlive Prigozhin
Malign influence operations—information manipulation, civil society subversion, cyber operations, and the like—have long been part of Russia’s military and foreign policy toolkit. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rumored death won’t change that fact. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, while notorious and effective in conducting malign influence operations all over the globe, does not have a monopoly on interfering in other countries’ affairs on behalf of the Russian state. The Mueller Report, other accountings of Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election, and ASD at GMF’s Authoritarian Interference Tracker identify multiple actors conducting such campaigns beyond Russia’s borders. The Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) play active roles, and even the Federal Security Service (FSB) contributes, particularly in the post-Soviet space.
As a private entity (albeit with deep ties to the Russian state), the Wagner Group has been a useful instrument of Russian power abroad. Not hampered by bloated bureaucracy, it has stood up nimble operations worldwide that advance Russian national security and foreign policy goals. It can claim numerous accomplishments—chief among them, propping up dictators in Africa and exploiting societal divisions and lax social media platform policies to contribute to political chaos in the United States. And that’s without even considering the group’s elite mercenaries waging Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. If only for the veneer of plausible deniability or to mask its own military’s incompetence, the Kremlin will continue to rely on Wagner, or some derivation of Wagner with new leadership and a new name. Yet, even with the uncertainty surrounding Wagner’s future, the broader ecosystem of Russian state-affiliated actors will continue to carry out malign influence operations as they have every incentive to undermine democracy in Europe, the United States, and beyond.
- David Salvo, Managing Director, Alliance for Securing Democracy
Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska: An Iron Fist or a Sign of Weakness?
Prigozhin’s death will not affect Russian military capabilities or the Ukrainian counteroffensive because the Wagner group pulled out of Ukraine several weeks ago. Rather, the development of the counteroffensive will affect internal developments in Russia.
Wagner’s march on Moscow shed a harsh light on Russian elites’ discontent with the regime’s war efforts. These voices will be amplified if the Ukrainians manage to push the Russians back. Following the failed coup, Putin’s distrust of figures in his government grew. Prigozhin had many followers, in particular among nationalist-imperialist circles, but if Ukraine is successful, more power struggles of this kind will follow.
Many in the West believe that the assassination proves Putin still rules with an iron fist. Ukraine and the eastern flank countries see the opposite. Kremlin-orchestrated assassinations are nothing new, and Putin orders murders as casually as if they were his morning lattes. What the failed mutiny showed was internal instability and infighting. A lesson learned from this story is that Putin does not keep his promises.
Prigozhin’s death will affect the Wagner troops stationed in Belarus, however. Without a leader, they may no longer constitute an effective tool for threatening Poland. Since their relocation to Belarus, Polish authorities and experts have been predicting that the troops might be used to carry out provocations on the Polish border. Warsaw sent additional defensive forces to Poland’s eastern regions. But Wagner, now weakened, may no longer constitute an immediate threat to Belarus’ western neighbor.
The incident also underscores Putin’s skill at manipulating his cronies. Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka had a moment of fame when he appeared to save the day for Putin by negotiating an end to Wagner’s march on Moscow. But the assassination of Prigozhin clearly shows that Putin was using his Belarusian puppet for his own purposes.
- Marta Prochwicz-Jazowska. Program Manager. GMF East
Clara Volintiru: The Counteroffensive Moves Beyond the Battlefield
As Ukraine’s counteroffensive grinds on, Russia is expanding its attacks in the economic and political realms. The value-added of a Yevgeny Prigozhin is diminishing for Putin in this context, and the Kremlin’s focus is now shifting to limiting Ukraine’s embeddedness in the Western world.
The first dimension of the upcoming Russian threat is economic, mainly in the areas of agriculture and the defense and energy industries. Russia’s backing out of the Grain Deal last month led to increased risk in the Black Sea Region and added pressure on the Ukrainian economy and the global food market. In response, USAID chief Samantha Power pledged a further $250 million to create and expand alternative routes for Ukrainian grain, which means rail and road through Poland, and canal, river, and rail through Romania. Similarly, defense industry investments in repair and assembly lines are key to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, yet require clear insurance mechanisms. The upcoming winter will also test European economic commitments to offset energy prices. Subsidies do not make for a comprehensive economic counteroffensive to Russia, which is what Ukraine and the Black Sea region need.
The second dimension of Russia’s new tactics is likely to be political, with key European elections coming next year across EU member states and in Moldova and Georgia—both candidate members to the EU alongside Ukraine. Disinformation and pro-Russian activism will continue to threaten broad regional solidarity and support for a common European future. For Ukraine’s supporters, countering malign influences in upcoming elections will be the main thrust of the political counteroffensive.
The Wagner Group was a key asset while Putin hoped to settle the war on the battlefront, and the presumed assassination of Yevgeny Prigozhin could be a signal that non-traditional avenues of combat will become more prominent going forward.
- Clara Volintiru, Director, Black Sea Trust
Maryna Rakhlei: Game Over for Belarus’ Lukashenko
Aliaksandr Lukashenka, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, briefly stepped into the international limelight when he brokered a deal to halt Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny against the Russian leadership. Recent events suggest, however, that Lukashenka was more a pawn than a king in this intricate geopolitical game.
Lukashenka’s fleeting prominence, which had international journalists flocking to Minsk to interview him, yielded minimal lasting gains and failed to augment his political standing in Russia. Reportedly, the Belarusian strongman was unable to use the Wagnerites for his own internal purposes and he therefore declined to fund the costly group.
At the same time, the Wagnerites’ move to Belarus escalated tensions and worsened Minsk’s relations with its EU neighbors. Pre-election Poland debated its security, especially in light of the news that some 100 Wagner soldiers had been transferred to a position close to the Suwałki Gap, and along with Lithuania is considering closing its border with Belarus.
On the one hand, Prigozhin’s apparent demise signals a harsh, mafia-like reality to Lukashenka, too: opposition to the Kremlin bears lethal consequences. Instrumentalized by Russia in its Ukraine offensive, the Belarusian leader’s personal dependency on Putin regime can only deepen. In his recent statement on the episode, for example, Lukashenko dutifully defended Vladimir Putin against claims that he had assassinated Prigozhin.
On the other hand, Lukashenka might consider leveraging the situation to improve Belarus’ relations with the West. However, Western re-engagement is linked less to the departure of Russian mercenaries currently stranded in Belarus than to other priorities. The West wants to see an end to the politically motivated repression that has swept the country over the past three years, and that would involve the release of almost 1,500 political prisoners.
- Maryna Rakhlei, Senior Program Officer, Fund for Belarus Democracy