What the Downfall of Yevgeny Prigozhin Means for the Middle East

30 June 2023
Mosaic, 30 June 2023

by Mosaic Editors/ Photo/video credits: Mosaic

Last weekend, the Wagner Group—a private military organization created and employed by the Kremlin—engaged in an abortive mutiny against the Russian military, which resulted in Wagner’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, going into exile and his army coming under the auspices the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD). Well before its much-publicized involvement in Ukraine, Wagner fought alongside the pro-Iranian coalition in Syria, as well as in various conflicts in the North and Central Africa. Anna BorshchevskayaBen Fishman, and Andrew Tabler explain the implications of recent events for the Middle East:

The crisis [in Russia] is already having ripple effects in Syria, with multiple reports of tensions and confrontations between Wagner and MOD personnel. Russian forces have arrested some Wagner commanders and raided the group’s offices in various parts of Syria. Meanwhile, the Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershinin met with the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on June 26 and reportedly urged him to prevent the group’s forces from leaving the country without the MOD’s consent.

The overall situation remains calm, however, and Wagner is still deployed in resource-rich areas where Assad’s forces are nominally in control but rely on help from Russian military and police units. . . . If the Wagner crisis tips Russia’s local military posture more definitively toward MOD forces, it may further complicate recent U.S. efforts to manage aggressive flyovers and mock raids by Russian forces throughout eastern Syria, potentially increasing the risk of direct confrontations.

Yet even though Putin, the MOD, and Prigozhin all appear weakened by this week’s crisis, there has been no discernible change in Russia’s posture in the Middle East and Africa so far, and none may be forthcoming. Moscow invested heavily in Wagner for years, and simply replacing its presence abroad would be difficult in the short term; more likely, Wagner and other Russian private military companies will evolve rather than disappear.

Even so, U.S. policymakers can still take advantage of the current disarray and look for ways to limit Wagner’s foreign influence. These efforts should extend beyond existing sanctions, which have had only limited effects on the group’s criminal and destabilizing activities.


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