BEIRUT — Of the many questions raised by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death in a suspicious small plane crash last month, perhaps the most consequential relates to the fate of Wagner, the mercenary group he built and honed to become an essential instrument in the Kremlin’s overseas adventures.
Under Prigozhin’s direction, Wagner grew from a band of “little green men” — so named because of the uniforms worn by self-proclaimed volunteers fighting alongside separatists in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 attack on Ukraine — to a far-flung military and business empire.
The organization has trained and fought alongside the militaries of pro-Russia governments in Eastern Europe, West Africa and South America. It has signed lucrative oil, gas and mining contracts. And it has run a media conglomerate with a troll factory and a movie studio as well as catering, restaurant and hotel businesses, not to mention a carwash.
At its heart, the mercenary force comprising more than 50,000 former soldiers and convicts offers Putin deniability for Russia’s foreign meddling. Until Prigozhin’s aborted June mutiny, in which he launched and then halted a rapid advance toward Moscow, Wagner was everywhere the Kremlin wanted to be without saying it was.