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What happens to Wagner Group now? What Prigozhin's presumed death could mean for the mercenary troops

Putin says Prigozhin made "serious mistakes"
Putin says Prigozhin, apparently killed in plane crash, made "serious mistakes" 02:17

Yevgeny Prigozhin, who led the Wagner mercenary group, apparently died in a plane crash Wednesday two months after leading a short-lived mutiny against Russia's top brass, raising questions about the future of the group that has been active in Ukraine and Africa. 

The fate of the Wagner Group – a Russian private military company – has been uncertain since the armed rebellion in June, which ended with a deal brokered by the Belarusian president.

"After his rebellion, the question was: What will be Wagner's future in Africa, its main ground," said Rama Yade, senior director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center and senior fellow for the Europe Center. "Three options were possible: its dissolution, its nationalization by the Russian state, or the appointment of a new leader.'

Neither of the last two options included Prigozhin, but they would maintain the mercenary group's "achievements" in Africa, "which Moscow considers highly," according to Yade.

"His apparent death would not change anything in Russians' plans besides maybe getting rid of a potential future threat," Yade said, noting that it is a "primary goal" for the Russians to keep their security and business interests in Africa.

Some nations on the continent have turned to the private army to fill security gaps or prop up dictatorial regimes. In countries like the Central African Republic, Wagner has exchanged services for almost unfettered access to natural resources. A CBS News investigation earlier this year found that Wagner was plundering the country's mineral resources in exchange for protecting the president against a coup.

The group has operated elsewhere, first popping up in Ukraine in 2014 when soldiers in unmarked uniforms appeared to help pro-Russian forces illegally annex territory for Russia. Prigozhin's forces also played a crucial role in Russia's ongoing war there and succeeded in taking the eastern city of Bakhmut.

Before Ukraine, the group is believed to have been involved in supporting Russian forces in Syria.

Wagner has been independent from the Russian government, which gives Russia's leadership plausible deniability about its military operations, Andreas Krieg, a professor of security studies at King's College London, told Time

"The Kremlin needs an organization which can do its dirty work effectively," Amalendu Misra, a professor of international politics at Lancaster University, told the outlet. 

However, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, says it is unlikely the Wagner Group will continue to exist as a "quasi-independent parallel military structure" without Prigozhin and other Wagner leaders who were reportedly on the aircraft that came down north of Moscow.

"The elimination of this central leadership likely ends any remaining means Wagner had to operate independently" of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the war study institute said.

"It remains unclear whether the Kremlin intends for Wagner to completely dissipate or intends to reconstitute it as a much smaller organization completely subordinate to the Russian MoD," it said. "A third option — restoring Wagner as a quasi-independent organization under a new commander loyal to the Kremlin — is possible but unlikely."

An investigation is underway into what caused Wednesday's crash. A U.S. official told CBS News the U.S. is confident the plane was brought down by an explosion.  

The Kremlin dismissed speculation Friday that it had ordered Prigozhin's assassination.

His death, however, will "have a serious effect on the cohesion of Wagner," which was already "disintegrating" before the crash, according to The Economist's defense editor Shashank Joshi.

"We saw this in the sense that they were being pushed out of Africa by Russian military intelligence, displaced by other Russian mercenary groups close to the Russian government, and even in Ukraine," he told Sky News.

"They were effectively playing a negligible role on the frontlines after he [Prigozhin] led the capture of Bakhmut back in May," Joshi said. 

The group's mercenaries have also recently been in Belarus, which they may now face pressure to leave, said Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist and nonresident fellow with the Eurasia Center. 

The mercenaries' presence there stemmed from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's "effort to demonstrate his loyalty" to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Back in June, after Prigozhin's failed mutiny, Lukashenko and Putin negotiated a deal that included "security guarantees" for the Wagner fighters.

"The motivations for Wagner mercenaries to remain in Belarus are diminishing rapidly," Liubakova said. "The future course of action for them remains uncertain. ... The Kremlin will dictate the schedule for their presence."

CBS News' Haley Ott, Kerry Breen, Duarte Diaz, David Martin and Cara Tabachnick contributed to this article.

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