As Britain formally banned Russia’s Wagner Group as a terror organisation, the question of who will succeed Yevgeny Prigozhin has become even more pressing and urgent than before.
A clearly defined chain of command is an essential feature of any modern army, especially one which includes convicts among its ranks, and that leadership is now missing.
Its absence presents a potential existential challenge for the group following Prigozhin’s death, as exemplified by comments from Britain’s Ministry of Defence in June, warning that his demise would have “a deeply destabilising effect on the Wagner Group.”
The unspoken question also is how destabilising and dangerous this will be for Africa and Russia too?
“His personal attributes of hyper-activity, exceptional audacity, a drive for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor,” an MOD official said.
Professor of Government, from Essex University Natasha Lindstaedt echoed similar in her remarks to CNN, saying that up until now, the Wagner organisation has been heavily reliant on Prigozhin’s leadership, and his demise could bring about a period of heightened chaos and uncertainty.
“What I see as more likely is splintering. And Russia won’t have full control over this and I think you’re going to see quite a bit of chaos and that’s very dangerous because these types of groups once they splinter, they get bolder and pose a huge threat to regional security,” she said.
The leadership vacuum is now even more noticeable following the deaths of two of Prigozhin’s trusted associates – Wagner field commander Dmitriy Utkin and logistics chief Valeriy Chekalov – both were confirmed to have also been on the plane and believed to have been killed, according to aviation authorities and official reports.
The demise of Utkin in particular is of significant consequence; reportedly a former Russian intelligence officer who went by the call-sign “Wagner,” he was described as the founder of the Wagner group by the United States when he was sanctioned over his role in the Eastern Ukrainian conflict in 2017.
Who’s who in The List of Contenders
Colonel Andrei Troshev Credit: Twitter
Andrei Troshev is considered the highest-ranking Wagner commander and the most significant figure after Prigozhin’s death, a former armed forces Colonel who earned himself the title ‘Hero of the Russian Federation’ for his military service, Russia’s most esteemed military honour.
Troshev has been described by the European Union as the Wagner group’s ‘Chief of Staff’ and prior to the crash, he previously held seniority over Utkin in Wagner’s command structure.
Troshev, who goes under the alias Sedoi, is a founding member of Wagner and one of the commanders of the organisation’s Syria expedition, so he would likely face few internal challenges to his loyalty.
General Andrey Averyanov Credit: Twitter
The veteran of the Russia-Chechen wars, General Andrey Averyanov has been dubbed by many to be the most logical candidate to succeed Prigozhin.
During his tenure as a major general in the GRU, Averyanov commanded Unit 29155, a division associated with numerous high-profile assassinations, such as the 2018 poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom.
Unit 29155 was also reportedly involved in the foiled 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro, a final-ditch Kremlin endeavour to derail the country’s path to NATO membership.
Yelizarov (highlighted in red) standing to the right of his late leader Prigozhin Credit: Twitter
The final option for Wagner chief, VDV officer Anton Yelizarov, would signify a generational change.
Unlike General Andrey Andreyev and Colonel Andrei Troshev, both of whom are in their 60s, Anton Yelizarov is an active-duty Wagner commander aged in his early 40s.
Yelizarov has served in Libya, the Central African Republic, and Ukraine, where he participated in the fight for Soledar.
Before joining Prigozhin’s private military group, he was in prestigious units of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces, including the 7th Guards Mountain Air Assault Division of the VDV and Special Forces units under the GRU.
If Yelizarov, who goes by the alias “Lotus,” were to assume leadership, it is likely that the Wagner Group would transform into more of a private military company rather than maintaining its previous identity as a network associated with assassinations and covert operations, as it might if led by General Averyanov.