Probably no one will play well for Russia.
In a speech to the nation early last week, Mr. Putin said that Wagner fighters who did not participate in the coup were allowed to sign a contract with the Russian army under the command of the Ministry of Defense. (Those who did participate could join Mr. Prigozhin in Belarusian exile.) But the mandate for Wagner soldiers to sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense — a politics Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu tried to set up in early June – was one of the main factors contributing to Mr Prigozhin’s attempted coup and is unlikely to be a popular choice for his troops.
Even if Wagner fighters do decide to join Russian military units en masse, it will not be easy for Moscow to integrate them. Wagner forces already have a well-deserved reputation for brutality, is supposedly did war crimes and crimes against humanity in several theaters and have been credibly accused of torturing, kidnapping and executing civilians.
Another option would be for Mr. Putin to leave Wagner’s foreign operations as is and install a new leader to replace Mr. Prigozhin. That would avoid disrupting Moscow’s foreign policy agenda and reassure its client states that Russia remains a reliable partner. Wagner’s African footprint is extensive, with ongoing activities in Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. When asked immediately after the failed uprising what would happen to Wagner’s presence in Africa, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, announced that Russian “teachers” would continue to work in Mali and the Central African Republic. Russia has since then dispatched officials to various places where Wagner works to reassure those governments, including Syria and Mali, that there will be no interruption in Russian assistance.
But that too could get messy, depending on how deep the rift between Wagner and the Ministry of Defense is. If Wagner’s mid-level commanders and foot soldiers remain loyal to Mr. Prigozhin, installing a new figure with the Kremlin’s imprimatur may not work. Mr. Prigozhin was revered by Wagner fighters, many of whom may be upset at the prospect of new leadership or a drastic change in organizational culture.
Ultimately, Russia could seek to disband Wagner and disperse its fighters into existing private armies. Patriot, band connected to Mr. Shoigu, is widely regarded as a major competitor to Wagner, with reported operations in Burundi, Central African Republic, Gabon, Syria and Yemen. The ENOT Corporation is another Russian private military company, founded by the Russian nationalist Igor Mangushev, with a few experience abroad, but it is much less influential and experienced than Wagner. Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, has also developed its own private army, although it is designed primarily to protect oil and gas infrastructure from attack.