Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A fight is playing out on three continents for control of Prigozhin’s sprawling interests.

African leaders allied with Russia had grown used to dealing with Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the swaggering, profane mercenary leader who traveled the continent by private jet, offering to prop up shaky regimes with guns and propaganda in return for gold and diamonds.

But the Russian delegation that toured three African countries last week was led by a very different figure, the starchy deputy defense minister, Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Dressed in a khaki uniform and a “telnyashka” — the horizontally striped undergarment of Russian armed forces — he signaled conformity and restraint, giving assurances wrapped in polite language.

“We will do our best to help you,” he said at a news conference.

The contrast with the flamboyant Mr. Prigozhin could not have been sharper, and it aligned with the message the Kremlin was delivering: After Mr. Prigozhin’s death in a plane crash last month, Russia’s operations in Africa were coming under new management.

It was a glimpse of a shadowy battle now playing out on three continents: the fight for the lucrative paramilitary and propaganda empire that enriched Mr. Prigozhin and served Russia’s military and diplomatic ambitions — until the Wagner leader staged a failed mutiny against the Kremlin in June.

Interviews with more than a dozen current and former officials in Washington, Europe, Africa and Russia — as well as four Russians who worked for Mr. Prigozhin — portray a tug of war over his assets among major players in Russia’s power structure, including two different intelligence agencies. Many of those interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity, to discuss sensitive diplomatic and intelligence issues.

The fight is complicated, these people said, by the lingering allegiance to Mr. Prigozhin in his private army, where some are bridling at being subsumed within Russia’s defense ministry and instead backing a transfer of power to Mr. Prigozhin’s son.

“Wagner is not just about the money — it’s a kind of religion,” said Maksim Shugalei, a political consultant for Mr. Prigozhin, adding that he was proud to be part of the mercenary force. “It’s unlikely that this structure will totally disappear. For me, this is impossible.”

Valerie Hopkins, Elian Peltier, Paul Sonne, Ekaterina Bodyagina, Alina Lobzina, Oleg Matsnev and Raja Abdulrahim contributed reporting.

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