Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin, during a meeting in the Kremlin aired on Russian TV, gave orders to a senior leader of the infamous Wagner Group to take command of “volunteer units” fighting in Ukraine and to ensure that they perform their “combat work” in the “best possible way”.
Andrei Troshev, known by his call sign “Sedoi” (Gray Hair), a highly decorated retired colonel who fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria, will serve as a de-facto successor to Wagner’s former leader, warlord Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who died in a mysterious plane crash on Aug. 23.
Putin placed Troshev within the chain of command of the Ministry of Defense, taking direct control over the Wagner mercenary contractor, to which he did not refer to by name during the meeting. The private military force, whose very existence Putin denied as recently as July, in the aftermath of the so called anti-government “coup,” is now an integral part of Putin’s “power vertical,” the former KGB operative’s brand of highly centralized, authoritarian governance.
Here is a look at the hit squad and its key players who will perform missions exclusively for the Russian state.
Troshev who already has been leading Wagner forces in Ukraine for more than a year, was likely identified by Putin as a potential replacement for Prigozhin prior to the warlord’s mysterious death. On July 13, Putin responding to a question by a journalist from Russia’s daily “Kommersant” spoke about the meeting he had held with 35 Wagner fighters on June 29, five days after the mutiny. One of the “employment options” that Putin offered to the mutineers was to serve in combat missions under the leadership of the “same person” who already was their “direct” and “real commander” for the past 16 months.
“Nothing would change,” promised Putin, so long as the fighters formally signed up for service with the Russian army and swore allegiance to the motherland. That person was Torshev. Despite the fact that many fighters were nodding in agreement, Prigozhin, who reportedly sat upfront and did not see his team’s reaction, apparently rejected the offer in a move that probably sealed his fate.
During the same interview, Putin, in response to the question if Wagner will continue to exist as a “combat unit,” said that PMC Wagner “didn’t exist.” Putin, who is trained as an attorney, explained that Russia has no law on private military companies (PMCs) and since “there’s no law, there’s no PMC [Wagner].”
During last week’s meeting, Putin referred to a previous, “latest” meeting with Troshev, during which he had directed him to take charge of “forming volunteer units” who can perform “combat tasks” in the zone of the special military operation.” As the new Wagner chief, Troshev will likely report to Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Yunus-bek Bamatgireevich Yevkurov, who was also present at the meeting and who was seen on the day of the rebellion in a video in Rostov military headquarters with Prigozhin, who was berating him and calling Moscow’s military leaders “senile clowns.”
Last Friday, Putin’s press secretary Dmitriy Peskov confirmed that Andrei Troshev is now working for the Ministry of Defense. By appointing “Sedoi,” a retired Colonel, to lead Wagner, and placing him within the Ministry of Defense’s command structure, Putin is ensuring that the group will serve only the interests of the Russian state, as was the original intent behind creating Wagner. Eventually, however, Prigozhin, who was a businessman with a criminal past and no military background, became an autonomous player. He concentrated enormous power, resources and wealth as a result of striking contracts for performing security services across the globe, making the Kremlin uneasy. In this new configuration, Wagner will serve as the proxy force for the Russian government, while still giving the Kremlin plausible deniability in sensitive operations.
It is no surprise that Putin, who is obsessed with having direct control over every aspect of governance, including Russia’s war-fighting strategy in Ukraine, would prefer someone who will follow his marching orders unequivocally, rather than a freelancer type, like Prigozhin.
Like Putin, a former KGB colonel, Troshev is also from St. Petersburg and has a pedigree of “siloviki” (securocrats), men with intelligence and security background. A graduate of the St. Petersburg Higher Artillery Command School, the Military Artillery Academy and the Russian Academy of Public Administration under the President of the Russian Federation, he served in multiple top positions in internal security and counter-terrorism agencies.
Unlike Prigozhin, Troshev is undoubtedly the man of the state or “gosudarstvennik,” a term that Putin often uses with pride. In 2016, Troshin was awarded, by presidential decree, the title of Hero of the Russian Federation and the medal of “Gold Star”, the highest military award, for his service in Syria, against the militants of the Islamic State.
Troshin is not the only key player in Wagner, and Ukraine is not the only theater of operations for the revamped mercenary group. Putin will probably rename Wagner out of concern that the Biden Administration may designate it a terrorist organization for its human rights abuses in Ukraine and Africa and would freeze its world-wide assets.
A 34-year-old Western-educated businessman and polyglot Dmitriy Sytyi is the new frontman for Wagner’s Africa operations. Sytyi, a former associate of Prigozhin, runs a Russian cultural center in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), a former French colony, and lives in a luxurious villa, which was formerly the official residence of CAR’s President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Touadéra insisted that Moscow allow the long-time Wagner operatives, including Sytyi, to stay in CAR, following Prigozhin’s death.
The cultural center, called Russia House, while ostensibly promoting Russian culture among the locals and relations with the community is almost certainly a front company. It is the de facto center of operations for Wagner’s multibillion-dollar business empire that exports diamonds, gold, lumber and other natural resources.
A graduate of the top business school in Paris and former translator who is fluent in Russian, French, Spanish and English, Sytyi has been managing Wagner’s various ventures in Africa for the past decade. While his relationship with Putin could not be confirmed, Sytyi is almost certainly acting on orders from the Kremlin, helping build valuable networks on behalf of the Russian state. Wagner mercenaries who are acting under the guise of military instructors provide personal security for Sytyi, who last year survived an assassination attempt involving a mail bomb.
Like Ukraine, Africa is a top priority for Putin who codified its strategic importance in Russia’s most recent foreign policy concept. Putin’s grand plan is to displace U.S. and Western influence in Africa, a vital region for Moscow due to its natural resources and growing markets for Russian armaments.
Wagner has been operating in Africa since 2014, expanding, on Putin’s orders, Russia’s footprint on the continent, which now includes seven other countries, in addition to CAR. Under the guise of providing security services and counter-terrorism training to unstable regimes, the mercenaries have been conducting destabilization operations. On Sunday France announced the withdrawal of its Ambassador and 1500 troops from the West African country of Niger, effectively ceding control to the new military junta that seized power in July and invited assistance from Wagner.
With the new command at the top, Putin’s hitmen will continue to destabilize various parts of the world, despite the fact that they officially “don’t exist.”