Moscow has looked to recruit Wagner veterans back into service and integrate the remnants of the force into a militarized guard headed up by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s former bodyguard.
“The move to attract Wagner fighters into Rosgvardia was almost certainly approved by Putin,” Rebekah Koffler, president of Doctrine & Strategy Consulting and a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, told Fox News Digital.
“These are operatives with the highest combat potential, and Putin doesn’t want to waste these resources, especially now that he has multiple needs for combat-ready personnel, and he wants to avoid additional mobilization at the time when he is about to run for another presidential term in 2024,” she said.
The future of the infamous Wagner mercenary group remained in question following the death of founder and leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in August 2023, months after he led a would-be coup attempt against Russia’s military command.
Catrina Doxsee, associate director of the CSIS Transnational Threats Project, previously argued that the inability to replicate Prigozhin’s relationships, knowledge and experience developed with many mid-level leaders and operational personnel in the group “can’t be easily replicated” and losing them could “lead to potential weaknesses and power vacuums.”
To avoid such vacuums, Putin has moved to merge the remnant Wagner group with Russia’s Rosgvardia under the leadership of his former bodyguard Victor Zolotov. Active Wagner members received text messages that announced the group’s dissolution and integration into Rosgvardia, including the “entire structure, methods of work and commanders,” The New York Times reported.
The Times noted that it could not verify the text message, but the effort aligns with Rosgvardia’s campaign to position itself as the successor to Wagner, which had registered several notable successes for Putin in Ukraine, including the capture of the heavily-contested city of Bakhmut.
Koffler confirmed that Rosgvardia has made such promises, adding that this includes pay structure – a critical element of the unit that worked on a “progressive” scale that paid more depending on the level of risk for missions – in addition to the Rosgvardia medical and rehabilitation benefits.
However, the group’s autonomy, which analysts attribute as perhaps the most important element of the group’s success – if also one of the key factors that caused friction with military command – remains under threat, even as Putin appears willing to put Prigozhin’s son in command.
“Prigozhin Jr, named Pavel, also nicknamed ‘Prince,’ has negotiated a deal with Rosgvardiya’s leadership under which, although Wagner will be subordinate to Rosgvardia and ultimately to its chief Zolotov, it will retain its own brand — name, flag, logo and other symbols – and its ethos, ideology, and operational methods and tactics,” Koffler explained.
Those guarantees belie Putin’s desire for tighter control of Wagner fighters “because these are dangerous convicts.”
“He doesn’t want them to run around Russia as they present a threat to Russian society,” Koffler argued. “Nor does he want them freelancing all over the world, especially at the time when the conflict in the Middle East could very well erupt into a regional war or even beyond.”
“He wants them performing the missions on behalf of Mother Russia in various parts of the world,” Koffler added, noting that such missions would now be “covert” and would prove more difficult for the U.S. and allies to track and counteract.
The decision and effort to merge Wagner’s remnants into Rosgvardia comes at a time when Russia is keen to avoid a wide-scale forced mobilization and draft of Russian citizens, which Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Russia Program Deputy Director John Hardie labeled “politically risky.”
“He’s trying to recruit volunteers,” Hardy told Fox News Digital, which includes “longer contracts” for “about 400,000 they claim they can reach,” but Hardy argued such targets seemed “highly implausible.”
“I think they’re struggling to have enough time to train these troops in a meaningful way,” he added. “Does it seem likely, to my mind, perhaps another round of force mobilization? The bottom line is they certainly need all the means they can get.”
“It’s kind of a mixed bag of folks that they’re recruiting,” he stressed. “Not always high quality, I think.”
Hardy noted that without the autonomy Wagner previously enjoyed, the group’s success would likely drop and not pay the same dividends it did under Prigozhin. Additionally, Rosgvardia’s lack of front-line experience will also lead to significant struggles and likely explains why Putin is keen to put Wagner’s remnants under the new guard’s control, according to Hardy.
“This is like the riot police, the narcotic police, so they sort of put them in this special organization, newly-formed National Guard, along with the internal troops, which really is at its core … It’s a protest force kind of supposed to protect the regime,” he explained.
“I would predict that Wagner’s autonomy will be severely curtailed,” he concluded. “I don’t think these commanders will get the same sort of free rein that they had with the Wagner detachment, and retired commanders will have to take orders in a more top-down fashion. That’s standard Russian military, just as a precaution.”