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What happens next after Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin's death?

A woman reacts at an informal memorial next to the former 'PMC Wagner Centre' in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.
A woman reacts at an informal memorial next to the former 'PMC Wagner Centre' in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. Copyright Dmitri Lovetsky/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Dmitri Lovetsky/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Joshua Askew
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Mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin presumed dead on Wednesday. But what happens now?

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Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was apparently killed in a plane crash on Wednesday evening. 

Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian Ministry of Defence is yet to comment - and Prigozhin's death still needs to be confirmed - though the incident has shocked Russia and its many onlookers. 

But what happens next? 

What's the possible political impact of Prigozhin's reported death?

"The Kremlin has cut the head off the hydra," Dr Stephen Hall, lecturer of Russian politics at the University of Bath, tells Euronews. 

"The regime was fearful something like the Wagner uprising could possibly happen again," suggesting this threat was now likely neutralised. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin irked many Kremlin insiders over the pasted months.

He repeatedly - and very publically - lambasted the military establishment's campaign in Ukraine, while challenging key Kremlin narratives about the conflict.

The Russian MoD hit back and the ensuing struggle saw it try to take over the group - something many claim was the spark of Prigozhin's June rebellion, where Wagner mercenaries marched on Moscow. 

Many Western analysts and security officials are suggesting Putin and his allies orchestrated Wednesday's crash - which wiped out a number of senior Wagner figures - yet this cannot be confirmed. 

Hall suggested the target could be Russian elites more generally. 

"Putin sends signals to people," he said. "I think it's quite a clear signal that this is what happens to traitors."

Shortly after Prigozhin's armed mutiny broke out on 24 June, the Russian president denounced it as “treason” and a “stab in the back”, vowing avengence. 

These charges against Prigozhin were soon dropped in a secretive deal that ended the so-called "march on justice" and saw the mercenary force exiled to Belarus. But many speculated it would not be long before the Kremlin went after him. 

"The war is going badly and some elites are dissatisfied. By killing Prigozhin it sends the signal that if you rise up then you're going to have a very brutal end." 

Nationalist and patriotic groups in Russia have become increasingly vocal about their government's military campaign in Ukraine, often slamming officials for mismanagement and botched battlefield manoeuvres. 

Yet Hall said the incident could make the Kremlin "look weak". 

"Some people will say it's Putin consolidating power, plausibly. But I think it's also a testament to a desperate regime... they are trying to send a signal they will eliminate those challenge them... [but this] also highlights elite conspirators are out there." 

What happens next for Wagner itself?

Question marks have hung over the existence of the mercenary force ever since its abortive mutiny in June. 

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Following the secretive deal struck between Putin and Prigozhin that averted the rebellion, Wagner allegedly lost state funding, possibly presenting a financial challenge to the group.

"What we'll see is Wagner is going to either have its name changed and get a new symbol - the Kremlin likes to keep structures it's already created - or it is going to be disbanded," said Hall.  

Wagner was established in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Until 2022 it was unclear who the real founders were. There was much media speculation about who created it, though Prigozhin eventually admitted so. 

Earlier this week, the once hot dog seller appeared in his first video address since his armed uprising, saying the group was in Africa to make the continent "more free". 

It is unknown what will happen to Wagner's operation in Africa, where it is involved in lucrative mining arranges and securing weak regimes. 

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Some commentators have suggested the Russian state could take over, though this is not clear. 

How could the Russian population react?

Prigozhin hit the headlines continuously throughout the Ukraine war, criticising how the Russian military establishment was conducting its campaign. 

While this made enemies in the halls of power, some ordinary Russians respected his straight-talking. 

It is uncertain how the population will react to his alleged death. 

"It is true that he was popular, particularly amongst more patriotic and nationalist groups, although he certainly wasn't popular amongst liberals," said Hall. "But a lot of Russians are going to be quite angry." 

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"Prigozhin died in cold blood."

"Here is a man who said the war was going badly and the regime is corrupt, and they've done away with him," he added. 

In one of his more flagrant remarks, Prigozhin accused Moscow of lying to the public about Ukraine, dismissing its justification for war that Kyiv was planning 2022 attack on Donbas and Crimea.

Such remarks could have landed other Russians in prison, with criticising the war currently illegal inside the country. 

Still, Hall exercised a note of caution about what will happen. 

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"Russian politics has always been mysterious. And boy, for the last 18 months has it been particularly mysterious."

"We simply don't know what the future is going to hold in terms of whilst I think we knew Prigozhin's days were numbered, it was certainly surprising as to how it ended."

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