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What comes next for the Wagner Group following the death of its leader

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Russia, people are mourning the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin and asking what comes next for the mercenary organization he led. The Wagner Group is a huge transnational fighting force, and NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow has been talking with people about its future. Hi there.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: What have you learned about what's happening within Wagner right now?

MAYNES: Well, I was in touch over the weekend with a source who used to serve in Wagner, specifically in Syria. He told me that the mercenary force had a contingency plan to delegate authority in the event of the death of the leadership - in other words, Prigozhin. And yet my source says that this second tier of command in Wagner has gone silent. Everyone's still waiting to hear what they have to say. Meanwhile, we've had an outpouring of tributes to Prigozhin, including one here in Moscow, where I was today.

SHAPIRO: OK. Let's listen to some of that reporting.

MAYNES: So I'm near the Kremlin, where an impromptu memorial has sprung up to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner chief, as well as his commanders who were killed in the crash. You can see people bringing flowers, the Russian flags, candles, the Wagner insignia and portraits, of course, of Prigozhin and several of the other people killed. A masked man decked out in camouflage with a Wagner patch, an apparent member of the militia, is tending to the memorial. I ask him, what should people understand about Yevgeny Prigozhin?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "He's a Russian patriot," he replies, and ends the interview. Other visitors to the memorial were more willing to speak.

AZAN BIKMULIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Azad Bikmulin traveled more than 500 miles to Moscow from the city of Kazan to pay respects and with good reason.

BIKMULIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "My father is in Wagner," he says. In fact, he's on assignment now somewhere - maybe Africa, maybe Belarus or Ukraine. Bikmulin hasn't heard from his dad in a month. But maybe, just maybe, he says, Prigozhin, who he says the other mercenaries call Papa, is with him.

BIKMULIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "He might still be alive," says Bikmulin. "The media's reported Prigozhin dead before, and we still haven't seen a body."

ALFIYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Bikmulin's mother, Alfiya, says her husband signed up for Wagner because of Prigozhin. She trusted him, she tells me. He was with the people and told the truth, and that's why the leadership didn't like him.

IVAN: He looked like a guy who put his principles over the Russian propaganda.

MAYNES: Ivan is a 23-year-old lawyer by training who refused to give his last name out of concern for his safety. Ivan says he's against the war and no fan of Prigozhin's, but he recognizes that Prigozhin's plain talk about the struggles on the front and failures inside the Defense Ministry made him a star to many in Russia.

IVAN: Because he gained his points when he criticized the minister of defense, and he choose this strategy that was pretty successful.

IRINA PAVLOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Passing by the memorial on her way to the local Orthodox Church, pensioner Irina Pavlova says Prigozhin's rebellion against Russia's military leadership in June of last month was his undoing, at least in God's eyes.

PAVLOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "I believe in God's will," she told me. "Prigozhin had fulfilled his mission on Earth, and the Lord came to take him away."

NASTYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Nastya, a local liberal activist who also won't give her last name, says whatever happened to Prigozhin's plane, it wasn't by chance.

NASTYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "It was revenge for the uprising," she tells me, noting the crash came two months to the day after the rebellion. Someone, she says took revenge.

ALEXANDER: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Alexander from Donetsk also wouldn't give his last name. He says he moved to Moscow after Ukrainian authorities brought criminal charges against him for separatism. He says Prigozhin died for speaking the truth about a failed war.

ALEXANDER: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Ninety-nine point nine percent of people know what happened," he says. But you know where we live and why we can't say it out loud.

SHAPIRO: Voices at a memorial to Yevgeny Prigozhin near the Kremlin brought to us by Charles Maynes, who is still with us. And you mentioned there is a lower tier of Wagner commanders, and they've been silent so far. What are the stakes for them?

MAYNES: Well, Wagner is the most famous of the private mercenary groups in Russia, but it's far from the only one. There already reports that these other groups and the defense ministry are vying for Wagner's spoils. It's contracts in Africa, Syria that made Prigozhin a wealthy man. As to the lower Wagner command, in conversations I've had, including today, the sense is that simmering anger Prigozhin tapped into over the way the war in Ukraine has been run - it's still there.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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