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An opening for diplomacy? Prigozhin death leaves Russian mercenaries without leader

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Biden administration says it was not surprised by the plane crash that's believed to have killed a Russian mercenary leader. But Washington will be watching closely to see what happens next to Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner Group. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that the U.S. has been tracking the group in Ukraine and across Africa.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Biden administration officials have been careful in public not to speculate about Wagner's future post-production. But the ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, says her message to African countries about the mercenaries remains the same.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Their actions and their activities in Africa are destabilizing, and we've encouraged countries in Africa to condemn their presence as well as their actions.

KELEMEN: Colin Clarke, who's a researcher with the New York-based Soufan Group, thinks the U.S. should do more to capitalize on this moment. He doesn't see a clear strategy from the administration to counter Russia's meddling in Africa.

COLIN CLARKE: If you look across Africa, I mean, people have called it the corridor of coups stretching from Guinea all the way east across the Sahel into parts of Chad and Sudan. This is a large part of a very vital continent that is now up for grabs, if not, you know, falling solely into the Russian orbit.

KELEMEN: Clarke predicts there will be infighting for control over the many Shell companies linked to Wagner. So it will take time to see how effective it can be in Africa. As for the fighters, many will remain as long as they get a paycheck. But Clarke points out that some are loyal to Prigozhin, and that could have implications for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

CLARKE: Whacking him mafia-style for the whole country to see is something that is a potential for blowback against Putin within Russia. And so there could be a period of domestic political strife that the Kremlin is going to have to attempt to weather over these coming days and weeks.

KELEMEN: That could be an opening for U.S. diplomats, says Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council. He says countries should know that it is a bad bet to partner with Russia.

DANIEL FRIED: If it is true that it was a hit - and it certainly feels like it - that's the kind of country you're dealing with. What does it tell you about the system? You know, the Soviets did assassinations, but this seems more gangster style, and it tells you something about this government.

KELEMEN: The other area to watch is Ukraine. The researcher, Colin Clarke, thinks the Ukrainians have an opportunity with the mercenaries who had pledged allegiance to Prigozhin and who took part in his short-lived mutiny earlier this summer against Russia's top brass.

CLARKE: We've already actually seen elements on the Ukrainian side reaching out to Wagner, saying, hey, come fight for us against Russia.

KELEMEN: And he thinks the U.S. can help in that information war. A Pentagon spokesman says the Wagner forces were the most effective in Ukraine before they pulled out but are now not much of a factor on the battlefield. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. 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.