The Wagner Group's presence extends from the ancient battlegrounds of Syria to the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa, projecting the Kremlin's global influence with mercenaries accused of using brutal force and profiting from seized mineral riches.
But that was under Yevgeny Prigozhin, who in what may have been his final recruitment video, appeared in military fatigues and held an assault rifle from an unidentified dry and dusty plain as he boasted that Wagner was "making Russia even greater on all continents and Africa even more free."
A private jet carrying Prigozhin and his top lieutenants crashed northwest of Moscow on Wednesday, two months after he led an armed rebellion that challenged the authority of Russian President Vladimir Putin. There is wide speculation that the mercenary leader, who is presumed dead, was targeted for assassination because of his uprising, although the Kremlin has denied involvement.
The crash has raised questions about the future of Prigozhin's private army, which fought alongside Russian troops in Ukraine before his brief uprising against military leaders in Moscow.
Russian authorities have cited the need to await DNA test results to confirm Prigozhin's death, but Putin expressed condolences after the jet fell from the sky. The Russian leader also has ordered Wagner fighters to sign an oath of allegiance to the Russian state, according to a decree published on the Kremlin's website late Friday and effective immediately.
The order followed the Kremlin's denial Friday of suggestions from Western officials and news media that the Wagner leader may have been killed on Putin's orders.
In African countries where Wagner provided security against extremist organisations like al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, officials and commentators predicted Russia would likely maintain a presence, placing the mercenaries under new leadership.
Others, however, say Prigozhin built deep, personal connections that Moscow could find challenging to replace quickly.
Africa is vitally important to Russia -- economically and politically.
This summer, Wagner helped secure a national referendum in the Central African Republic that cemented presidential power; it is a key partner for Mali's army in battling armed rebels; and it contacted the military junta in Niger that wants its services following a coup.
Expanding ties and undercutting Western influence in Africa is a top priority as the Kremlin seeks new allies amid its war in Ukraine, where Wagner forces also helped win a key battle. Africa's 54 nations are the largest voting bloc at the U.N., and Moscow has actively worked to rally their support for its invasion.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Friday that Wagner's forces "are destabilizing, and we've encouraged countries in Africa to condemn their presence as well as their actions."
The Republican Front in the Central African Republic, which is allied with the country's ruling party, on Thursday reiterated its support for Russia and Wagner, saying they were "determined to fight alongside the African people as they struggle for self-determination."
Wagner forces have served as personal bodyguards for President Faustin Archange Touadera, protecting the capital of Bangui from rebel threats and helping Touadera win the July 30 constitutional referendum that could extend his power indefinitely.
Central African activist and blogger Christian Aime Ndotah said the country's cooperation with Russia would be unaffected by new leadership at Wagner, which has been "well-established" in the country for years.
But some in the Central African Republic denounce the mercenaries, and the U.N. peacekeeping mission there criticized them in 2021 for human rights abuses.
"A state's security is its sovereignty. You can't entrust the security of a state to a group of mercenaries," said Jean Serge Bokassa, former public security minister.
Nathalia Dukhan, a senior investigator at The Sentry, a policy organization based in Washington, predicted the Kremlin would try to bring Africa closer into its orbit.
"Wagner has been a successful tool for Russia to expand its influence efficiently and brutally," she said. "In the midst of all the turmoil between Putin and Prigozhin, the Wagner operation in Central Africa only deepened, with increased direct involvement by the Russian government."
High-ranking Wagner operatives have built relationships in Mali and the Central African Republic and understand the terrain, said Lou Osborn of All Eyes on Wagner, a project focusing on the group.
"They have a good reputation, which they can sell to another Russian contender. It wouldn't be surprising if a new organization took them over," Osborn said, noting that Russian military contractors in Ukraine, such as Redut and Convoy, have recently expressed a desire to do business in Africa.
Redut was created by the Russian Defense Ministry, which had sought to put Wagner under its control. Following the June mutiny, Putin said the mercenaries could sign contracts with the ministry and keep serving under one of the group's top commanders, Andrei Troshev. It wasn't clear how many troops accepted, but media reports put the number at a few thousand.
The Kremlin still could face challenges in keeping the strong presence in Africa that Prigozhin helped establish.
Former Putin speechwriter Abbas Gallyamov said Prigozhin may have been allowed to continue his post-activities because Russian authorities had to find people who would take over his work.
"Time was needed to create the new channels, new mechanisms of control over those projects," he said. "And it's not a fact that they have been successful in that. It's possible that they have failed and the Kremlin may lose some of those projects."
Britain's Defense Ministry said Prigozhin's demise "would almost certainly have a deeply destabilizing effect on the Wagner Group."
"His personal attributes of hyper-activity, exceptional audacity, a drive for results and extreme brutality permeated Wagner and are unlikely to be matched by any successor," it said.
On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on Wagner's future.
For Prigozhin, who founded Wagner in 2014, its missions weren't simply about advancing Russia's global clout. His contractors in Syria, Libya, Sudan and elsewhere tapped the mineral and energy wealth of those countries to enrich himself.
Central African Republic lawmaker and opposition leader Martin Ziguélé said Wagner was active in gold mining, timber and other industries -- without paying taxes.
"We can only conclude that it's plundering," he said.
Prigozhin reached a deal with Putin after the rebellion that saw Wagner mercenaries move to Belarus in exchange for amnesty and spoke repeatedly since then about expanding his activities in Africa. He was seen courting African officials at a recent summit in St. Petersburg.
He quickly welcomed last month's military coup that toppled Niger President Mohamed Bazoum. The junta reached out to Wagner, but the group's response was unclear. There's been no visible presence of Russian mercenaries in the West African nation so far, other than crowds waving Russian and Wagner flags at demonstrations in support of the coup.
While U.S. officials didn't confirm that Russia or Wagner had any role in Bazoum's ouster, there are fears the Kremlin could exploit it to weaken Western positions in West Africa, where Wagner mercenaries already are active in Mali and have a suspected presence in Burkina Faso.
Some people in Niger think Prigozhin's presumed death won't stop Russia from trying to expand its influence.
"Our belief is that Russia wants to get a base here and to be popular. It's obvious they want to be here," Baraou Souleimanin, a tailor in Niamey, Niger's capital, told The Associated Press. Since the coup, he said he's sewn more than 150 Russian flags in a month.
"We pray that Allah strengthens the relationship with (Wagner) to continue the deal. If the relationship is good and strong, it's possible they'll continue with the deal even after his death," he said Thursday.
In neighboring Mali, a military junta that seized power in 2020 expelled French troops, diplomats, and media, and ordered an end to a decade-long U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Though not officially recognized by Malian authorities, Wagner forces have been known to operate in the rural north, where rebel and extremist groups have eroded state power and tormented communities.
Human Rights Watch says Mali's army, together with suspected Wagner mercenaries, committed summary executions, looting, forced disappearances and other abuses.
"What we have experienced through Wagner is the massacre of our people," said Ali Nouhoum Diallo, former president of the national assembly.
Timbuktu resident Youba Khalifa said Wagner's presence in Mali wouldn't change without Prigozhin because "they're going to replace him with another leader."
Although Prigozhin had told his troops in Belarus their new mission would be in Africa, several thousand of them trained the Belarusian army near the Polish border, prompting Warsaw to bolster forces there. There were signs, however, the mercenaries were preparing to pull back to Russia.
Belarusian Hajun, a group monitoring Russian troops in Belarus, said Thursday that satellite images showed more than a third of the tents at a Wagner camp were dismantled, a sign of a possible exodus. Still, President Alexander Lukashenko insisted his country will host about 10,000 troops.
That draws strong objections from the Belarusian opposition, which demands their withdrawal.
"Prigozhin's death should put an end to Wagner's presence in Belarus, which will reduce the threat for our country and its neighbors," exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told the AP.