CNN  — 

Yevgeny Prigozhin turned the Wagner Group from a shadowy band of mercenaries into a feared military powerhouse operating across multiple countries on three continents. Now that he is gone, the future of the group is anyone’s guess.

The warlord is presumed dead after aviation authorities said he was on board a jet that crashed near Moscow on Wednesday, exactly two months after he launched a short-lived rebellion in Russia.

Most security experts doubt Wagner can survive without Prigozhin, posing major questions about what will happen to the group’s fighters, weapons and operations.

They said the Kremlin may seek to further absorb the group into the Russian military, or try to replace the Wagner chief with an ally, but it’s unlikely there will be much appetite for that among Prigozhin’s men. What’s clear is that the fallout will be felt far beyond Russia’s borders, especially in African countries where Wagner has been employed to help prop up leaders and suppress rebellions.

“My guess is that (Wagner) is going to fall apart without him because he led the group in a very personalized manner, in a way where loyalty was to him over any other entity or person,” said Natasha Lindstaedt, a professor at the University of Essex who researches authoritarian regimes and violent non-state actors.

The kind of clear chain of command that is common in traditional military does not exist in Wagner, which makes Prigozhin’s demise a potentially existential problem for the group. “It’s really all about him and once he is gone, it will be more chaotic. It’s not clear where the loyalties are going to go to,” Lindstaedt told CNN.

The leadership vacuum is even more acute given that two of Prigozhin’s trusted lieutenants – Wagner field commander Dmitriy Utkin and logistics chief Valeriy Chekalov – were also on the plane, according to the authorities.

Utkin in particular is a major loss; reportedly a former Russian intelligence officer who went by the call-sign “Wagner,” he was described as the founder of the group by the United States when it sanctioned him over his role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2017.

‘Full backing of Russia’

Wagner wielded an unusual amount of power for a mercenary group, and a lot of that was down to Prigozhin and his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nicknamed “Putin’s private army,” Wagner was used to boost Russia’s influence across the world.

“They have been deployed to many countries in Africa and Middle East and also initially to the Donbas in Ukraine, and they’ve done a great job of promoting Russian foreign policy through very shadowy and illegal means of controlling political actors, extracting fossil fuels and other resources from these countries,” said Huseyn Aliyev, lecturer at University of Glasgow who researches non-state armed groups in Russia and Ukraine.

Wagner’s influence rose further over the course of Russia’s war on Ukraine, especially after the group took a leading role in the assaults on Soledar and Bakhmut, showing little regard for the lives of its troops in the process. The capture of those cities – at a huge human cost – was a rare Russian gain in Ukraine.

But with its growing influence, Wagner quickly became a headache for the Kremlin. “It started to get out of the Kremlin’s control because they were given green light to do a lot of things … to recruit prison inmates, to get almost unlimited access to weapons from the Ministry of Defense in order to achieve things in Ukraine, but instead, they became, especially Prigozhin, very powerful and influential,” Aliyev said.