What is the Wagner Group?

The Russian paramilitary organization has played an active part in the Ukraine war and left bloody footprints across the globe. A fitting candidate for the New Internationalist Hall of Infamy.

The Wagner Group for many years did not exist – or at least not according to those whose interests it serves. There are no tax returns and until January no company registration, much less accountability for its victims. The mercenary outfit is illegal under Russian law, which bans private military companies, yet it has offices and a presence in many of the world’s ‘conflict markets’ – a term used by private military contractors (PMCs) to describe their growing areas of operation, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. Even the man who apparently sponsors the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has denied its existence (depending on who he’s talking to).

Prigozhin, a heavily-sanctioned oligarch and former convict back in the days of the USSR, started post-Soviet life as a Saint Petersburg food entrepreneur (a hotdog salesman, some say) and is a long time buddy of Vladimir Putin. His services to the President are multiple and varied. He is known as ‘Putin’s chef’ as his large catering firm is in charge of Putin’s opulent banquets for foreign dignitaries as well as other lucrative state catering contracts. But his biggest impact is undoubtedly his role as Wagner’s lynchpin – connecting the global network and acting as an intermediary with the Kremlin, according to some.

Wagner is a late Russian entry into the world of PMCs, a huge growth industry where annual sales, already over $220 billion, are expected to balloon this decade. Many PMCs and their recruits have ideological inclinations that run to militarism and even extremist white nationalism. In the case of Wagner they represent themselves as the hard-bitten ‘tough guy’ yet somehow ‘professional’ wing of a Russian military no longer able to dine out on its heroic efforts in World War Two. They recruit from white supremacist milieu, particularly the so-called ‘Russian Imperial Movement’: ultra-nationalists who advocate tsarist restoration.

Worldwide reach

It is estimated that Wagner has lost thousands of soldiers (many recruited from Russian prisons) in the Ukraine war. The group has been most visible in the Russian campaign to prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria and in the fighting since 2014 in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. Wagner was initially founded by Russian military intelligence officer Dmitry Utkin in 2014 to back separatists in the region. They gained a higher profile in 2015-17 when they helped take back the El Shaer gas field in Syria, which had fallen to the Islamic State.

Wherever it goes Wagner has been accused of the arbitrary killing of civilian non-combatants, including through deadly land-mining of conflict zones, looting and corruption

But Wagner has since spread its wings, most of all in Africa, leaving bloody footprints from Mali to Mozambique. In Sudan, it works hand-in-glove with the country’s military chiefs to keep their increasingly unpopular junta in power, as well as to guard lucrative facilities like mines and Red Sea port infrastructure in league with the linked Meroe Gold company. In the mineral-rich but deeply troubled eastern region of the Central African Republic Wagner ‘guards’ mines. Some reports suggest it has thrown in its lot with the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s central government in a brutal campaign against a myriad of dubious militia groups.

Its involvement in Madagascar is murky: as well as alleged involvement in a Russian firm’s takeover of the countries national chromite producer, Wagner and Prigozhin also attempted election interference. In Libya Wagner is propping up the brutal warlord Khalifa Haftar, and has secured oilfields and infrastructure in parts of the country under his control.

Wherever it goes Wagner has been accused of the arbitrary killing of civilian non-combatants, including through deadly land-mining of conflict zones, looting and corruption. Add in propping up political thugs often of a military dispensation, and variously using torture, selective assassination and bullying, and the picture that emerges from the shadows is not pretty. Of course the main advantage for any government employing PMCs like Wagner is that when things ‘go south’ – as they inevitably do – they can shrug and wink at the cameras and proclaim ‘nothing to do with us’. Plausible deniability is the name of the modern mercenary game.

LOW CUNNING: PMCs like Wagner justify their actions by claiming to ‘professionalize’ militaries and in this way somehow contribute to shortening conflicts. If this were true it would make for a puzzling business model as PMCs depend of continuing conflict for their handsome pay cheques.

SENSE OF HUMOUR: The joke is on the German composer Richard Wagner whose anti-Semitic inclinations make him a white nationalist icon. His operas have been reported to have made Hitler weep. Still it’s a stretch to blame the melodramatic 19th century German composer for the land mines planted in Libya by a group of thugs that bear his name.

Sources: Time; the Guardian; Yahoo News; Sydney Morning Herald; newamerica.org; New York Post; the New York Times; Foreign Policy