In April 2012, Vladimir Putin, then Prime Minister of Russia, was asked in the State Duma about his views on using private paramilitary organisations to expand Russian influence abroad. “Are you ready to create a working group that would work on this issue?” Aleksey Mitrofanov, a deputy from the Just Russia party, asked Mr. Putin, immediately after he presented the Prime Minister’s report to Parliament. “I understand your question and I think that this is indeed a tool for realising national interests without the direct participation of the state. You are absolutely right,” Mr. Putin said in his reply. “I think yes, we can think about it, consider it.”
In less than two years, the Wagner Group emerged in Ukraine as the country’s east was falling into a civil war between government forces and Russia-backed rebels. The private soldiers were often referred to in the media as the “little green men”, after the military uniforms they wore. Russia had already annexed Crimea, without practically no fight. But in Donbas, the rebels rose against the Ukrainian forces. The Russian government maintained that it had not sent troops to Ukraine. But the “little green men” fought alongside the Ukrainian rebels, who captured parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in the Donbas region, which President Putin recognised as independent republics before ordering the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Ever since the 2014 Ukrainian conflict, the Wagner Group has expanded its operations to many parts of the world, from Africa to West Asia and Latin America. In most of the countries, they were deployed, as Mr. Putin said in the Duma, Russia could expand its military footprint and associated political influence, without actually sending Russian armed forces. And now, when Russia’s Ukraine invasion is underway, there were many reports that Wagner contractors have been deployed alongside Russian soldiers in the battlefields.
Unlike in the United States, where dozens of private military corporations have been registered, establishing a private military company is illegal in Russia. The Russian Constitution specifically states that all matters of security and defence are a state monopoly. But there are loopholes in the legal system which private companies have used to set up security organisations. State-run enterprises are allowed to have private security units. Or private Russian-controlled military organisations registered abroad have been tolerated by the state authorities.
There are several Russian private paramilitary companies that are registered abroad. The Wagner Group, however, remains a shadowy organisation. Wagner is not a registered business in Russia — and where it has been registered, if at all, remains a mystery. It doesn’t have an official website (though there were mysterious websites that, as per a report on France 24, were used as recruiting platforms for Wagner). Nor does it have official social media handles.
But both the UN and Russian authorities have confirmed the existence and operations of Wagner. In 2018, President Putin termed it a military contractor but denied any links with the Russian state. He said that if the group wasn’t “violating Russian law, it has the right to work and promote its interests abroad,” according to a report in RT. A report by a UN panel of experts last year blamed “Russian instructors” in the Central African Republic for “indiscriminate killings, looting and enforced disappearances”. While the report did not name Wagner, the UN Working Group on mercenaries did. A report by the group dated March 24, 2021 stated that the Wagner Group “doesn’t seem to have a legal existence [in Russia] while operating in several countries across the globe”. In their recommendations, the Working Group has asked for “detailed information about ChVK Wagner (Wagner Group), its registration status in Russia and its relationship, if any, with the authorities of the Russian Federation’.
Links with GRU
The U.S. government has claimed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with close ties to President Putin, was the key financier of Wagner. Mr. Prigozhin has also been accused of funding the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that ran an online campaign against Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. Mr. Prigozhin has denied any links with Wagner and Russia’s Defence Ministry.
According to the European Union, which imposed sanctions on Wagner in December 2021, Dmitry Utkin, a former Lieutenant Colonel in Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, was the founder of the group.
A veteran of both Chechen wars, Col. Utkin served in the GRU until 2013. Later, he joined the Moran Security Group. Two employees of Moran (Russian nationals) formed the Slavonic Corps, another security company, in 2013 that was registered in Hong Kong. Col. Utkin was part of the Slavonic Corps fighters who were deployed in Syria in 2013-14, well before Russia officially sent troops to the country. The Slavonic Corps’s operations in Syria were disastrous and Col. Utkin quit Moran in 2014 and formed Wagner in the same year. It was the year President Putin annexed Crimea. According to EU papers, Col. Utkin was responsible for “coordinating and planning operations for the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries in Ukraine”. The company was reportedly named after Richard Wagner, the 19th century German composer. ‘Wagner’ was Col. Utkin’s callsign when he was in the force. In December 2016, Col. Utkin was photographed at a Kremlin reception that was held for Russians who had received state decorations. Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, later confirmed that Col. Utkin “really was there”, but added he knew nothing about his mercenaries. Col. Utkin was “invited as a holder of the Cavalier of the Order of Courage, an honour that recognises selfless acts of courage and valour,” said Mr. Peskov.
U.S. officials say even though Wagner is a private military contractor, it operates as an arm of Russia’s defence establishment. The Russian authorities have dismissed these claims, but Wagner troops’ foreign deployment has helped Russia deepen its influence abroad. The group’s shadowy existence and opaque operations offer the Kremlin the option of plausible deniability and avoid public scrutiny. Besides, the nominal ban on private military companies in Russia allows the authorities to retain a tight grip on organisations such as Wagner – if these companies walk off the Kremlin line, the government could crack down on them. This complex formula seems to have produced mixed results for the Kremlin.
In Ukraine, where Wagner emerged, the rebels made early gains in 2014, which the Russian troops now seek to extend further. In Syria, the Russian deployment, which included Wagner, turned around the civil war. In the Central African Republic, they, along with government forces, pushed the rebels back. This prompted several other African countries, including Mali, from where French troops pulled back recently after fighting, unsuccessfully, the jihadists for a decade, to seek Russian help, allowing Moscow to reclaim some of its lost Cold War influence in the continent. But not all Wagner operations were successful. They pulled back from Mozambique in 2019 after heavy losses in the fight against jihadists. In Libya, where Wagner was fighting along-side the rebel General Khalifa Haftar, ended up on the losing side in the civil war.
Irrespective of the gains and setbacks, one thing is clear: Wagner has grown into a military behemoth with presence across continents in just eight years. And its rise as a private military corporation with close establishment links has helped Moscow in its asymmetric power projection in faraway theatres. Now, in Ukraine, where they emerged, Wagner’s might is being tested once again.