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The Wagner Group, Russia’s maybe-private army in Ukraine, explained

The paramilitary group has come out of the shadows in the war in Ukraine. But what comes next?

Two men in camouflage jackets stand in front of the entrance to the Wagner Group building in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Visitors wearing military camouflage stand at the entrance of the PMC Wagner Centre, associated with the Wagner private military group (PMC), during the official opening of the office block in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on November 4, 2022.
Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

On the battlefields of Ukraine, near Bakhmut, Russian fighters have died in the thousands. Among them are prisoners, recruited to the front lines with the promise that if they could last six months, they could have their freedom. Evidence of mass graves shows they may not have made it that long.

Many of these Russian casualties are fighters for the Wagner Group, a murky paramilitary network led by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. The Wagner Group, and Prigozhin himself, have taken a very public — and potentially very risky — part in the war in Ukraine.

Russia for years relied on Wagner to do its bidding around the world in places where it did not want to openly commit troops or resources, where it could operate in a kind of gray zone. That granted Moscow a degree of plausible deniability as it exerted its influence and interests in other corners of the globe, from Syria to Mali to Venezuela. That has changed in Ukraine.

“The Wagner Group has come out of the shadows,” said Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defense research group in London, and author of Russia in Africa. “Prigozhin is now claiming that he oversees the Wagner Group, and he’s actively and aggressively promoting Wagner as a symbol of this new kind of Russian patriotism.”

In Ukraine, Wagner is filling a specific operational and public relations need for Russia. The group bogged down and attrited Ukrainian forces at a time Russia’s military was in disarray. Wagner bought Putin time in advance of his eventual mobilization push, and, later, Russia’s preparations for a counteroffensive. The group’s fighters are on the verge of their most substantial victory, in Bakhmut, but it is one that has taken months and months, with an astounding casualty rate.

Wagner’s presence has reshaped the Ukraine conflict, but now that it’s out of the shadows, it may no longer serve Russia’s aims abroad in exactly the same way. But Wagner’s evolution offers a blueprint for how Russia exerts its power and influence. Its rise is a window into how Putin might continue to pursue his global ambitions — ambitions he is unlikely to abandon.

How did the Wagner Group start? What we know — and don’t

The Wagner Group is described as a private military company, but the full scope and breadth of its operations is difficult to know. Wagner provides everything from security training, political and military advice, intelligence collection, influence operations, and combat operations. It is “one-stop shop for all autocrats around the world,” said Mark Galeotti, director of Mayak Intelligence, a professor at University College London, and an expert on Russian security affairs.

The first whispers of the Wagner Group emerged in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and Russian-directed separatists seized territory in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine. At the time, there were reports of so-called “little green men” — soldiers in uniform, but without Russian insignia, who entered both regions.

Stories of something like the Wagner Group emerged alongside the reports of these “little green men.” Some of those reports were amplified by pro-Kremlin bloggers and outlets.

Wagner “was a battlefield rumor before it was anything else, and there was an intentional cultivation of that rumor in order to present as kind of fait accompli,” said Candace Rondeaux, a leading expert on the Wagner Group who recently completed a multi-year investigation into it as director of Future Frontlines at New America. Wagner’s tasks, according to New America’s research, included reining in and even assassinating rogue Russian separatists who actually wanted to create a “Novorossiya,” or New Russia.

But on paper, the Wagner Group didn’t exist.

Private military companies, or PMCs, are illegal in Russia. This, said Catrina Doxsee, associate director and associate fellow for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), is preferable for the Kremlin, because it can deny involvement in Wagner’s activities but maintain a lot of power over them: “Insofar as [Wagner] are accountable to anyone, they’re accountable to Putin himself.”

And because Wagner’s origins and legal status are so murky, it piles on to the confusion about what the organization is, what it does, and who is actually in charge of it.

Yevgeny Prigozhin is shown smiling at an economic forum in 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, seen here in 2016, has something of an unconventional biography for a Russian oligarch.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Prigozhin claims he is the founder of the Wagner Group, but he is more likely a convenient figurehead. He himself denied any connection before taking ownership with the war in Ukraine.

For an oligarch, Prigozhin’s biography is a bit unconventional. He is a convicted robber who was released in 1990, just as the Soviet Union was breaking up. That created an opening for a guy with connections to Russia’s underworld to rise into more elite circles. He got into the food business by way of selling hot dogs, and eventually created a company, Concord Management, which won government contracts to provide meals, including for schools and Russia’s armed forces. Prigozhin catered events, including for Putin as he entertained foreign dignitaries, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”

But he isn’t exactly in Putin’s inner circle. He is a fixer, with the skills and connections to make himself needed. “He’s made a lot of money by being useful for the Kremlin, doing whatever the Kremlin needed at the time,” Galeotti said. This may be setting up a troll farm to sow political discord abroad, including in the 2016 US elections, or acting as the frontman for a private mercenary-like force to do the Kremlin’s bidding. In both cases, Prigozhin fulfilled the interests of the Russian state, but with just enough distance.

Prigozhin is not the only person associated with the creation of the Wagner Group. Another is Dmitry Utkin, apparently a former commander for the special forces of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence. As the rumor goes, Utkin apparently had a thing for the Third Reich and used “Wagner” as a nom de guerre.

But the actual evidence showing that Utkin established the Wagner Group is pretty scant. Research, including by outlets like Bellingcat, indicates that Utkin is more likely a straw man, helping to make the myth of Wagner. Somebody who may be Utkin appears to have worked for Wagner, but reported to other figures, including those more directly associated with the GRU.

All of which is to say, Wagner’s beginnings are intentionally obscure, and that has bled into efforts to piece together information about the group today. But one thing does seem clear from all this purposeful confusion: something called the Wagner Group wouldn’t exist unless Putin wanted it to.

Wagner expanded around the world, and a troubling human rights record followed

On February 7, 2018, in Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria, about 500 pro-government Syrian forces — with Russian-made military equipment — attacked American troops stationed alongside Kurdish partners in an hours-long firefight.

The US tried reaching their Russian counterparts to get them to try to call off the attack, as Russia was backing Syrian troops. (Both Washington and Moscow used deconfliction lines in Syria to avoid confrontations such as these.) But when Russia answered the phone, it repeatedly denied its soldiers were involved, even though, as the New York Times reported, US forces overheard the forces speaking Russian.

About 200 or so of the pro-Syrian soldiers were reportedly killed, though no US or Kurdish deaths were reported. The Russian government continued to deny Russian troops had participated in the attack, even though it later conceded Russian citizens had died.

US intelligence concluded that at least some of those fighters were likely associated with the Wagner Group. Russia formally intervened in Syria in 2015 on behalf of its key regional ally, Bashar al-Assad, whose government was losing territory to both opposition forces and extremist groups. At the same time, Russians largely opposed committing troops to Syria. Enter Wagner (along with some other paramilitary-like forces): a way for Russia to prop up Assad’s army and use its air power, intelligence, and other capabilities to assist in risky combat operations, without directly committing Russian soldiers to Syria. And, hey, if some lucrative access to oil and gas fields also came out of it, all the better.

Wagner’s influence did not stop in Syria. It branched out, especially to Africa. Russian private military companies have been active in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, according to a 2021 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Wagner has had fairly high-profile roles in places like Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mali.

But as Wagner expanded, it also evolved. Unlike in Ukraine or Syria, where Russia’s aims were pretty overt, Wagner’s growth elsewhere was more opportunistic.

As Doxsee said, it became less about working directly with the Russian military or a Russian-backed partner and “turned into a model where [Wagner] typically targeted states that have weak governance and ongoing security threats that also have rich natural resources such as natural energy, gold, and gemstones.”

Because Russia also wants vital resources, and it has relied on Wagner to strike these lucrative deals for things like diamonds and gold in the Central African Republic or oil in Libya. (Prigozhin appears to be something of a middle man here, helping to negotiate these deals. He is likely enriching himself, but he’s also not exactly freelancing.) Moscow can exploit these resources, but also use them to finance its operations elsewhere, including in Ukraine — and with the added benefit of being a bit harder to target with international sanctions. Moscow uses Wagner to help guard these kinds of mineral assets, but also to capture the state. “Those friendly autocrats become Russian clients,” Ramani said.

Plus, it’s much more efficient for Russia to use Wagner, rather than committing state resources, since things like the mining deals allow Wagner or other private military companies to help self-finance their operations. “Russia doesn’t have a lot of money, so this is a great way of being present and creating the impression that you are a great power around the world and not pay as much for it, as they would have had to do [with] a regular force,” said Tor Bukkvoll, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.

The playbook shifts slightly depending on the country, but it follows a similar pattern of exploitation and dependence. “They have no incentive in bringing the armed conflict to an end, because they will continue to get paid or continue to have access to minerals,” said Sorcha MacLeod, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and a member of the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries. This isn’t unique to private military companies or mercenary-like forces, but the result is the same — Wagner prolongs unrest and instability.

There are so many questions about how Wagner operates, although more and more information is coming out thanks to watchdogs, independent monitors, human rights groups, academics and researchers, journalists, and international bodies. Together, this work shows Wagner’s influence — and its brutality.

Specifically, Wagner fighters have been accused of serious human rights violations.

Video footage from Syria in 2017 reportedly showed members of Wagner beating and beheading a Syrian national. In Libya, watchdogs have alleged that Wagner Group planted illegal landmines and booby traps. In the Central African Republic, dozens of witnesses reported abuse and torture that they said were “committed by men with white skin speaking Russian ... Witnesses said that the men were carrying military-grade weapons and wearing beige khaki clothes, scarves to cover their faces, military boots, gloves, and sunglasses,” according to Human Rights Watch.

In January, a group of independent United Nations experts called for an investigation into reported abuses in Mali, including a potential mass execution in Moura. Malian troops and Russian mercenaries — who are fighting an insurgency — were accused of murdering hundreds of people last March, many of them likely civilians with no apparent ties to insurgent groups.

“Now, it’s not that armed groups and militia and even regular armed armies don’t violate human rights or commit more crimes. Of course, they do,” MacLeod said. “But what we see is a particular level of unrestrained violence that is used by Wagner when it’s deployed.”

Private military companies or mercenary fighters are bound by international law when it comes to war crimes and crimes against humanity, but holding them accountable is extremely difficult. With Wagner, for instance, the group’s lack of transparency is intentional, and the places where people might seek justice — the states or countries where they operate — are Wagner clients.

Why was Ukraine Wagner’s coming out?

Wagner opened its first official headquarters in St. Petersburg in November. Now Prigozhin was not just willing to talk openly about Wagner. He was actively bragging and doing aggressive public relations about its battlefield prowess in places like Soledar and Bakhmut. He has openly challenged the Russian Ministry of Defense, trying to frame it as if Wagner fighters were the only competent force.

“There really has been this sea change in acknowledgment and promotion of Wagner’s activities, whereas previously, on behalf of both the Russian state and Prigozhin, the default was just complete denial,” Doxsee said.

Some have interpreted Prigozhin’s braggadocio as an oligarch feeling himself, and seizing on the incompetence of the Russian military to create his own power center — maybe even playing the long game, to challenge Putin himself.

But experts expressed doubt that Prigozhin was actually a Putin rival, and there are signs that his rise might also have its limits — and that he may have overstepped his ambitions.

“Wagner was a very useful stopgap in that period between when [Russia] had so many of their regular forces attrited and Putin came around to the realization that he had no choice but to bring in hundreds of thousands of more people. That may, in some sense, prove to be that Wagner is at its sort of height of influence,” said Brian Taylor, a Russia expert and professor at Syracuse University.

Prigozhin has proved his usefulness, showing Putin he can take a town or two, largely relying on convicts from prisons. But many experts said, it’s a mistake to look at this as Prigozhin going rogue. Or, as Taylor put it: “You can’t just fly a helicopter into a Russian prison without approval high up in the Russian state.”

Soldiers in fatigues climb a snowy path up a hill. At the bottom behind them is a snowy expanse where a dozen more soldiers stand in a circle.
Ukrainian replacement troops go through combat training on February 24, 2023, in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. According to the group’s commander, the unit was badly depleted in recent weeks of fighting against Wagner forces, losing more than half its combat strength.
John Moore/Getty Images

Instead, then, it makes sense to look as Prigozhin as a functionary who is seizing an opportunity in an otherwise dicey environment. “The war has become the basic organizing principle of Russia. It’s all about the war. And in that context, Prigozhin wants to take full advantage of this to raise his profile — not because he’s going to take power or anything like that, he has too many enemies for that,” Galeotti said. “If nothing else — but precisely because — in this system, the real currency is not the ruble, It is Putin’s favor.”

There is a place — even within Russia’s controlled media environment — for a convenient foil, a guy to get out front and complain about Russian military incompetence. It focuses and puts pressure on the war’s generals, but not on the war’s mission or its necessity. It is not necessarily a permanent or stable spot to be in, and becomes even more precarious when Wagner’s prize — in this case, Bakhmut — is still not fully within Russian control.

What’s next for Wagner?

But as long as the battle for Bakhmut continues, Prigozhin serves a purpose for the Russian state. Beyond that, the worst thing for Prigozhin is for the Ukraine war to end, because then he potentially stops being useful to the Kremlin. “Prigozhin clearly understands that there will be no safe retirement for him,” said Sergey Sukhankin, a senior research fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. “He knows that if the current regime, or if his Wagner Group goes down, he goes down with them.”

Prigozhin, then, remains dependent on Putin. Wagner — or another version of Wagner — can continue to exist whether or not Prigozhin is at the helm.

There are some signs that Prigozhin is trying to reinvent himself — and Wagner — once again. Prigozhin said in January that Wagner was no longer recruiting prisoners for its fight in Ukraine, though as some outlets, like CNN, have reported, the Russian Ministry of Defense itself is apparently now directly recruiting convicts. And the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has also claimed that Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company, is now forming its own private military company.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin has talked about transforming Wagner into an army based on ideology. He indicated to the New York Times in a statement that fighters receiving “ideological preparation” will increase Wagner’s effectiveness. Prigozhin has also announced the opening of multiple recruitment centers, some of them located in schools and sports clubs for kids.

It is a sign that Prigozhin is planning for the Ukraine war aftermath. Wagner’s own mission may shift after the war; it is hard to be a shadowy, secretive force when you’re fighting alongside Russian soldiers in Ukraine. At the same time, few experts doubted that Putin would cede Wagner’s gains or efforts abroad. “They’re still needed to do the jobs in Africa — in the Central African Republic, in Libya and other places,” said Bukkvoll, of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. “Putin is not giving up his great power visions.”

Wagner is shapeshifting, and may have its own power center, but within limits.

That helps reveal Wagner for what it really is: an extension of Putin, and his vision of governance. Wagner’s coming out was not an accident, but was allowed and orchestrated by the Kremlin. Or, as Rondeaux put it: “Why would Russia, after so many years of creating this air of mystery, suddenly open up the door so we could all peek in?”

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