Legally, it doesn’t exist, yet the Wagner Group, a quasi-private, Russian military contractor, has carried out assassinations, tempered with Western democracies and processes, and taken over strategic territories during its involvement in conflicts around the world.
It has been reported that the group is now active in Ukraine, with orders to track down and assassinate Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky.
So, who is the Wagner Group?
Tactics spoke to Ruslan Trad, a freelance columnist, journalist and author with a focus on Syria, hybrid warfare and mercenaries about the group’s origins, its previous operations, links to the Russian state and its currently involvement in the war in Ukraine. In 2020, Ruslan published his second book, Russian Invisible Armies, coauthored with Kiril Avramov, on Russian private military companies, such as the Wagner Group.
Could you provide a bit of background as to the foundations of the group?
Wagner started as a contractor of the lowest level. Until 2011, the company’s founder, Dmitry Utkin, served in Russia’s special forces, and after retiring, he became part of the private security company Moran Security Group, which protects commercial vessels against pirates. In 2013, MSG organized the Slavic Corps, a 267-strong unit that was sent to Syria following a contract with the regime to protect key energy sites, first in Latakia and then in Deir Ez-Zor and Shukhna. The Slavic Corps was ambushed by Islamic State in October 2013 and fought a single battle in which six of the mercenaries were wounded and the rest were withdrawn to Russia.
Dmitry Utkin used his connections and financial security opportunities to form a new squad around himself, then served successively in Ukraine in 2014 and again in Syria in 2015. This is how the Wagner PMC emerged.
Over time and with the accumulation of experience and capital, the organization increased its scale and became an independent unit to provide a wide range of military services. In just two years, Utkin managed to recruit ten times more people to Syria than he had in the beginning. The organization has its own training camp in Molkino, Krasnodar, and it has had a Serbian unit since 2014, led by Bosnian Serb Davor Savicic-Elvis, who has been a close friend of Utkin since Ukraine. Due to the fact that according to Russian law, citizens of the country have no right to have private military forces in it, Russia does not keep any documentation on the actions of the PMC. The company itself is registered in Argentina and, logically, Moscow denies any direct connection with it.
How successful has the group been in their previous operations in Syria, Mali, etc?
It should be immediately clarified that the use of mercenaries in the context of Putin’s Russia is not a singular tool, but part of a package linked to the Russian foreign policy. Let’s call it a “service package” similar to the one you buy from a mobile operator. It may sound like a simplification, but it’s the closest comparisson we can make.
There are some examples. Russia is back in Africa. Moscow is doing this for several reasons: first, it needs natural resources for its own needs, especially to replenish the budget, which has been hit by sanctions. The second reason is that the Kremlin wants to return to the international stage. Ukraine was a strong earthquake and showed the teeth of the Russians, but this is a regional crisis. A breakthrough was made in Syria – after Moscow’s intervention in 2015, it became clear to everyone in diplomatic circles that Russia has no intention of standing aside, as the West has done. Africa is already a new level – it is on this continent that the Russians are taking the biggest step, concluding treaties with a dozen African countries, including training local armies, extracting resources and selling weapons. The third reason is testing and improving the mercenary model. Wagner is the result of numerous operations and experiments in Ukraine and Syria, using Soviet knowledge from the prototypes during the Afghan war in the 1980s and the Yugoslav wars, and the Chechen wars in the 1990s. In Africa, mercenaries are not just front-line fighters, but businessmen, security guards, and military instructors, as seen in the Central African Republic.
What is the group’s connection to the Russian state?
Wagner is part of government networks and is not really a private company in the Western sense of mercenary. Wagner uses government connections such as the Russian Air Force lines for supplies but it also uses the training camps of Russia’s special forces. Wagner has funding in circles around Putin, which finances Wagner’s operations in exchange for guarding important sites and obtaining contracts in countries where Russia is establishing new ties – such as Mozambique, the CAR, Madagascar, Mali, Libya. The company itself is registered outside of Russia because of local legislation that prohibits the existence of private military companies, but the structure, the fighters, the connections, the way it works – it’s all about the state.
How is it involved in the Russia-Ukraine war?
Unlike in 2014, today Wagner participates differently in Ukraine. The information is far more difficult to collect due to the dynamics of the events and the lack of contact with the terrain. Wagner advises and supports separatists in eastern Ukraine. Wagner is also likely to be involved as a sabotage force behind the backs of Ukrainian forces, and also at the forefront of preparations for the siege of major cities. But today, Wagner has a greater role in Syria and other non-Russian neighboring operations that are important to Moscow.
The Wagner group is just one of many “contract groups” and mercenaries fighting in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, is this is a sign of growing desperation from Putin?
Remember what we have already mentioned – these mercenaries are not mercenaries in the Western sense. They are not just auxiliary forces or groups to act quietly. The mercenaries have combat experience, are cheaper, more mobile, but above all – they are part of the wider actions of the Kremlin. Wagner and other companies are directly linked to and coordinate with Russia’s security services. In this sense, they participate on an equal footing with others, albeit rather special operations. I think their use was part of the plan even before the invasion because the Kremlin command understood that 20-year-old conscripts will not fold under pressure.