The Mystery Behind the Wagner Group

The far-reaching influences of Moscow’s band of mercenaries

14 February 2023

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

The Wagner Private Military Company has been operating in Ukraine since 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and chunks of Eastern Ukraine. “Green men” without insignia caught the international community off-guard in its attempts to find an antidote to the Russian hybrid warfare, but not many expected them to grow and become Russia’s unofficial military arm across the globe.

However, the Wagner Group (PMC) has been thrown into the spotlight amid Putin’s invasion and has compelled the international community to reshape its approaches towards mercenaries.

The private army furthers Russian foreign policy interests in Syria, Libya, sub-Saharan Africa, Mali, Burkina Faso etc. But the picture is much bigger:

Wagner helps the Kremlin to keep the authoritarian axis alive and spread the “Russian World” ideas. Hence, US Secretary Anthony Blinken raised deep concerns at the US-Africa Summit over Wagner’s exploitative tactics in Africa and flagrant human rights abuses in Ukraine, designating the group as a “Transnational Criminal Organisation”.

Are they a real game changer in Putin’s war in Ukraine? How can the international community diminish their malign influence across the globe? Or are we witnessing the inevitable rise of mercenaries in global affairs?

Ruthless Mercenaries or Convicts?

The Wagner group is a private military company closely aligned with the Russian directorate of intelligence. Now, it is oftentimes compared to the Blackwater US mercenary group, which operated in Iraq in 2003.

Putin denies Wagner’s links to the government but does not ban them and pardons felons in exchange for their participation in his invasion.

The PMC used to hire experienced soldiers with a solid background from the special forces and elite regiments, who sharpened their military skills mainly on the African continent.

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However, the unjustified invasion of Ukraine changed the rules of the game. Putin has already lost around 200,000 soldiers and is poised to lose more as he is preparing for the renewed winter/spring offensive at the background of the first year anniversary of the war. According to US intelligence, there are around 50,000 Wagner Group fighters in Ukraine who get infantry rockets and missiles from North Korea.

This long war desperately requires weapons and manpower, for which Putin is on a constant quest, and the Wagner group offers him inexperienced cannon fodder.

According to the British Defence Ministry, the paramilitary organisation recruits convicts, who are poorly trained and join the group for a financial reward, which is much higher than a regular soldier’s salary. There is one condition to get this reward – to stay alive on the frontline for six months. The UK defence chiefs confirm the US intelligence data that there are over 50,000 Wagner mercenaries, who are being thrown into the “meat grinder” in Soledar and Bakhmut.

The US intelligence has revealed facts of severe violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses by the proxy group: leaving wounded on the battlefield, murdering Ukrainian civilians in Bucha and Eastern Ukraine, torture, rape, looting, forced disappearances, indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructure and buildings, etc. Their brutal tactics are described by military experts as “kill or get killed”. Ludicrously, some convicts, who join this war, believe that it will enrich them spiritually, but more than 85 per cent have already lost their lives on the battlefield and more casualties are set to soar soon.

On the flip side, the Wagner group is a perfect instrument for Putin’s propaganda, as their Chief Prigozhin revealed the interference into the US midterm elections and possibly in the 2016 US presidential campaign.

Thus, it may only be the tip of the iceberg, as the UK exposed a huge troll factory linked to Prigozhin spreading Russian propaganda and disinformation. The current war will only push for more cyberattacks from Russia, plotted by the Wagner group.

Who Is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

The Wagner group, an allusion to Hitler’s favourite composer Richard Wagner, was officially set by the Chechen veteran and Nazi fan Dmitriy Utkin, but the nominal head, who is pumping money into mercenaries, is Yevgeny Prigozhin. His nickname is “Putin’s chef”, as he provided catering services for Putin in a floating restaurant in St Petersburg and used to sell hot dogs.

However, Andriy Usov, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, claimed that Prigozhin does not run Wagner per se; his role is limited to media outreach and funding of the group. He is lobbying for a new repressive law which will persecute those who dare to criticize his troops and is suing UK investigative journalists for “defamation“.

Now, the oligarch is competing to gain more revenues from this war and more points from the Kremlin, posing himself and his proxy group as the real patriots of Russia. Hence, he is regularly picking a quarrel with key military Russian figures: Valeriy Gerasimov and Sergey Shoigu. Prigozhin describes them as oligarchs who buy real estate in Europe.

The “chef” is building a positive image of the Russian patriot who cares about the future of his country against the “evil forces” in Ukraine. He is touring Russian prisons to find fighters and laying flowers for the fallen ones. In his Telegram channel, he regularly rebukes the Russian defence key figures and threatens Ukrainian leadership and its allies. Recently, he has addressed Zelenskyy: “Maybe by the evening we’ll be able to meet,” he said on Telegram. “I’m sitting, waiting for you near Bakhmut”.

The classical opportunist will definitely further use the Wagner gains in Ukraine to build his career in hopes that he is the next Defence Chief unless he is considered expendable by Putin himself. But as of now, Prigozhin’s race to the bottom complements Putin’s imperialistic objectives and undermines Russian elites’ cohesion, which will slowly lead to the collapse of the regime.

The Soledar and Bakhmut “Meat Grinder”

Vicious WW2 style trench war in Soledar and Bakhmut seems to be another tragic page in this unjustified war, reminding the scenes from Stalingrad. Soledar has fallen but Bakhmut is still heroically holding on.

From a strategic point of view, these small gains have no serious repercussions for the war development as the occupants use the tactics of the scorched earth to win something. The price of such a “victory” is heavy losses but the Russian propaganda convinces its society of “big” wins in Donbas to boost morale and mobilise more troops. It is crucial for Putin to convince everyone that his “special military operation” is going according to a plan in order to save face and support from other rogue states after a batch of humiliating defeats in Kherson and Kharkiv.

Soledar is rich in salt and gypsum mines, on which the Wagners crave to lay their hands on as commercial interests always prevail for mercenaries. For instance, they grasped control over oil in Libya, the diamond industry in Africa and gold mines in Mali.

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And now, the annexation of Soledar and vicious attacks on Bakhmut can open the door to two large cities in Donbas – Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. The Donbas region, known for its huge industrial capacity, is being destroyed each day by the Russian army and the Wagner group. Both are competing to get more praise from Putin and fame in Russian society. First, it was Prigozhin, who took a photo of his fighters to claim the capturing of Soledar. This provoked a negative reaction from the Russian Defence Ministry, which attributed this victory exclusively to the Russian army. In turn, Prigozhin took a swipe at the Ministry and complained about the lack of support and military equipment. Later, Shoigu had to admit the big “deeds” of the Wagner group.

The inner bickering in Russian elite groups is another sign of weakness, a lack of comprehensive and cohesive military strategy and a craving for more power. Prigozhin is not fighting for Donbas but for his own political points.

How to Beat Wagner?

Despite the UN Convention Against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, big powers are not willing to ratify this treaty and refuse mercenaries’ services. It is always tricky to draw a line between a terrorist, a mercenary and a foreign soldier. As one says: “One terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”.

On the one hand, the war in Ukraine has triggered a battle among Russian inner elites in the survival of the fittest mode. On the other hand, the international community is debating on how to fight mercenaries, as their rise risks becoming a dangerous trend.

International law offers some options, which are hard to implement in real life. States who use them always deny it and hide links to them in a meticulous way. Hence, the responsibility regime is tough to be triggered. Universal jurisdiction is a contentious issue and, oftentimes, an excuse for big powers to defend their interests. It still may be the only shot at persecuting mercenaries for severe violations of international humanitarian law.

The International Criminal Court lacks such a jurisdiction. Russia is not a party to the Rome Statute, but Ukraine is. This road of persecution is long but legally right. However, private mercenaries escape liability under international law unless their link to the state (in this case – Russia) is proved. Accountability is a tough target to achieve and Wagner PMC can have spillover effects across the globe unless something more tangible is done apart from sanctions. If Russia is recognised as a sponsor of terrorism, that would help much, but it is a distant option.

It is highly unlikely that Wagner’s mercenaries will bring victory over Ukraine for Putin and help him achieve his objectives in full. But their malign influence should not be underestimated. The Russian tactic of throwing rows of inexperienced soldiers as human shields is not going to break the Ukrainian resilience. But, currently, the Wagner mercenaries are capable of inflicting more war atrocities that still continue to bring severe pain to Ukrainians.



Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

A Polish translation was published on Onet and Res Publica Nowa.

Featured image a collage by Galan Dall with “Yevgeny_Prigozhin” (Public Domain) by Thiện Ân; copyright Kremlin

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.

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