The “shadowy” private army of Vladimir Putin? Or, a legitimate Private Military Company providing a service similar to that of other companies on the market?
Since 2014, and the Russian “annexation” of Crimea, Western media has looked to demonise Russia in any way possible. Whether it be Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in the US, the ongoing separatist war in the Donbass region of Ukraine, Russia is always made to look threatening on just about every medium of information. For a state with an economy only slightly larger than that of Spain, arguably, Russian conventional forces pose little kinetic threat to any state which does not border the country. Russia is at most, a regional power.
So is the portrayal of Russia in the media unfair? Yes, and no.
What Russia lacks in conventional military capability, it more than makes up for in other areas. Arguably, the Russian hybrid threat is one of the most potent and potentially destructive of any state in the world. One only has to look to recent geopolitical events where even the notion of Russian involvement is enough to cause chaos.
While Russian conventional forces, for the moment, may be of little danger outside of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the states’ irregular forces pose a significant and growing kinetic threat to potential targets across the world.
Western Media may have “overcooked” the nature of the threat posed by conventional Russian forces, they have certainly not done the same thing for the Wagner Group. The emergence of the Group onto the Private Military Contracting “circuit” is something which should be observed carefully by those with an interest in Global Security.
What is the Wagner Group?
The Wagner Group is a private military company founded by Dmitriy Utkin. Utkin is a former Ukrainian citizen and GRU officer (ranked Colonel/Brigade Commander) with close ties to the Kremlin. The company took its name from its founder whose call sign was “Wagner” whilst in the GRU.
- As of December 2017, the Company had 6000 employees
- The company was founded in Argentina and has offices in St. Petersburg and Hong Kong
- Employees are not allowed to access social media whilst on operations
- 40 Ukrainians work for the company
- 73 of the company’s personnel have died while on operations in Syria and Ukraine
- Contractors receive medals for their service in a theatre, “blood and bravery”, as well as “heroism”
- In 2017 a powerlifting tournament was held in memory of a contractor who died on operations
Where has the Company been deployed?
Allegedly, Wagner Contractors first took part in the 2014 Russian “annexation” of Crimea and assisted the “Little Green Men” who carried out the take over of military and gubernatorial facilities. With most Wagner employees being ex-Russian military personnel this is entirely feasible.
According to Ukraine’s SBU (the Security Service of Ukraine), Wagner contractors have been deployed in the state since 2014. Alongside other PMCs, Wagner contractors supposedly helped destabilise government institutions and security forces, as well as seize ammunition supplies.
Additionally, there are somewhat speculative claims that Wagner contractors were involved in the downing of the Ukrainian military flight which killed 49 servicemen.
Wagner’s role in Ukraine is evidently to ramp up pressure when necessary, on an increasingly Western looking Kiev into staying in Moscow’s orbit. Russia knows that if Ukraine is allowed to become more independent on the world stage, that it may well join NATO, or at least allow NATO forces to be stationed in the country. Most likely, Wagner will stay in Ukraine to assist rebel forces until there is an arrangement between Kiev and Moscow.
Wagner Contractors have been deployed in Syria on behalf of the Syrian Government, and later on behalf of the Russian Government itself. These contractors have taken part in operations directed against rebel groups who took up arms against the Assad in 2011, as well as various Islamic Terrorist organisations that have flocked to the country.
Wagner Contractors played an instrumental in the reconquest of government territory, taking the role of the vanguard in many operations. However, the role of the company in Syria doesn’t stop at fighting. Contractors also undertake advisory and coordination roles for the Syrian Army – helping to locate targets, direct troops and train new recruits and serving soldiers.
As of late 2017, the number of Wagner Contractors in Syria stands at over 5000.
With the threat of US intervention in Syria looming large for Nicolas Maduro’s socialist regime, the state has looked elsewhere for military assistance. Maduro’s call was answered by Russia both diplomatically and militarily. In 2018, it was reported that the Venezuelan leader would receive a unit of Wagner Contractors for his own personal protection.
Later, in 2019, it was reported that Wagner Contractors would arrive in the country to assist the Venezuelan military – it is not yet known what their official role will be, however, it will most likely be both advisory and perhaps combat orientated in the case of a US invasion. If the US were to intervene in Venezuela, then it could be said with certainty that we will see more Wagner contractors entering Venezuela to make any attempt at regime change much harder.
Again, the Wagner Group will be used for Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions, in particular, its search for allies to counter increasing US pressure. If Russia can ensure that Maduro is not deposed by a US-backed rival, then it will secure itself an oil-rich ally in South America. With Russia so dependent on oil for its own economy, having another oil giant “onside” would provide further geoeconomic security.
Central African Republic
Similar to the pattern in other countries Wagner is deployed in, in the Central African Republican contractors mainly take an advisory and close protection role but they have also been deployed to guard various economic installations such as diamond mines.
Civil war erupted in the CAR in 2012 between the Government, rebels from the Séléka coalition, and anti-balaka militias, leading eventually to an intervention by the French. Now the country is host to all manner of armed groups, including UN Peacekeepers and multiple different PMCs. Wagner will again be used to secure Russia geopolitical alliances through which it can wean itself away from the US-led geoeconomic world order. Russia’s case is aided by anti-Western sentiment caused by the French colonial past and anti-Americanism.
Wagner contractors will play a role as the country begins to develop, perhaps helping to provide the security needed for the country to become like some of its more stable and successful neighbours. However, as many in the West will point out, CAR cannot be certain of the level of trust it can place in its new Russian allies.
The “media” has reported that Wagner Contractors have entered into Eastern Libya to assist the Libyan National Army. The 2012 intervention by the US, France, UK and various other European countries has left Libya chaotic and wartorn – the perfect conditions for Russia and Wagner to step in and fill the vacuum. Allegedly two Russian military bases have been set up under the cover of Wagner Contractors to allow Russian military intelligence operatives and advisors to begin assisting Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s LNA.
According to the British Government, over 300 Wagner Contractors are deployed to Libya and have helped the LNA secure vast amounts of territory, as well as Libya’s largest oil field.
Wagner’s involvement in Sudan came after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said that his country needed “protection” from the US. Again the country faces a security challenge from internal conflicts, much like other African states Wagner operates in. Whilst the full extent of Wagner operations in Sudan are not known, it is again likely that the company will be deployed to protect mines and other resource extraction locations such as oilfields. Additionally, going by the example of other African countries, it can be speculated that Wagner Contractors will most likely play a leading role in training the countries security forces.
Wagner Contractors are reportedly deployed to the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar. Their roll in the state includes the protection of Chrome mines and close protection for political consultants working on the election campaign of then President Hery Rajaonarimampianina. Once again, in Madagascar, Wagner was used for furthering Russia’s geopolitical influence.
The Wagner Group is intrinsically linked with Russia’s geopolitical goals – and most likely, as suspected, reports either directly or indirectly to the Kremlin. Western sanctions have caused Russia some internal economic trouble and further increased the state’s reliance on oil exports. While the sanctions may have caused some trouble for the Russian country, it is the state’s reliance on oil that is at the heart of its economic woes. However, one certain impact of Western sanctions is that they have driven Russia to seek allies abroad – for both military and economic cooperation.
In Europe, Russia feels threatened by NATO influence in former member states of the Soviet Union such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine – states through which it has been attacked through multiple times throughout the past 500 years. In the Russian mind, the further away NATO is from Moscow the better. The Wagner Group gives Russia the deniability needed to carry out its geopolitical will in these former Soviet states. As seen in Ukraine, if there is any sense that they are turning too far westward, then Russia can stip up trouble through a mixture of Ethnic Russians and Wagner Contractors instead of sending in its conventional forces.
Wagner is Russia’s way of dealing with condemnation by the international community. Whether this is seen as an offensive or counter-offensive move is up to the individual to decide
Further abroad, in places such as Africa and Asia, Wagner is useful in shoring up other potential allies for Moscow. In the cases of CAR, Libya and Sudan, this is definitely what is happening. By getting these states onside, Moscow shores up its own geopolitical position against an evermore aggressive United States. The US’s growing war weariness and political disinclination for foreign wars may further embolden Moscow to send its “mercenaries” to other areas of the world where it can further its influence.
Businesses, states and other global organisations can expect unprecedented growth in Russian backed Private Military Companies deploying around the globe – particularly in areas with high economic growth potential and low levels of political stability. This can also be said for other states such as the US, where the deniability provided by PMCs like Blackwater is not necessarily essential, but a low number of Stars and Stripes draped coffins coming back from theatres of war is.
Russian PMCs can be expected to move into Africa where there is a high demand for security, but low levels of military prowess. Potentially, Russian PMCs could come into conflict with the PMCs of other countries. South Africa already has a large market for PMCs, and its contractors are steadily being deployed to many different states across sub-Saharan Africa to provide the necessary security. Where there is a conflict of interests, we may see “privatised wars” between the contractors of different countries.
To find out more about PMCs watch our “What Are PMCs?” series here: