The Rise and Fall of a Russian Mercenary Army
After a deadly debacle in Syria, Vladimir Putin has put the Wagner Group in its place—but plenty of other private security firms remain, and they could pose a threat to security in Russia and beyond.
The Russian firm Wagner Group, a shadowy mercenary outfit waging secret wars on the Kremlin’s behalf from Ukraine to Syria to the Central African Republic, seems like something from a Tom Clancy novel. Born out of a need for plausible deniability in Moscow’s military operations abroad, Wagner contractors were at the forefront of some of the heaviest fighting in eastern Ukraine and Syria in recent years before exploding into the headlines with their brazen assault on a U.S. military position in northeast Syria in February 2018. Wagner seemed to herald a new reality, one in which it would form the spearhead of an aggressive new Russian policy abroad. But Wagner may be less influential than it seems.
The past few months have been filled with revelations about the group’s reversal of fortune. On July 28, an investigation by the Russian independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta revealed that three Russian military contractors killed in central Syria in mid-June were not Wagner employees but part of another such firm, called Shield. The casualties were the first confirmed non-Wagner-linked Russian contractors killed in the country, a fact made more significant by their presence in the central Syrian desert, heretofore one of Wagner’s primary operations zones in Syria: The group played a pivotal role in capturing (and then recapturing) Palmyra and Deir Ezzor in 2016 and 2017.
If another Russian private military contractor apparently muscling in on Wagner’s turf was not enough, another report the following day painted the group in an unflattering light. Meduza, a Russian independent news portal, spoke with one of the Russian contractors deployed to Venezuela. When a group of contractors arrived in the country in January, it was widely reported that they were Wagner mercenaries, sent to the country to shore up Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s rule in the face of sustained mass protests. Some Western analysts, not unreasonably, took the move to be an indication of Wagner’s growing status as a Kremlin policy instrument to militarily bolster a key allied regime whose survival was in serious doubt, furthering Moscow’s foreign interests while remaining at arm’s length.
The Meduza report suggested the opposite. Their source, a Wagner employee, revealed that he and his fellow contractors had served merely as security guards for Rosneft office buildings in Caracas during an unremarkable yearlong posting. Other interviewees, including a longtime Wagner employee, confirmed that Wagner itself has played no role in Venezuela, contrary to initial reports. The outfit has reportedly hemorrhaged experienced veterans to several other such groups, including the firms Shield and Patriot, in recent months, while it has lost its autonomy in decision-making and has been downgraded to guard duty in Syria. Wagner has become a shell of its former self, having had its wings clipped by the Kremlin after the February 2018 debacle and its most valuable personnel stripped away by competitors.
Wagner’s confrontation with U.S. troops in Deir Ezzor in February 2018 marked the beginning of the end for the firm. On Feb. 7, 2018, roughly 600 Wagner contractors, armed with tanks and artillery, launched an assault on a position of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a largely Kurdish militia force that had worked closely with the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, in northeast Syria. What they may not have known is that U.S. advisors were embedded with the unit and promptly called for air support. Wagner forces nevertheless maintained the assault for a full four hours, during which they were hammered by U.S. artillery, airstrikes, helicopters, and even an AC-130 gunship. When the dust cleared, an estimated 300 of the 600 Russians were dead or wounded, in the first direct battle between Washington’s and Moscow’s forces since the Vietnam War.
The most astonishing aspect of this incident was that it evidently occurred without being ordered by, or even fully known to, the Kremlin itself. Leaked telephone conversations revealed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a man referred to as President Vladimir Putin’s “chef” who is believed to lead Wagner, ordered the assault after conversing with several Syrian business colleagues. (Prigozhin also controls a company with oil and gas stakes in the region.) Prigozhin himself has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his role in Russia’s 2016 U.S. election interference several times, most recently on Sept. 30.
The disjointed response from official Moscow also suggests they were uninformed: It took a week for Kremlin officials to say that there “may be citizens of the Russian Federation” not linked to the Russian armed forces fighting in Syria, before later saying that five Russians may have been killed, a number that later grew to “several dozen.” Sources close to the Russian Ministry of Defense told the Russian investigative outlet the Bell they were “simply stunned” when they learned the attack had occurred and that a deeply embarrassed Prigozhin then had to grovel to Kremlin officials that such an error would not happen again.
It seems that he was hardly given the opportunity. Already in March, Wagner sources confirmed to another Russian reporter that half of the firm’s forces were preparing for missions in Africa, as their fallout with the Kremlin over Syria continued. Viewed in this light, the group’s moves in places such as South Sudan and Mozambique appear almost pathetic, casting about desperately in a mostly futile search for opportunities that could come close to matching those they found in Syria and Ukraine.
Training a handful of minor militias in Central Africa and bidding, seemingly unsuccessfully, against Erik Prince (of Blackwater fame) for security contracts is a far cry from leading assaults backed by the Russian air force in a major civil war in the strategically sensitive Middle East. With a wealth of new competitors springing up, such as Shield, Patriot (allegedly directly linked to the defense ministry), and Vega, Wagner’s days as the top dog of Russian defense contractors are likely done.
The waning of Wagner will elicit few tears in and around the Kremlin. The group appears to have been downgraded without major scandal, its personnel dispersed among similar groups, and its operations curtailed. Prigozhin himself, never one for the spotlight, has certainly not attempted to complicate matters in any remotely public manner, likely aware that doing so would only further jeopardize his position.
In the short term, Wagner’s fall has had few consequences for the Kremlin, which has no pressing need for a professional yet expendable military force at present. Combat in Syria has wound down significantly in the past year and a half, with Russian forces not engaging in large-scale operations aimed at capturing territory since the conclusion of their campaign against the Islamic State in December 2017. Eastern Ukraine, Wagner’s other primary area of operations, has likewise long since settled into a stable front line punctuated by occasional shootouts and shelling. It is thus quite serendipitous for Moscow that Wagner waited until it had already successfully completed its shock infantry missions in eastern Syria to engage in such a flagrant breach of established norms.
It is much more worrying that Wagner ever became so powerful at all. The Kremlin has long jealously guarded the approaches to the security field, placing strict regulations on private security firms to maintain its monopoly on armed force in Russia. Legally speaking, Russia’s various private military contractors do not officially exist: Their presence remains illegal under Russian law, with various false-start attempts to draft and pass new legislation on the matter to allow their registration and clarify what they are and are not allowed to do coming to naught.
Wagner developed in this legal vacuum, transforming from an ad hoc project by some ambitious employees of the Moran Security Group, a Russian security firm of a more mundane nature, into a full-fledged private military, replete with Russian tanks, artillery, and as many as 5,000 service members. It became one of the most powerful force structures in terms of fighters and materiel in the Russian Federation, outside of the Kremlin’s own security apparatus and that of Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, who oversees a personal army of his own that numbers in the tens of thousands and has little accountability to the Kremlin.
These sorts of challenges to Moscow’s central authority that are bound to grow as Russia lurches toward the uncertainty of 2024, when what is constitutionally mandated to be Putin’s last term in executive office will come to an end. Far from the popular image of an omnipotent autocrat brandishing all levers of power, Putin leads Russia through a series of compromises and understandings among powerful elites, from businessmen to bureaucrats, with the all-powerful siloviki, or security officials.
The struggles to carve out one’s own turf and eliminate rivals with five years to go until this watershed moment have already begun and are certain to continue to deepen as the next presidential election approaches. The one constant, the singular man at the helm on whom the positions of all others ultimately rest, could be overturned, and with it a “cacophony” of individual musicians, as the Carnegie Moscow analyst Tatiana Stanovaya called it, is about to drown out the rest of the Kremlin-conducted orchestra.
Putin’s system, while presently stable and presenting the image of a monolithic entity to outsiders, is in fact highly personalized. Russia’s various security services are riven with factionalism, with the one controlling variable being their agreement to bow to the current president.
It’s important to remember that it was not always this way: Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin had a famously difficult time controlling Russia’s various armed services, and it took Putin years to bring them to heel and eradicate the various fiefdoms corrupt generals had established in Chechnya in the early 2000s, where trafficking in illegal oil sales became a popular pastime for commanders looking to enrich themselves. Of course, the question of whether Putin will truly leave power in 2024 remains, but Russia’s leader is not immortal, meaning a succession—and the jockeying for position that will accompany it—will have to occur sooner or later.
Meanwhile, although out of favor in the Kremlin, Wagner continues to play a supporting role in Russian operations abroad. A Wagner contingent recently surfaced in Libya, aiding the forces of Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar on the outskirts of the capital, Tripoli, attempting to help the Libyan commander reinvigorate his stalled offensive on the city—alongside numerous other Russian security contractors. There have also been reports of Wagner forces readying on the front lines of Idlib province in Syria, preparing for a major offensive there, though little photo or video evidence exists to verify this. Wagner seems to have lost the dominant position it once held as Russia’s preeminent military contractor, forced now to operate in much smaller units and alongside its competitors, both new and old.
Wagner may have been weakened, but its most important legacy is that it ever existed. In a Russia bereft of any legal constraints that could regulate and limit the scope of private military firms, where elite infighting is only growing, there now exists a precedent for a thousands-strong private army ultimately answerable only to whichever man leads it, even if that individual holds the innocent-sounding moniker of “chef.”
Firms such as Vega, Shield, and Patriot are currently a pale echo of what Wagner was at the height of its power in early 2018, but they have a shining example of what they could one day become. What remains of Wagner’s service members are now largely acting as glorified bodyguards and mall cops. But its successors will likely set their sights much higher—and in a less stable post-Putin future, that could pose a threat to Russian, and global, security.