Explainer

Russia’s Wagner Group Doesn’t Actually Exist

And that makes it all the more challenging to get to grips with.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Russian armored personnel carrier in the Central African Republic
A Russian armored personnel carrier drives in the street during the delivery of armored vehicles to the Central African Republic army in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Oct. 15, 2020. Camille Laffont/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past seven years, reports have trickled out of war zones and fragile countries around the world about shadowy groups of mercenaries operating under the rubric of the Russian private military contractor Wagner. 

A report by a United Nations panel of experts released late last month accused Russian instructors to the Central African Republic armed forces of indiscriminate killings, looting, and enforced disappearances conducted alongside the Central African military. While the report to the U.N. Security Council does not identify those instructors as Wagner affiliates, news reports and the U.N.’s working group on mercenaries have.

Operatives from the sprawling Wagner network have spanned from Ukraine, where they fought alongside Russian and separatist forces, to Mozambique, where they were hired to fight insurgents. But the group defies the conventional definition of a private military contractor, instead melding mercenary activity and natural resource extraction while advancing the Kremlin’s foreign-policy objectives. Nominally private, the group is thought to be closely enmeshed with the Russian security apparatus, although the Russian government has denied the connection. The network’s murky nature presents an enormous challenge for victims, governments, and international institutions seeking to hold the group to account for alleged atrocities.

Over the past seven years, reports have trickled out of war zones and fragile countries around the world about shadowy groups of mercenaries operating under the rubric of the Russian private military contractor Wagner. 

A report by a United Nations panel of experts released late last month accused Russian instructors to the Central African Republic armed forces of indiscriminate killings, looting, and enforced disappearances conducted alongside the Central African military. While the report to the U.N. Security Council does not identify those instructors as Wagner affiliates, news reports and the U.N.’s working group on mercenaries have.

Operatives from the sprawling Wagner network have spanned from Ukraine, where they fought alongside Russian and separatist forces, to Mozambique, where they were hired to fight insurgents. But the group defies the conventional definition of a private military contractor, instead melding mercenary activity and natural resource extraction while advancing the Kremlin’s foreign-policy objectives. Nominally private, the group is thought to be closely enmeshed with the Russian security apparatus, although the Russian government has denied the connection. The network’s murky nature presents an enormous challenge for victims, governments, and international institutions seeking to hold the group to account for alleged atrocities.


What is the Wagner Group? 

The first thing to understand about the Wagner Group is that there most likely is no Wagner Group. As far as researchers can tell, there is no single registered business called Wagner. Rather, the name has come to describe a network of businesses and groups of mercenaries that have been linked by overlaps in ownership and logistics networks. Entities making up the network have been described in sanctions designations by the U.S. Treasury as being involved in a wide range of activities, including working to suppress pro-democracy protests, spreading disinformation, mining for gold and diamonds, and engaging in paramilitary activity. 

The group, such as it is, first appeared in Ukraine in 2014, where it assisted the Russian military in the annexation of Crimea. “Ukraine was basically the beginning, the departure point for the Wagner Group,” said Sergey Sukhankin, a senior research fellow with the Jamestown Foundation. Since then, a spiderweb of paramilitaries and businesses has branched out to Syria—where they have fought in support of embattled President Bashar al-Assad while securing a foothold in the country’s energy sector—as well as to Libya, Sudan, Madagascar, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic. While Wagner has become a helpful shorthand to describe this opaque and expansive network, experts caution that it may disrupt our ability to think about how they operate. 

“It’s extremely problematic that we continue to refer to them as the Wagner Group, because it makes them sound like these ghostly operators that cannot be traced, and that’s just not the case,” said Candace Rondeaux, a senior fellow with the Center on the Future of War, a joint project between Arizona State University and the New America think tank.

“It makes it very difficult for lawmakers and policymakers who want to curtail, contain, deal with, or mitigate the risks. If they can’t conceptualize the problem properly then they can’t solve the problem properly either,” Rondeaux said. 

What information we do have about the network has been painstakingly pieced together by investigative journalists, by researchers, in U.N. and government reports, and through corporate documents obtained by the Dossier Center, a London-based investigative outfit funded by the exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. 

Russian reporters who have done some of the most detailed reporting on the group do so at great personal risk. In 2018, a team of Russian journalists sent to the Central African Republic to report on Wagner activities in the country were killed in what is thought to have been a carefully planned ambush. Reporter Maxim Borodin, who reported on the deaths of Wagner fighters in Syria in 2018, died that same year after falling from the balcony of his apartment. Others have been threatened and harassed


Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? 

The hub that connects the worldwide network is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is thought to financially back the Wagner Group and has been sanctioned multiple times by the United States for financing the Internet Research Agency—better known as the troll factory—which interfered in U.S. elections in 2016 and 2018. A number of companies connected to Prigozhin have also been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for their operations in Africa.

“Prigozhin’s role in Sudan highlights the interplay between Russia’s paramilitary operations, support for preserving authoritarian regimes, and exploitation of natural resources,” the U.S. Treasury said in a press release last year announcing the sanctions. 

Prigozhin has repeatedly denied any connection to the Wagner Group or the Russian defense ministry. 

Unlike other Russian oligarchs who made their money in energy and finance, Prigozhin’s empire began as a sausage wholesale business in 1990s St. Petersburg, where Putin was then a lowly advisor to the city’s mayor. In the late 1990s, Prigozhin expanded to open a restaurant that was frequented by Putin early in his presidential tenure, often with visiting foreign dignitaries in tow, including U.S. President George W. Bush. He then expanded into the catering business, winning lucrative contracts to supply the Kremlin, schools, and the Russian military, garnering him the moniker “Putin’s chef.”


What is Wagner’s connection to the Russian government? 

With no military background of his own, Prigozhin is an unlikely candidate to be running an international network of paramilitaries or political influence operations. But his background in contracting with the Russian Ministry of Defense and his apparently close relationship with Putin have led experts to believe that he has been utilized as a middleman to obscure activities by the Russian state. The U.S. government has described the Wagner Group as a proxy force for the Russian Ministry of Defense, while the group’s operatives train at a camp in Molkino in southern Russia, which is shared by Russian special forces.

“I think he is the middleman, I think he is the contractor,” said Kimberly Joy Marten, an expert at Columbia University. “I’m sure he gets a huge payment off the top by being the contractor, and then he has these companies which seem to be benefiting in cases where there are minerals or oil involved.” 

Subcontracting high-risk and experimental operations in fragile states gives the Kremlin a screen of plausible deniability and avoids public scrutiny of any combat losses. The Kremlin has sought to downplay the loss of hundreds of Wagner fighters in Syria, leaving grieving families bewildered. 

Private military companies are illegal in Russia, which gives the Kremlin the ability to crack down on the group should it choose to do so. It also creates an accountability vacuum for victims of atrocities allegedly carried out by the network’s operatives. 

“It’s a huge challenge,” said Sorcha MacLeod, a member of the U.N. working group on mercenaries, an independent panel of experts that has studied the group’s activities in the Central African Republic. “Russia’s response to us is that the entity does not have any legal existence, that [private military contractors] are not permitted under Russian law, and that mercenarism is illegal under Russian law.”

“In terms of CAR, accountability is such a problem because the people on the ground don’t know who they’re dealing with or where to make their complaint without fear,” she said. The government of the Central African Republic recently informed the panel that it was to open a commission of inquiry into reports of alleged abuses. “We do welcome the commission of inquiry, but it has to be effective,” she said.

There may be some accountability—eventually. In May, the relatives of a Syrian man, Muhammad “Hamdi Bouta” Taha al-Abdullah, who was brutally tortured and beheaded by Russian mercenaries in Syria, filed a lawsuit in Moscow against the six men implicated in his death, marking the first time anyone has sought to hold Wagner fighters accountable in court. Although the case could take years, advocates hope it could make its way to the European Court of Human Rights and shed new light on the group’s operations. 


Where does the name Wagner come from?

Parsing facts from the mythology that has developed around the Wagner Group gets particularly messy on this issue. “We don’t really know where this name comes from,” Sukhankin said. “In many ways this is a convenient cliche.” 

The name Wagner is reported to have been the nom de guerre of one of the group’s early commanders in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, Dmitry Utkin, a former lieutenant colonel in the Russian military intelligence service, the GRU. Utkin is alleged to have been enamored with Nazi Germany, including Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner. In 2016, Utkin was pictured at a ceremony in the Kremlin intended to honor the courage of military personnel and civilians, but he hasn’t been seen in public since. 

The mythology around Wagner appears to be something Prigozhin is keen to indulge. He is reported to have funded three feature-length action movies about the group’s operatives in Libya and the Central African Republic. The film Tourist, which had its premiere in the latter country’s capital, Bangui, earlier this year, offers a heroic portrayal of a group of Russian military advisors dispatched to the country to fight back violent rebel groups.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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