Wagner: From the Shadows to the Limelight

    In recent months, the cities of Soledar, Vuhledar and Bakhmut have become the main focal points of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. However, the fact that there has been little significant change in the front lines for months increased concerns that the conflict may become frozen. From the beginning until the appointment of Gerasimov as an overall commander in Ukraine, the private military group (PMC) Wagner gained vast popularity in Russia amidst a patriotic gung-ho. The international media widely reported the statements made by Wagner leader Prigozhin, who has earned a stature rarely attained by a mercenary group leader since the heyday of Erik Prince. 

    Such increased visibility of this unconventional group fueled further political tensions with the traditional military institution, especially between the top of the military brass (Shoigu and Gerasimov) and Prigozhin. The Kremlin seems to use this rivalry to get the best out of both sides, creating a two-horse race. The fact that Putin replaced Sergei Surovikin, who has close ties with Prigozhin, with Gerasimov as the Ukraine War commander is another indicator of this strategy. 

    Meanwhile, this staunch rivalry also brings out the worst of both sides, as they undermine each other in the theatre of war. The military brass is resentful towards Wagner’s involvement in some areas as an alternative to the Russian army. Therefore, incidents multiplied whereby the army refused to provide equipment and ammunition to Wagner leading to catastrophic losses by this group in certain locations where the Russian army was dominant. Consequently, Wagner intensified public criticism of the top military leadership as tit-for-that, exposing their blunders and accusing them of incompetence. As a result, Wagner gained an edge in this political conflict, further boosting its appeal to the Russian public. 

    Several factors underpin Wagner’s current popularity. First, the Russian army soldiers lost the image war. Often depicted as lacking motivation, particularly at the beginning when they had qualms about fighting fellow Russian-speaking Ukrainians, the soldiers of the regular army built a negative perception. Their hesitation is understandable, especially since the message cascading from the top leadership was that “Ukrainians and Russians are one people – a single whole”. Additionally, Ukraine did not attack Russian civilians and focused solely on defending its borders. All these reasons led to a lack of motivation among conscripted soldiers, which resulted in several military blunders. Conversely, Wagner’s recruits had no motivational issues, especially since they were well-trained and well-remunerated.

    Second, the Russian army has not fought against equal foes for decades. Its experience in Syria was conducted fighting small groups without adequate weaponry. On the other hand, Wagner multiplied operations in different theatres of war, ranging from Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan, acquiring much more experience. Thus, Wagner has taken a more active role in the conflict, compensating for the Russian army’s inadequacies on the battlefield.

    Third, Prigozhin personally recruited individuals by visiting jails. Wagner had sufficient experienced personnel in Ukraine but still had to recruit new mercenaries. On social media platforms,  videos emerged of Prigozhin talking to prisoners. He made promises of freedom and money to the prisoners and sent them to the front lines after a brief period of training. Tens of thousands of convicts answered the call, according to Grynszpan. This recruitment drive became an allegory for Russia’s exorcism from its bad spirits, as answering the nation’s call may purify the dirty past of prisoners, absolving their crimes and giving them a chance to have a better future. 

    The fourth reason for Wagner’s popularity is that the high number of casualties among the troops affected public morale, decreasing public support for the government. Conversely, Wagner is not obligated to disclose its personnel’s losses or injuries. In addition, the public’s response to Wagner’s losses is less emotional than the reaction to the loss of Russian soldiers. 

    The fifth reason for Wagner’s popularity is that Wagner personnel violates the law of war, increasing violence in conflict areas. To avoid accountability, operations that may negatively impact Russia’s international reputation are conducted through Wagner rather than the Russian army, as private military company personnel are not subject to the laws of war. Using Wagner allows Russia to have more operational flexibility and maintain a lower profile in the conflict zone. By using Wagner, Russia may also be able to avoid accountability in any future legal action or international lawsuits.

    Due to the reasons mentioned above, Wagner leader Prigozhin gained popularity during the war and is playing a role in shaping the future of Russian politics. However, the recent appointment of Gerasimov, who has a close relationship with Shoigu, as commander in Ukraine may represent bad news for Prigozhin. Prigozhin heavily criticized the Russian army recently, claiming that military support has been cut off for his troops treacherously, leaving them exposed on the fronts. This game of thrones Russian-style shuffles the cards of power and politics and will shape Russia’s future. Who will emerge victorious at the end? Only time will tell. 

    This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.

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