The Wagner Group is Putin’s most potent weapon in advancing Russian policy objectives while maintaining plausible deniability.
The so-called Libyan National Army, warlord Khalifa Haftar’s force in Libya, yesterday refused to honour a ceasefire proposed by Turkey and Russia. Haftar’s forces have been carrying out an offensive to capture Tripoli from the UN-backed Government of National Accord based in the capital. Turkey recently sent troops to Libya to defend the GNA and accuses Russia of supporting the GNA’s main rival, Haftar, through the use of 2,500 mercenaries and other military support. So who are these mercenaries and are they controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin?
The Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner Group – a shadowy band of mercenaries exercising deadly force on behalf of the Kremlin – seem like something from Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. In the novel, the main character Count Alexei Vronsky leaves to Serbia as a volunteer to fight against the Ottoman Empire as a part of a squadron he formed at his own expense. Pervasive in Russian literature these militias were used by tsars to pacify internal unrest and to achieve directed military and policy objectives. Today, Russian foreign policy has embraced many of the same ambitions that were born out of a need for “plausible deniability” in Kremlin’s military operations abroad.
Moscow’s PMCs have a unique understanding of service – “kill or train others to kill” – by providing intelligence, training, logistical assistance and infrastructure security. It is essential to highlight that ambiguity and confusion are unique features of Russian PMCs. Such companies are illegal under Russia law. Moscow denies any links to Russian PMCs like the Wagner Group, which operates in active war zones. Like many other PMC’s, the company is used as a proxy by the Russian government to reduce both political and geopolitical “fallout”. What is often left unmentioned, however, is the administrative and financial control of the company. With the Wagner Group commonly being used as a “bogey-man” by some outlets due to the group’s ostensibly private nature, it is imperative to question the degree of control the Kremlin exerts over this group. In other words, how ‘private’ is this private military contractor?
The story of the Wagner Group has primarily been told as the story of an influential businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin who bears a resemblance to Tolstoy’s protagonist Vronsky. He is an influential figure with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s role in the country’s foreign policy has set off international alarms. A US court has charged him with setting up an internet “troll factory” that attempted to influence the 2016 American presidential elections in favour of Donald Trump. As one of the most successful caterers in the country with the moniker “Putin’s Chef”, he owns several companies that have lucrative contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defence and public school catering, as well as several construction deals since the mid-2000s.
While real monetary connections remain elusive, leaked documents and investigations paint a portrait of Prigozhin’s private structures pursuing Russian state interests and bolstering Russian diplomatic flexibility in war-torn Syria and Libya, as well as other hotspots in sub-Saharan Africa. Simply put, the company’s presence in geopolitical hotspots illuminates coordination between Prigozhin’s commercial ambitions and the Kremlin’s pursuit of its national interests. Through Wagner, Russia offers “information warfare” strategies in return for political influence and capital, opportunities for geostrategic expansion, or resource concessions.
Its first mission was to support the disarmament of Ukrainian military installations during the annexation of Crimea in 2014. By spring 2015, Wagner started to prepare for its next campaign: to become a crucial asset in support of Bashar al Assad in Syria. Surprisingly, in June 2019, Putin admitted the presence of Russian PMCs in Syria, emphasising that they are not connected to the state. However, Russian online investigative newspaper Fontantka provided evidence that around 500 pro-Syrian fighters – most of whom spoke Russian – played a pivotal role in the efforts to seize Palmyra and Deir Ezzor in 2016 and 2017. Leaked telephone conversations revealed Prigozhin himself ordered the assault.
It seems that much of Wagner’s operations in Syria have been financed by deals between Prigozhin’s companies and the Syrian government. One such example is that Prigozhin owns a Russian company called Evro Polis in St. Petersburg, which signed a contract in 2016 with the Syrian energy ministry to receive a 25 percent share of natural gas and oil produced in Syria’s oil capital Deir Ezzor. Much like in Syria and Ukraine, Russian foreign policy in Africa is also designated as defence cooperation in return for resource extraction. Concurrently, as Russia increases its diplomatic involvement in Africa, Wagner operations have expanded into Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR) and Libya, where it protects Prigozhin’s investments.
Researchers from the Stanford Internet Observatory uncovered evidence of Russia-linked influence operations in Africa’s cyberspace through Wagner Group and Prigozhin’s suspended networks. Similarly, the company M-Invest, which Prigozhin is rumoured to own, has an interest in Sudan’s gold deposits and Libya’s oil-rich east region, presumably secured by offering various military services in exchange for natural resource contracts. Wagner’s influence might go even deeper. Proekt Media, an independent Russian news outlet, produced four lengthy reports unearthing a CAR government mining contract with Prigozhin’s conglomerate Lobaye Invest.
It finances the training of army recruits in the CAR by some 250 Russian mercenaries. Attempts at scrutiny became even more complicated when three Russian journalists investigating Wagner’s activities in the CAR were murdered under mysterious circumstances in the summer of 2018, and two additional individuals who tried to investigate their murder were poisoned. Unfortunately, details on Wagner’s deployments in CAR are scarce, but based on what can be gleaned from sources available, they follow a similar pattern. Amid this complex background, the secrecy around Wagner- including its origins, ties to the Putin regime, political and economic drivers – makes it difficult and even dangerous to determine how the Kremlin is using obfuscation in their relationship with states to sow confusion and chaos among Russia’s opponents.
It is a clear fact that the Wagner Group can be considered a private military company only to the extent that it feeds the wealth of a private individual. In reality, it bolsters Russia’s strategic interests while increasing Russia’s plausible deniability. The group does not offer the Kremlin entirely new ways to wage war or build influence. However, it is imperative to question how Wagner’s existence – regardless of its intricate networks of extraction, security cooperation and geostrategic benefit – will be used to further Russia’s geopolitical goals.