What is the Wagner Group?
by Lexi Jovanovic
Some people go to war for reasons of national honor. Some people go to war for money. The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company with extensive ties to Russia’s G.U. military intelligence directorate, does a little of both. While Wagner’s soldiers are officially independent mercenaries, they have in fact often served as agents of Russian foreign policy, facilitated and funded by the state. The group first emerged in Crimea in 2014 shortly before Russia annexed the territory, and since then its forces have been seen in (among others) Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. Most recently, Belarusian authorities arrested 33 Wagner fighters in Minsk in late July, less than two weeks before Belarus’s contentious presidential election.
Viewed from the Kremlin, Wagner mercenaries mostly fill roles conventionally occupied by special forces. They carry out small-scale but critical missions in conflict zones, and they provide military training and support to allied groups and governments, most notably in Africa. Since Russia already has its GRU Spetsnaz units, whose veterans are heavily represented in Wagner’s ranks, one might wonder what the point is in creating, funding, and maintaining an entirely separate semi-fake mercenary organization. Why not just use the forces you already have?
For one thing: why does anyone do anything, really? For another, it’s cost-effective. Conventional military units need to be funded by taxpayer money, which in turn raises the specter of public financial accountability. Mercenary companies, on the other hand, can be largely self-supporting. The Wagner Group is (allegedly) owned and financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin ally whose business ventures also include a catering company that provisions Kremlin events. In addition to Prigozhin’s capital, Wagner is also partly funded by payments and resource concessions from foreign governments, in the style of a traditional private military company.
The main benefit of using Wagner, however, is plausible deniability. In official terms, the Russian government isn’t violating Ukrainian sovereignty, or arming autocratic leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, or fighting alongside rebels in Libya. That’s Wagner, and Wagner is totally different. Even if the Kremlin is orchestrating the operations and coordinating with Wagner on the ground, this degree of separation allows the state to conceal troop and casualty counts and to avoid international scrutiny. In this way, the Wagner Group effectively acts as a shell corporation for foreign military intervention. Through it, Russia can hide both the costs and the consequences of its actions.
All of this also makes it very difficult to know anything for sure about the Wagner Group and what it does. The organization isn’t even officially registered in Russia, where private military companies are still technically illegal. No one will publicly admit to being part of it. Even Prigozhin’s involvement, although widely reported, is still officially “alleged.” This kind of weaponized ambiguity is reminiscent of Russia’s infamous social-media disinformation campaigns, and some analysts categorize both efforts as “gray zone” operations that aim to create uncertainty in order to achieve policy goals. Wagner’s actual post-Ukraine activities don’t actually seem to have been very successful—but, as with everything, it can be hard to really know.
For episodes covering Wagner Group operations, see https://www.slavxradio.com/libya and https://www.slavxradio.com/hidden-armies