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A paramilitary organisation led by a former intelligence officer is now active – and clandestinely furthering Russian strategic aims – in dozens of war zones

In recent years, a shadow militia known as the Wagner Group has become increasingly active in conflict hotspots around the world. The group is widely believed to be linked to the Russian state, and its activities often go unnoticed or are denied by the Kremlin. They were first deployed to the Ukraine conflict in 2014 and are now believed to be operating in dozens of other countries. Human rights groups have accused the Wagner Group of war crimes, most recently including a massacre of civilians in Mali. 

What is the Wagner Group?

The Wagner Group is a shadowy paramilitary organisation with a murky history and suspected involvement in war crimes across several continents. It is widely believed to have been involved in the Ukraine conflict, as well as the Syrian civil war. The group is allegedly made up of former Russian soldiers with close ties to the country’s military and intelligence services. 

The group gets its name from Dmitry Utkin, a 53-year-old former Russian intelligence officer who founded the group in 2014 to help Russian separatists in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Wagner was the nom de guerre Utkin used during his time in the Soviet military. While the group does not officially exist, there have been several reports of its members being killed or captured in battle.

In April, the Washington Post reported that the Wagner Group had an estimated 5,000 fighters, maintaining training bases in Russia and operating in at least nearly 30 countries. The Post cited Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, saying that around 1,000 Wagner Group fighters operate in Ukraine. "They have used Wagner contractors in the Donbas over the last eight years," said Kirby. "So this is an area where the Wagner Group is experienced."

The Kremlin’s dirty work

While the group's exact purpose is nebulous, it is believed to be used by the Russian government to carry out dirty work in conflicts or hotspots that Russia does not want to be openly involved in. This allows the Kremlin to deny any involvement in war crimes or other illegal activities carried out by Wagner Group members. 

The group is also believed to be used as a way to test new military technologies and tactics in real-world conflicts. This is similar to how the Soviet Union used proxy wars in Africa and Latin America during the cold war. In 1937, for example, the so-called Soviet Volunteer Group (SVG) was a 400,000-plus air force detachment sent to China during the second Sino-Japanese war. By 1941, SVG had hundreds of planes in its arsenal, including four-engine bombers that had never been used in battle before. The Wagner Group is believed to be carrying out a similar role today.

In an extensive report titled Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) offers three possible reasons for the group's existence:

• To project Russian military power abroad without risking direct confrontation with western militaries

• To provide deniability for the Kremlin by using a paramilitary force that is not officially under Russian government control

• To hide the actual number of Russian casualties in conflicts such as the Ukraine war by using a private military company

"In April 2012," read the report, "when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was asked in the Russian Duma about whether he supported the idea of creating a network of Russian private military companies, he replied positively and emphasised that PMCs could be tools of influence abroad, allowing the realisation of national interests without the direct involvement of the state."

Brutal war crimes

There is mounting evidence that the Wagner Group has committed war crimes in several conflicts. In Ukraine, they have been accused of torturing and murdering civilians, as well as looting and destroying property. They are also the primary suspect in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 people. 

In Syria, they have been accused of summary executions, as well as torturing and murdering civilians. In June 2017, a glimpse of the group’s brutality was caught on camera when a shaky smartphone video was posted on social media, showing Russian-speaking men killing a Syrian man with a sledgehammer, decapitating him and then setting his body on fire. In 2020, an investigative report by Frontline Forensics, a joint initiative of Arizona State University and the New America thinktank, connected the digital dots between the video and Wagner Group members and traced “the web of individuals and entities linked to the so-called Wagner Group's operations in Syria". 

In Mali, the group is widely believed to be responsible for the massacre of 300-400 Fulani civilians in the village of Moura in March 2022. Elsewhere in the world, the Wagner Group has been active in many countries including Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Central African Republic, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "In its African strategy, the Kremlin is motivated foremost by a desire to thwart US policy objectives, almost irrespective of their substance," read a recent report by the Brookings. 

The report added that private security companies such as the Wagner Group offer African governments "the ability to conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations unconstrained by human rights responsibilities, unlike the United States, allowing African governments to be as brutish in their military efforts as they like".

Russia’s hybrid warfare vanguard

The Wagner Group is believed to have close ties to the Kremlin and is often seen as an extension of the Russian government. In Syria, for example, reports show that the group was working closely with Russia's military intelligence agency, more commonly known by its former Russian acronym GRU. Kimberly Marten, a Columbia University professor who has extensively researched the Wagner Group, told a US Congressional hearing in 2020 that some of the group's members "have received their passports from the same Moscow office that issues them to the Ministry of Defense and the GRU. Some Wagner troops killed in battle in 2015 and 2016 received the Russian military Medal for Courage in Death, normally given only to uniformed service members."

The CSIS report says the group's "management and operations are deeply intertwined with the Russian military and intelligence community". In a more comprehensive report published in September 2020, CSIS said the Wagner Group, as a private military company (PMC), helped Russia wage its "hybrid warfare" campaigns that include conventional military operations, covert and deniable military operations conducted by mercenaries, as well as non-military tools of influence, such as disinformation and cyberattacks.

"Syria was an important testing ground for the application of a hybrid-PMC deployment model," read the report, "which is now being exported to other battlegrounds. PMCs acted as a ground force with skill sets similar to Russian Spetsnaz through which Moscow could limit regular Russian military casualties and provide deniability for high-risk Russian actions."

There is virtually no doubt that the Wagner Group is a tool of the Kremlin, and one that it is happy to use to further its own geopolitical objectives while maintaining deniability. The group's activities in Africa, in particular, are cause for concern, given the continent's history of conflict and instability. With the Wagner Group's help, Russia appears to be trying to gain a foothold in Africa, and it is likely that we will see more of their shadowy activities in the years to come. 

Written By: Olivium staff


References: 

  • Congress.gov: The GRU, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Russia’s Wagner Group: malign Russian actors and possible US Responses
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