The Wagner Group Paradox

Recent comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about mercenaries fighting in Libya have once again triggered speculation about the so-called “Wagner Group”. This fighting force has been gradually gaining significant public attention, since the very first appearance of the “group” in Ukraine back in 2014. The 2015 deployment of Russian forces in Syria and the assumption that numerous civilians have been operating within the Russian lines for the duration of the Syrian conflict, has set the ground for building a myth around this shadowy and deadly entity. Mass media have promptly created an overstretched image that would form the ideal narrative for exposing the private-public sector complex in Russia, Putin’s connections with his trusted oligarchs and Russian imperialistic Cold War-like ambitions.

Take all those elements combined with a touch of conspiracy theory and some Tom Clancy drama elements and you have the mainstream media’s fallacious version of the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group is either described as a Private Military Company (PMC) or as a group of mercenaries, however neither of these approaches is accurate. Nonetheless, moving forward we will understand that many inaccuracies and unfounded assumptions have been spread around with regards to this peculiar organization if it can be described as such.

Defining PMCs, Mercenaries And Investigating The Wagner Group

To begin with, let’s clarify what Private Military Companies and mercenaries are and the difference between the two. Mercenaries⁠—from the Latin word merces for reward⁠—are individuals who are take part in a foreign conflict in exchange for money or any other material gain. Mercenaries are not motivated by parameters such as ethnicity, ideology, religion or political views. The only factor that ties them with the party on behalf of which they are fighting is profit. Mercenaries also cannot be nationals of the country that is engaged in the operational theater. Mercenaryism has been defined by the UN and is recognized by numerous states as an illegal activity and individuals that fall within this category are prosecuted accordingly under domestic law. Furthermore, mercenaries are unlawful combatants and thus they are not granted prisoner-of-war rights if they are captured during a conflict.

On the other hand, PMCs are for-profit lawful entities, providing services that would normally be assigned to the armed forces of a country. PMC work ranges from intelligence analysis and consulting to training on tactics and guard and protective services. There are several instances where PMCs have been actively involved in an armed conflict, acting always on behalf of the legitimate authority of a given state, with rules and terms defined by a mutual contract. The pivotal step to legalize the concept of force outsourcing to private actors was made by former Lieutenant-Colonel of the South African Defence Force (SADF) Eden Barlow. Barlow established the emblematic Private Military Company Executive Outcomes in the late 1980s, fundamentally changing the concepts around PMCs and Mercenaryism.

How The Wagner Group Relates To PMCs and Mercenaryism

So, how does all this relate to our questions about the Wagner Group? Well, as mentioned, PMCs are commercial entities pursuing profit; therefore, there are two essential conditions in order one entity to be characterized as such. Firstly, to be registered under a commercial name, which is used for its main business activity and secondly to put as its main objective the attraction of new clients and the achievement of profitable contracts, through the right marketing strategies and apparently by minimizing reputational risk. None of these parameters is being fulfilled by Wagner; on the contrary, the group seems to be a ghost entity with contradictory reports about the company’s registered offices putting in question the very existence of Wagner, at least in the form that it is widely⁠—and falsely⁠—perceived.

Last year Wagner was mistakenly described as a Hong-Kong-registered company in a Vice report. Another article in “Telegraph” suggests that the company is registered in Argentina and has a training camp in Moscow, close to a GRU base (the GRU is the main military and foreign intelligence service of Russia). Both of those claims are wrong, but before  further examining this lack of accuracy around Wagner, we should clarify that the legal framework for PMCs in Russia is still vague. Despite the efforts to create a more flexible framework, a relevant bill has not yet been passed by Russia’s Duma (parliament). Nonetheless, companies involved in the security business in Russia are far from untraceable and can generally be clearly identified; for instance, the RSB Group Headquarters are located in Moscow and the overseas activity of the company is transparently advertised on their website. Or, as another example, the record of the controversial⁠—currently out of business⁠—Slavonic Corps, can be easily found on page 153 of this document listing various Hong Kong-registered companies. Therefore, what is the point for this secrecy surrounding the Wagner Group, and more importantly why is so much Western media buying and reproducing the narrative that they are PMCs?

What Is The Wagner Group?

According to what has been discussed so far the so-called Wagner Group does not fall within any of the two categories of being a group of PMCs or mercenaries that journalists tend to adopt. Just the opposite: it is obvious that the Wagner Group constitutes a quite useful geopolitical tool in the hands of the Kremlin.

The Wagner Group serves both the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense; as we will see below, the group is mobilized in places where strategic Russian interests are at stake or in places where President Vladimir Putin wants to expand Russian influence and upgrade Moscow’s international standing. At the same time, the group is allegedly participating in military operations, where if things go awry Russia’s Ministry of Defense can wash its hands from of any responsibility. The group allows Russia to claim that the individuals involved in specific incidents were not acting under any official or government-ordered capacity. Deceptive as this may seem, it certainly serves some primary Russian objectives.

Many questions yet remain, considering that there is an obvious gap here, especially from an international law perspective. This debate goes a few years back when the first Russian forces were deployed in Crimea. Things are much more complicated however, since the deployments of Wagner Group personnel in several conflict zones and theaters worldwide have created an unprecedented reality. It still difficult to define Wagner operators as combatants under the Geneva Convention, for example. Accordingly, when these “contractors” take part in an armed conflict⁠—like in Syria or Libya⁠—it is still dubious the way they should be treated under international laws of war and if they should be given POW rights by law. It is also still to be seen how Russian authorities would handle such an incident.

Putin Looks Towards Africa Amid Alleged Kremlin Connections To The Wagner Group

As we have explained, the Wagner Group has no official capacity for military action and the entity does not technically exist. The concept of the Wagner Group has been created due to several reports identifying linked individuals that have been deployed to numerous conflict zones as part of an organization under this name. All these reports connect the activity of the so-called Wagner Group back to one individual: Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin is a Russian entrepreneur, mostly known for his catering business and his ties to President Putin. The close relationship with the Russian President has allegedly granted him several government contracts, including catering services for the Russian Army among others. He is also connected to the infamous Internet Research Agency, which has been accused of conducting unorthodox political influence operations. On these grounds and with clear implications about involvement in interfering in US elections, the US Treasury has sanctioned Prigozhin by targeting several of his assets and businesses.

The only tangible entity that can be tied to the Wagner Group is LLC Concord Management and Consulting, a registered company that falls under Prigozhin’s umbrella and provides a variety of diverse services. The Chief Executive of Concord Management and Consulting is allegedly Dmitry Utkin, a former Spetsnaz GRU Officer, with proven battle experience and links to the private security sector, namely through Moran Security Group and Slavonic Corps. This is where the plot about the Putin-Prigozhin-Utkin complex comes in and is what the allegations about the Wagner have been based on. Unsurprisingly, the catchy name Wagner Group is being attributed to Utkin, but it is not clear if it was invented by Prigozhin-Utkin and their circle or by journalists covering the issue.

Wagner operators have allegedly been operating in eastern Ukraine and Syria. There have also been reports about a current Wagner presence in the Libyan conflict in support of General Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Considering that these operations have already received extended media attention and have been extensively examined, we will now focus on two cases of Wagner activity in central and southern African countries, where Russia is pushing to boost its presence. The alleged deployment of Wagner troops has been a strategy to achieve this goal through the development-security nexus in these unstable and war-torn countries.

Case Study: Mozambique

Mozambique has suffered a long-term civil war since shortly after its independence in 1975 until 1992. The legacy and political fallout of the civil war has dominated the country for several years, making Mozambique one of the continent’s poorest states. The discovery of a massive natural gas field near Mozambique’s Cabo Delago in 2011 seemed to be a game-changer. However, there has been a considerable delay in the resource exploitation process due to severe bureaucracy and endemic in-country corruption. The news about the reserves set the expectations of Cabo Delgado citizens way too high, and when they realized that their living conditions would hardly improve, their grievances skyrocketed. This development alongside the gradual turn of many citizens to radical Islamism triggered an insurgency in 2017. A newly formed group under the name Ansar al-Sunna conducted the first attack of extended scope in October 2017, causing 40 fatalities. This group has been operating ever since and has carried out several lethal attacks, hitting a mix of government forces and civilian targets.

Over the last few years Moscow has been strengthening its ties with Maputo; the trade volume between the two countries is over a hundred million US dollars and a 25 percent increase has been noted in 2019 compared to last year. Russian intentions to expand into Africa can be interpreted in a dual context: enhancing the international standing of the Russian Federation and also diversifying the commercial and economic activities of the country, especially in the light of the long-term sanctions imposed since 2014. Mozambique presents an interesting case, as the Kremlin could restrain the insurgency in the north and create the appropriate circumstances for the exploitation of the natural resources, obtaining significant geopolitical and economic gains.

Once again unconfirmed sources indicate that a number of Russian operators, probably linked to the so-called Wagner have been deployed in Nacala and Nampula, two cities in the immediate proximity of Cabo Delgado. These allegations also mentioned that in addition to the “armed Russian contractors” sophisticated equipment⁠—including drones⁠—has been spotted. There have also been claims that the number of Russian personnel could be close to two hundred and that there are plans for a permanent military presence and probably a Russian naval base in Mozambique. All such allegations have been officially denied by the Russian authorities.

According to similar reports the presence of Russian operators in Cabo Delgado has not been as successful as anticipated. The unique terrain and weather conditions of the country create an ideal context for guerilla warfare, ambushes, and hit-and-run tactics. In this context, the approximately two hundred Russian operators, who are supposedly in the country must face major challenges. Around ten Wagner operators are reported to have been killed in the country, even though there are contradictions over the exact number. Ossufo Momade, the Leader of Mozambique’s Opposition Party, Renamo [Mozambican National Resistance], has openly accused Russia’s government of deploying “Russian mercenaries” though murky processes, without supporting his claim with any evidence, however. On the other hand, Eben Barlow, the unquestioned expert on the subject, has taken Wagner’s presence in Mozambique for granted and has criticized through his personal blog the inability of the operators to cope with the local challenges, due to lack of experience in this part of Africa.

Case Study: Central African Republic

The security context and political landscape of CAR have been quite unstable ever since the independence of the country in 1960. Over the last decade a fierce violent conflict has been ongoing, with the main actors being the government forces, the anti-balaka Christian militias and a group of mostly Muslim factions under the name Seleka. Even though various peace agreements and ceasefires have been signed during this period, the UN efforts to establish long-term peace have not been successful so far. A UN arms embargo imposed on the CAR in 2013 was recently lifted  and President Faustin-Archange Touadera is seeking to make the most of it.

The peacekeeping mission of the United Nations (MINUSCA) and the African Union (MISCA) have been two major parameters that kept the country from falling into a full-scale civil war, but one should not overlook the role of Russia in the conflict. President Touadera has pursued to establish strong bilateral relations with Moscow, given the fact that Russia has been the primary arms supplier for the government forces. On the other hand, President Putin understands the promising potential of establishing diplomacy, defense and commercial ties with CAR, considering the country’s reserves of valuable natural resources, including uranium, gold, and diamonds.

In the Central African Republic, Wagner troops are allegedly stationed approximately 80 km from the capital Bangui, in what used to be the palace of the notorious self-proclaimed CAR Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa. The number of in-country operators cannot be confirmed, but relevant reports estimate them to be up to two hundred. The role of the Wagner personnel is also vague, as their duties could be from training and consulting services to intelligence, participation in ongoing operations and even acting as the personal security detail for the country’s president. What has mostly attracted the media attention for the presence of the group in CAR though, was the death of three Russian journalists⁠—Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastogruev, and Kirill Radchenko⁠—who were investigating the activities of the Wagner Group in the country. However, all the reports covering the incident downgraded the fact that the ambush took place almost 200 km from Bangui, in the proximity of Sibut village, a hostile environment where deadly attacks are not that rare.

Conclusions On The Wagner Group

It is now clear that the myth around the Wagner Group is based upon several inaccuracies and overstatements, to say the least. The media have repeated so many times the narrative about the PMC and mercenary Wagner Group that it now seems obvious to the public that we are talking about a private military company, which is far from the truth. If we accept that the foregoing reports around the Wagner Group are accurate to some extent, the most precise way to describe those operatives would be as a special covert branch of the GRU.

The fallacy of the mainstream media lies within exactly what President Putin would have tried to achieve in the first place in terms of crafting perceptions of the Wagner Group. By accepting the existence of the Wagner Group as a PMC, the focus moves away from any Russian operations abroad and everyone looks instead to uncover the details of a specific Private Military Company, which in the end does not even exist. This fact allows official Russian sources to reject any connection to incidents in conflict zones, where Russian non-military personnel are involved. Even more apt, no one can challenge this narrative, considering the absolute lack of solid evidence with regards to the existence of the Wagner entity. Readers should also be skeptical about the Kremlin’s stance towards the issue. Moscow’s passivity does not indicate whatsoever that Putin and Prigozhin are particularly anxious about the publicity that the Wagner story has been attracting. It seems more likely they have been pleased to see the PMC narrative ramp up. It seems that a considerable part of the Western media world, analysts and journalists who are so keen to provide in-depth insights on Russian Hybrid Warfare and the Gerasimov Doctrine, have ironically bought into a well-played Moscow bluff.