Russia’s use of semi-state security forces: the case of the Wagner Group
(By Kimberly Marten – March 26, 2019)
This article provides a definitive, in-depth case-study, using primarily Russian sources, of Russia’s use of the informal “Wagner Group” private military company (PMC) and its antecedents (from 2012 to 2018) in Nigeria, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. It explores why Russia has used this group without legalizing its existence or role. While Wagner is sometimes used in the same ways that other rational states use PMCs, corrupt informal networks tied to the Russian regime have also used it in ways that are not typical of other strong states and that potentially undermine Russian security interests. Understanding the Wagner Group is interesting for comparative academic studies of PMCs, because Wagner doesn’t fit well any existing PMC category or template in the literature. It is also crucial for US and allied policy analysts attempting to attribute “Russian” actions in foreign theaters.
Vladimir Putin’s presidency of Russia is most commonly associated with Russia’s re-emergence as a militarily strong and powerful state in the international system. It is also associated, though, with a countervailing trend: the growing use of what we might call “semi-state” informal security organizations (Marten 2018b). These groups have an opaque relationship with the Russian state, characterized by partial recognition and hazy contracting, sometimes in the face of apparent illegality (Bukkvoll and Østensen 2018). The vast majority of their members are recently retired veterans from one or another Russian state security force, but some groups have also attracted pro-Russian fighters from other post-Soviet states and Serbia as members. These semi-state security actors have often functioned as force providers at the pointy end of the stick. They range from Cossack vigilante groups enlisted by Russian municipalities to keep public order and put down dissent with whips and fists, to armed groups that in some ways (but not others) resemble global private military contractors or companies (PMCs), engaged in armed combat abroad.
Similar armed groups began to emerge in Russia in the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union disintegrated, so semi-state security actors are not unique to Putin’s reign. Under the presidency of Boris Yel’tsin various “volunteer detachments” supported Russian, or at least Russian nationalist-communist coalition, interests in security operations across the newly post-Soviet Eurasian space and the former Yugoslavia (Goltz 1993; Grau 1993; Lukic and Lynch 1996, 333; Valetskii 2017). Many of these “volunteers” identified as Cossacks, reflecting the long pre-Soviet history of Russia tsars contracting with diverse semi-state forces of free and escaped peasants to conquer, pacify, and defend Russian border areas and subdue minority populations (O’Rourke 2007). Others were employed at home by various oligarchs fighting for control over property and businesses, sometimes with the support of clashing state security agencies (Taylor 2011, 103). Their use under Putin is simply expanding and accelerating, often with a greater role for official state agencies than was true under Yel’tsin.
The privatization of security provision has expanded drastically on a global scale in recent decades. The United States led this trend, using a huge number and variety of private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example (Stanger 2009). Russia’s growing use of semi-state PMCs may therefore not seem unusual on the surface. But two things set Russia apart from the United States and other great powers that use PMCs. First, Russia has refused, at least through early 2019 when this article was being finalized, to give legal recognition to PMCs. Second, the state continues to use nebulous armed organizations that sometimes cooperate with the uniformed military on behalf of clear state interests, but at other times (and sometimes simultaneously) serve the interests of private Russian individuals who are closely connected to Putin’s regime, including the oligarch caterer and military contractor Yevgenii Prigozhin. While this fits a well-known pattern of how weak and corrupt authoritarian states around the world have traditionally used private armed force, it sets Russia apart from what are typically considered its peer states today.
The most reliable and detailed information about a Russian PMC that is publicly available at the moment is centered on the unregistered organization referred to as the “Wagner” Group (“Vagner” in its Russian spelling and pronunciation). Wagner has been probed by a number of independent Russian investigative journalists who are widely considered reliable by Western analysts, and who have provided documentary, photographic, and interview-based evidence about the activities both of Wagner itself, and the groups that preceded and spawned it. Because of this unique trove of evidence, Wagner will be the focus of this study. The Wagner Group appears to have operated only outside of Russia: earlier in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria, and by 2018 in Sudan, the Central African Republic, and perhaps Libya (Marten 2019a).
This paper has two primary purposes: first, to provide a historical chronicle of the rise and activities of the Wagner Group, which is as thorough and definitive as possible using currently available evidence; and second, to explain why the Russian state has turned to Wagner so often to provide crucial force-based security functions, while not fully legalizing the group. The question of Russian motives in employing Wagner (and groups like it) without legalizing them matters both for political scientists interested in the theory and comparative use of private military companies, and for policymakers who want to understand Russia and its international behavior and trajectory. For political scientists Russia’s behavior matters because it does not quite fit into any of the standard categories in the existing literature on how states use private forces abroad. It is hence an anomaly worth defining and explaining. Western policymakers should find this study useful because it can alert them to the challenges they face when seeking attribution of “Russian” military actions abroad. The Russian state’s real role in these actions is often murky, even as its use of these forces is expanding – and sometimes one part of the state apparatus may be taking foreign security actions without the knowledge or approval of the Foreign or Defense ministries.
It should be kept in mind that Wagner is just one of several known Russian semi-state forces that operate abroad; other such groups have simply been less investigated by journalists. That means that this study cannot hope to be comprehensive. For example, a different Russian private military company, the RSB Group, claims on its website that it “does not participate in armed conflicts.”1 Yet that same webpage displays a France 24 YouTube video where its founder, Oleg Krinitsyn, says, “If necessary when I get an order, I can produce 1,000 fighters ready to take up arms in under a week. They are all former Russian military officers, people with real combat experience.” Krinitsyn has claimed to be operating in Libya under a de-mining contract to Khalifa Haftar, a regional military commander and Russian ally who has often challenged the internationally recognized Libyan government (Tsvetkova 2017), although by late 2018 it appeared that Prigozhin and Wagner might be honing in on that business relationship (Murtazin 2018). RSB claims that it also provides “normal” security functions for Russian companies around the globe, working in coordination with the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency of the Soviet KGB (Kamakin 2018). Additional, unnamed, private Russian security companies may currently be operating in Yemen, Brunei, and Burundi, and another new group, “Patriot,” may now be in Syria (Yapparova 2018).
There is a large academic literature on PMCs and their use by states. Perhaps inevitably as a result, there is also a wide range of definitions about exactly what to call these groups and exactly what a PMC is (Singer 2003; Avant 2005; Dunigan 2011; McFate 2014; Dunigan and Petersohn 2015). The most specific definition is provided by Sean McFate, an analyst with a Ph.D. who both understands the need for definitions in social science, and has served in PMCs himself and understands their real-world operations in depth. McFate distinguishes “PMCs” from within a broader group of “private security companies” (PSCs), based on their functions. Some broader PSCs gather and analyze intelligence, act as bodyguards or guards at physical installations, or are contractors who provide food, housekeeping, and other goods and services to state military forces in the field. A single firm can serve multiple functions, depending on the context and contract (Avant 2005, 17). But a very specific type of service is provided by what are properly called PMCs, according to McFate, which form a small minority of the huge number of PSCs now involved in military contracting. PMCs are “expeditionary conflict entrepreneurs,” who “kill or train others to kill” in foreign settings (McFate 2014, 1). This definition is similar to what Peter W. Singer earlier called “military provider firms,” those working at the tactical level and “engaging in actual fighting, either as line units or specialists (for example, combat pilots) and/or direct command and control of field units” (Singer 2003, 92). PMCs primarily hire military veterans, often those with a special-forces background. The Wagner Group is a “lethal expeditionary conflict entrepreneur” and a “military provider firm,” even though its members sometimes serve broader PSC functions (such as guarding) as well.
It is debatable whether Russian PMCs like the Wagner Group should be called “mercenaries,” a common label for them used in both the Russian and international media. The mercenary label is often seen as pejorative, rendering their actions illegitimate. Peter Singer calls mercenaries “individuals who fight for employers other than their home state’s government…. [and whose] motivation for fighting is economic gain” (Singer 2003, 41). Sarah Percy agrees that mercenaries fight for profit, and that those convinced to fight for a group cause (such as patriotism or an ideology) should not be considered mercenaries. She develops a “spectrum of private violence” that adds an element of command and control: pure mercenaries are independent and uncontrolled by anything outside their contracts, whereas mercenaries who accept the oversight of legitimate actors such as states are closer themselves to being legitimate armies (Percy 2007). McFate makes yet another distinction between mercenaries and PMCs. Mercenaries, he writes, are fly-by-night companies or soldiers of fortune who will work for anyone, while PMCs are concerned about maintaining and expanding their client base, and hence care about their reputation and try to avoid unsavory activity (McFate 2014). McFate calls some PMCs “military enterprisers,” firms that have more or less “monogamous” relationships with states, and “prefer… long-term, paying clients in perpetual need of armies” (McFate 2014, 30). Avant (2005) also uses the “military enterpriser” label when describing the actions of some private military forces operating in early modern Europe.
But Wagner and its predecessors do not neatly fit any of these labels. The group has not remained on a constant point, or even on a uniform trajectory, on Percy’s spectrum of private force use. As will be detailed below, while Wagner’s leaders have contracted for profit and its members have fought for money, its members believed that they were simultaneously working on behalf of the Russian state (even though the identity of their actual employers has sometimes been murky). Wagner and its antecedents are also not fly by night, and have not worked for just anyone. They have been reliable providers of contract violence abroad, across years and across conflicts, for the Russian state, for Russia’s leading business interests, and for Russia’s allies. Yet Wagner’s relationship to state command and control has varied, inasmuch as sometimes they have clearly worked directly alongside regular Russian military forces, and other times not. And they have certainly not always avoided un-savoriness. A Wagner predecessor was prosecuted for mercenary behavior by the Russian state, and the Wagner Group’s name has sometimes been associated with unnecessary violence, international crime, and the murder of Russian journalists.
What especially complicates the Russian situation is that PMCs there are not legally recognized. PSCs have been legal in Russia since 1992 and are officially registered, if what they are doing is guard duty either at home or abroad (Bukkvoll and Øsetensen 2018, 14). For example, several private Russian companies have been involved in guarding Russian oil and gas installations in Iraq, starting in the early 2000s (Konovalov and Valetskii 2013). Other Russian large private companies and state ministries also have legal armed guards (Nikolsky 2014), and some of them have even taken on roles akin to law enforcement agencies. In 2007 a new Russian law allowed two state-controlled pipeline monopolies – Gazprom for natural gas, and Trasneft for oil – to employ their own forces, authorized to use force “while in pursuit of individuals who have committed criminal or civil offenses at the facilities under guard” (Hurst 2010, 62).
Yet PMCs remain illegal, and by the state’s current interpretation, “unconstitutional.” “Mercenarism” is illegal under Article 359 of the 1996 Russian Criminal Code. A “mercenary” is defined there as “a person who acts for the purpose of getting a material reward, and who is not a citizen of the state in whose armed conflict or hostilities he participates, who does not reside on a permanent basis on its territory, and also who is not a person fulfilling official duties.”2 There is no further discussion of what “official duties” include; it remains an open question whether someone who is acting on a contract approved by a Russian state entity is engaging in “official duties.” The provision in the Russian Constitution that is the basis for the PMC illegality claim (Article 13, point 5) actually appears designed to prevent the setting up of anti-state militias, but it does literally forbid the “creation and activities of social organizations whose goal is … the creation of armed units.”3
There has been a years-long debate in the Russian defense-related media, and also in the Russian lower house of parliament (Duma), over whether to legalize and officially regulate PMC activities. Scholars Ben Noble and Ekaterina Schulmann argue that even though the Duma per se lacks much power, public debates there often reflect real battles occurring among Russian elites, including inside the Kremlin or elsewhere in the executive bureaucracy (Noble and Schulmann 2018). Hence the existence of a prolonged Duma debate about the status of PMCs in Russia probably indicates that powerful elites who are either in or close to the Kremlin have been weighing whether and how to legalize them. Yet as of early 2019 groups such as Wagner have no legal standing in Russia whatsoever.
In March 2018, the Russian cabinet of ministers (including the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, justice, and finance, as well as the National Guard, the FSB, the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Federal Protective Service, and the Prosecutor General) refused to consider legalization of Wagner or other PMCs, with the argument that “mercenary” behavior violates the Russian Constitution and that state authorities alone have responsibility for defense and security (UAWire 2018). It was further reported that the cabinet believed a private army could destabilize the country (NVO 2018) – even though such Russian “private armies” in effect already exist. It is possible that this refusal reflected simple bureaucratic infighting about which government security agency (the FSB or the Defense Ministry, for example) should have power over PMC contracting (Bukkvoll and Østensen 2018). But PMCs are already being used by the Russian state in the absence of legality, meaning that the oversight question has already been worked out in practice; that practice, whatever it is, could presumably be codified if there were the will to do so.
In September 2018 Putin complicated the legal picture further. He signed a decree that classified as secret all information about those “cooperating with the foreign intelligence [services] of the Russian Federation who are not employees.” Leading Russian analysts (including Andrei Soldatov) believe that this is meant to apply specifically to the Wagner Group (Stulov 2018), because of its cooperation with the Russian military intelligence agency (known as the GRU). If the activities of PMCs like Wagner are considered state secrets, then journalists can be prosecuted for reporting on them, even if the PMCs themselves have no legal standing. Indeed two months after Putin’s decree, a Russian defense analyst who wrote many articles on PMCs, Vladimir Neelov, was arrested for high treason and detained in the FSB’s Lefortovo prison, although it is unknown whether it was his PMC writings that got him in trouble (TASS Russian News Agency 2018b).
In his annual end-of-the-year press conference in December 2018, Putin further muddied the waters, stating “if Wagner violates something, the Prosecutor General should evaluate them. But if they don’t break Russian laws, they can carry out their business anywhere in the world” (quoted by Faizova 2018). In other words, Putin appeared to admit that Wagner exists and even to support publicly its foreign activities. Yet his administration has prevented Wagner from being registered and recognized as a Russian firm. Among other things, this means that it, like other Russian PMCs, has paid no taxes to the state (Khramchikhin 2018).
What makes this situation especially unusual is that most major powers in the international system have all legalized and regulated PMCs. The other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – the United States, United Kingdom, France, and China, strong states all – were indeed each original signatories of the 2008 International Committee of the Red Cross Montreux Document on international good practices for PMC employment in armed conflict.4 In large part responding to the oversight problems the United States faced with contractors such as the notorious Blackwater in Iraq, stakeholders including states, human rights non-governmental organizations, and PMCs themselves (who were worried about reputational effects on their businesses) all signed on to this non-binding agreement that defined expectations, monitoring, and oversight responsibilities for the use of these groups (Avant 2016; Avant and Haufler 2018). While the global legal ambiguities of PMC use are far from resolved (Ryngaert 2008; De Nevers 2009), the legitimacy and wide acceptance of the Montreux Document has had a marked impact on both PMC activities and the willingness by states to regulate them.
While not directly related to the Montreux agreement, one measure of how much the US legal culture has changed in a very short time is the successful (if drawn out) US Justice Department prosecution of four Blackwater contractors on murder and manslaughter charges for their killing of unarmed civilians in Baghdad in 2007 (Jackman and Hsu 2018). The earlier legal framework for prosecuting contractors employed by various US government agencies abroad had been underdeveloped. It was evolving even as the use of contractors was increasing, under conditions of unclear and contested interpretation (Dickinson 2007; Doyle 2008).
We would not expect a political system like Russia’s to be a leader in implementing the rule of law for contractors. In this sense China is the most like Russia among the five UNSC great powers, with a state characterized by authoritarianism, dominated by informal personal networks, and beset by corruption. China’s path of security privatization is distinct from that of Western countries, involving a lot more state command and control over profit-seeking enterprises (Catallo 2015). But Beijing has not followed Russia’s path on PMCs. Not only was China one of the original signatories at Montreux; it has also formed around 20 legally recognized foreign-operating PMCs to provide protection to enterprises operating on its far-flung Belt and Road Initiative, including in conflict-ridden Pakistan (Arduino 2018). While China continues to face big questions about PMC capability, competence, and use, its choices in regard to legalizing PMCs look starkly different from Russia’s.
As the case study below details, despite the absence of PMC legal standing, Russian state entities have, at various times, approved Wagner’s contracts and bailed the employees of one of its predecessor firms out of foreign jails. There is good photographic evidence that Putin is friendly with various Wagner officials and has given some of its commanders medals for their service. Why has Russia – a state with otherwise strong civilian control over a professionalized military institution – utilized legally unrecognized forces such as Wagner for so many years, when other strong states in the international system have made a very different choice?
Arguments about why Russia uses PMCs abroad abound. For example, some cite Russia’s Cossack history, saying that it is historically natural for Russia to employ PMCs (Sivkov 2014). Indeed many individuals who participate in Russia’s semi-state security forces today, including Wagner and its forerunners, identify as Cossacks. Any imperial Cossack roots of today’s semi-state security groups are indirect, however. Autonomously minded Cossacks lost their lands and were heavily persecuted during and after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Hundreds of thousands (and perhaps 1.5 million) Cossacks were killed by the early 1930s (Grau 1993; Baranec 2014; Van Herpen 2014). While Soviet leader Joseph Stalin made some use of the Cossacks during World War II, during most of the Soviet era Cossacks were not permitted to maintain any vestiges of their identity, except as dance entertainers (Skinner 1994). Cossacks did not re-emerge as a social force until the late Soviet glasnost’ era in 1989 and 1990 (Grau 1993; Skinner 1994; Baranec 2014).
Further, Russia’s Cossack history cannot explain the failure to legalize PMCs in Russia. Cossack groups received official recognition from the new Russian state in 1994, as Yel’tsin (much like the tsars before him) sought to exert control over their activities by registering them (O’Rourke 2007; Baranec 2014). Yel’tsin also gave official Cossacks the right to establish private domestic security companies (Van Herpen 2014, 144). Then in 2005 Putin signed a law allowing official Cossacks to enter state service in various security capacities – and in return they named Putin an “ataman” (Van Herpen 2014, 145). The Cossack presence on Russian streets (and in the Russian media) soared in response to the challenges Putin faced from anti-corruption protestors in 2012 (Baranec 2014; Van Herpen 2014).
Another possible explanation that some Russians have given for the use of PMCs abroad is that it is a means to keep otherwise potentially rebellious, trained practitioners of violence both busy, and away from home (Kanchukov 2012; Pal’chikov 2013). However, this argument is not convincing. At an individual level, Russian fighters cycle in and out of Wagner’s deployments abroad on a regular basis; they are not permanently exiled. At an institutional level, the Wagner Group is relatively small compared to either the Russian military or the National Guard, and could not present much of a threat to the state. Russian investigative journalists obtained the records of around 2,000 Wagner fighters in 2017 (Berg 2017). In February 2018 a Wagner Group payroll was discovered where payees were identified by a four-digit number; the last number was 3602, implying that this was the size of the payroll (Rozhdestvenskii 2018). In comparison, the Russian military officer corps and National Guard were estimated to number around 200,000 each in 2017 (US Defense Intelligence Agency 2017). The Wagner Group could not prevail in a fight against personnel from these state security agencies.
There are two convincing explanations, though, for why Moscow has chosen to employ PMCs widely while keeping them illegal: first, that Russia is using PMCs in ways that many other rational states do, and second, that Putin is using them to enhance the private wealth of his personal cronies. Neither of these is satisfactory on its own for explaining everything in the Wagner case study that follows. But in combination, they tell the story well.
First, Russia may simply be following a pattern set throughout recorded history by rational states employing loyal mercenaries or “military enterprisers” to fight their foreign wars. States – including modern states that have firm civilian control over military operations – have long contracted with a variety of PMCs, both foreign and domestic. PMCs serve many purposes for states, and as noted above their use has vastly expanded in recent years.
The literature on PMCs is replete with state-based explanations for their use. States can employ them as force multipliers, adding heft to smaller militaries or providing specialized skill sets to states whose own personnel are less well trained or disciplined. PMCs can also allow states to achieve ambitious security goals at what appears to be lower cost, since contractors don’t require continuing salaries or benefits once the war is over and the contract has ended (McFate 2014, 47), although some analysts doubt that money is actually saved in practice (Stanger 2009, 97–98). PMCs can also keep battle casualties off the public political agenda, since contract deaths in the field are usually not reported by states (Dunigan 2011, 157).
Key for Putin’s Russia, PMCs can also be used by states to maintain plausible deniability about their secret or disreputable involvement in foreign adventures. Semi-state security groups like Wagner are certainly a component of Putin’s current “information warfare” strategy, using obfuscation in their relationship with the state to sow confusion and chaos among Russia’s enemies. Wagner in particular may have been intentionally created by the GRU as part of its Putin-era unconventional warfare strategy (Bukkvoll and Østensen 2018). Russian investigative journalists Irina Malkova and Anton Baev claim that the idea of creating Wagner was hatched in a private 2010 Russian General Staff meeting with Eeban Barlow, the founder of South Africa’s notorious Executive Outcomes mercenary group. Unnamed sources told the journalists that Prigozhin was selected to fund it because of his close relationship with Putin, and that it was kept illegal so that Moscow would never have to bail the group out of a foreign jail (Malkova and Baev 2019). (These claims sound reasonable, but it should be noted that there is no documentary or on-the-record interview evidence to support them.)
The plausible deniability explanation only goes so far, though, especially when it comes to understanding the decision to keep Wagner illegal. The activities of Wagner and its antecedents have been well chronicled in the international media and on Russian-language independent internet news sites for years, and after the February 2018 debacle against US forces in Syria (described below), Wagner made front-page news in Russia and was openly discussed in the Russian Duma. The issue became even more fraught in July 2018, when three Russian investigative journalists were shot dead while trying to make a documentary about Wagner’s presence in the Central African Republic. Once again, the journalists’ fate was discussed, and the Wagner Group was mentioned, in leading Russian newspapers and in the Duma (TASS Russian News Agency 2018a). As 2018 went on, the situation got even more fraught: a prominent Russian dissident, Petr Verzilov, was apparently poisoned (he recovered in a German hospital) after trying to investigate what had happened to those Russian journalists in the Central African Republic. A former GRU officer also claimed to have been poisoned after investigating the use of PMCs in Ukraine (Dozhd’ 2018). While these incidents were not reported by TASS or other mainstream Russian media sources, they were broadcast by prominent web-based Russian-language sources that are often critical of the Putin government, including Meduza, Novaya Gazeta, newtimes.ru, the Ekho Moskvy radio station, and the Dozhd’ television network. And as mentioned above, Putin himself talked about Wagner publicly in December 2018.
It is not clear in any case that plausible deniability demands PMC illegality. There is a deep history in the United States, for example, of using perfectly legal private firms for force-based intelligence operations abroad that the state wishes to conceal (Chesterman 2008). There may still be tactical or strategic reasons in the field for the Russian state to employ Wagner soldiers, as other states use PMCs, for reasons of plausible deniability. But the fact that Wagner is now being so widely publicly discussed inside Russia – including by the president – means that plausible deniability can no longer explain the state’s refusal to legalize Wagner – even if at one time that may have been a sensible argument.
Indeed from a constructivist theoretical political science perspective, legalization should have been a preference for the status-conscious Russian state. The actions of other permanent members of the UNSC in signing the Montreux Document demonstrate that legalization is an appropriate action for powerful states to take. Legalization would therefore help emphasize that Russia is a member of the great-power club (Finnemore 1996). In sum, while there are clear state-based interests for Russia to continue to deploy Wagner and groups like it, Moscow’s long-standing decision not to legalize PMCs remains a puzzle from the perspective of state interests.
While PMCs are sometimes used by (or in conjunction with) Russian military forces, it also appears that one of their key purposes is to further the personal interests of the corrupt clique of individuals around Putin. Putin’s rule is defined by informal personal network connections, rather than by bureaucratic rules and procedures. These relationships extend to the highest level of the Russian security and intelligence forces (Taylor 2007, 2011; Galeotti 2013, 2016; Marten 2019b). PMCs might provide muscle that is useful for the pursuit of individual profit.
Indeed, some analysts suggest that it is in Putin’s interest to keep PMCs illegal – since keeping them perpetually off balance is a mechanism for controlling them, either by Putin as an individual, or by the FSB as an institution (Bukkvoll and Østensen 2018). If they are operating illegally, then they can be threatened with imprisonment at any time – and that might help ensure their loyalty. Kirill Rogov argues that the Russian system is built around illegality with the full knowledge that rules will be broken – but that there are both rules for breaking the rules, and rules about who may break the rules and who may not. Rogov argues, “any bureaucratic body with authority does not concern itself with the observance of rules, but instead with the punishment of any unsanctioned infringement” (Rogov 2010). Keeping activities illegal thereby limits competition, ensuring that only favored groups are allowed to operate. Alena Ledeneva provides a similar perspective on the Russian system, arguing that the way personal trust is built across Putin’s entire regime is through mutual threats of exposure. When everyone has done things that leave them compromised (as Wagner and groups like it have done, by operating illegally), their mutual loyalty is assured, since no one has an incentive to disrupt the “circular guarantee” that binds them all together in illegal activity (Ledeneva 2013). When Wagner is acting on behalf of an oligarch such as Prigozhin, this prevents any of Prigozhin’s own disreputable activities from being revealed by the troops who work with him – and also ensures that Prigozhin controls PMC profits in Russia.
If this explanation is correct, it implies that the integrity of Russian sovereignty may be gradually falling victim to wealthy patrons and their mercenaries, who use personal connections to flout state law and potentially embroil the Russian state in conflicts abroad. This would indicate that groups such as Wagner are actually undermining state rationality, by leaving the state hostage to private interests. If this is happening, then Russia might be on its way to employing PMCs as what Avant has termed a corrupt and authoritarian “weak state,” although she uses the label to refer to post-colonial states that never established firm civilian control over capable militaries (Avant 2005). Other scholars have termed the out-of-control mercenaries scenario a “racketeer market for force” (Dunigan and Petersohn 2015).
Few would think of Russia today as a “weak state” in terms of its civil-miltiary relations. It inherited the bulk of the highly professionalized Soviet army when the USSR collapsed in late 1991. Despite waging two brutal and protracted civil wars in the Russian province of Chechnya in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian military kept its functions on the rest of Russian territory distinct from those of internal police forces, and scrupulously tried to avoid involvement in politics (Taylor 2003) – both hallmarks of Samuel Huntington’s classic definition of a professional military organization (Huntington 1959). And while the Russian military faced a great deal of hardship and corruption in its early post-Soviet years, recent reforms seem to have turned that situation around, allowing Moscow to send capable and reliable military forces to fight abroad. Alongside the United States, Russia also remains one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers. It is a measure of Russia’s status as a strong state that no one doubts its ability to destroy any other country in an instant, by having its military launch an all-out nuclear attack. Yet “strong states” are not supposed to work with hazy, unregulated, semi-state security forces, either on their own territory or abroad, and Russia is doing both today.
Because these semi-state Russian groups are shadowy and protean, it can be challenging to find reliable information about their activities. They are surrounded by rumors, and some of the prominent individuals involved with them have been caught in direct lies.
Sometimes information will appear about a supposed Russian PMC, but then nothing more can be learned. For example, the Panama Papers leak revealed that in July 2013, the “Longifolia” PMC had been registered in Panama, listing provision of order on foreign territories and anti-piracy security among its specialties. A number of St. Petersburg citizens (including some known criminals) were named as its president and directors. The director list also included Dmitrii Polkovnikov, a decorated “Hero of Russia” veteran serving as the chief of St. Petersburg’s Lomonovsky administrative district (which includes a closed security zone along the Gulf of Finland). As a state bureaucrat Polkovnikov was not supposed to own or direct any commercial structures (Smirnov and Shalyakin 2016). This finding was reported in St. Petersburg, but no additional information about Longifolia seems to be available.
The existence of at least one Russian PMC seems to have been completely fabricated, for unknown reasons. Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team (a group that describes itself as conducting open-source, devil’s advocate, big-data intelligence on Russia’s wars in Ukraine and Syria),5 demonstrated through comparative photographic evidence that the group, “Turan,” a supposed Muslim Russian PMC in Syria, was fake.6 A different “journalist,” Oleg Blokhin of two pro-Russian-state news organizations (the Abkhazian Network News Agency, http://anna-news.info/about/, and Russian Spring, http://rusvesna.su/about), who “broke” the news about Turan, actually created an elaborate photo-shopped hoax, starring himself and a colleague in combat fatigues. Several Russian newspapers had written about Turan as if it were real (Bukkvoll and Østensen 2018).
Then, too, the Russian investigative journalists who cover PMCs appear to face danger. One who wrote about the activities of the Wagner Group in Syria, Maksim Borodin, fell to his death off his fifth-floor apartment balcony in April 2018. While the Russian authorities have treated it as a suicide, Borodin’s fall occurred the day after he called a number of friends, asking for recommendations about a lawyer, and “saying masked, armed men on his balcony and in the stairwell were preparing to raid his flat” (Luhn 2018). Borodin had sustained two previous assaults, one of which, the week before, had left him hospitalized with a head injury. As mentioned above, in July 2018 three Russian journalists with long experience in combat reporting were murdered under mysterious circumstances when they attempted to film a documentary about Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic, and a prominent Russian dissident was apparently poisoned after attempting to investigate their deaths.
Despite this seeming danger, and the fact that Russia’s mainstream media is heavily state controlled, there are nonetheless a few hardy journalists who have managed to report on Russian PMCs and whose work is generally considered reliable by Western analysts. The most prominent one writing about Wagner has been Denis Korotkov, formerly of the St. Petersburg online new service Fontanka.ru (he joined the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta in 2018). Korotkov received the Golden Pen prize from the Russian Union of Journalists for his reporting on the Slavonic Corps PMC, one of the early iterations of the Wagner Group (Fontanka.ru 2016a). It was also he who broke the story (discussed more below) that Prigozhin was connected to the Wagner Group (Korotkov 2016b). Later Fontanka.ru reported that within hours of that story posting, its internet servers had undergone a massive DDoS attack, and that Prigozhin’s “troll farm,” the Internet Research Agency, had gone on social media asking about Korotkov’s birthday so that he could receive a “first class surprise” (Fontanka.ru. 2016b). In 2017 Fontanka.ru reported that Korotkov had received obscene online threats calling him a “traitor,” listing his home address, and threatening to “knock some sense” into him (Berg 2017).
There is no question that these opposition-oriented news sources have an incentive to make Putin look bad by digging up dirt on Prigozhin and Wagner. But a recent series of events seems to demonstrate Korotkov’s bona fides as a reliable journalist, when he may have been set up for a fall in 2018. Korotkov conducted a series of interviews with Valery Amelchenko, who claimed to have been violent “muscle” for Prigozhin, and pointed Korotkov to all kinds of evidence that seemed to confirm the involvement of Prigozhin in a series of attacks and murders. Immediately following his final meeting with Korotkov, Amelchenko disappeared and clues seemed to show that he had been violently kidnapped. But he reappeared shortly after Korotkov’s exposé on the subject was published, looking healthy, disavowing his earlier statements, and accusing Korotkov of staging both the interviews and the disappearance (Korotkov 2018). While Korotkov may have been the butt of Prigozhin’s joke in this case, it is a testament to his honesty as a journalist that he reported the entire sequence of events and the puzzles they raised, even at possible cost to his reputation for sophisticated judgement.
The Wagner Group had its roots in a firm known as Antiterror-Orel, based in southwestern Russia. An organization called Antiterror-Tsentr was registered in the city of Orel as a private security firm in 2005 (it officially closed in 2016).7 An open web search for the term “Antiterror-Tsentr” in October 2018 led to the website http://www.antiterror-orel.ru/, but the website purports to actually be advertising for a medical ultrasound machine leasing firm called Northhall. Antiterror-Orel reportedly registered in 2011 as a training and education site founded by special forces veterans (Bukkvoll and Østensen 2018, 22), but no record of it is available in the standard database of current and former Russian juridical entities.8 Antiterror-Orel then apparently began contracting with Russian businesses operating in Iraq, to provide security for them.
An entity known as the Moran Security Group apparently broke off of Antiterror-Orel. Moran was a traditional (and legal) PSC that focused on providing anti-piracy armed guards and intelligence for Russian oil tankers, port facilities, and off-shore rigs.9 One of Moran’s biggest clients was the 100% state-owned Somkomflot petroleum fleet corporation, headquartered in St. Petersburg (Poteeva and Korotkov 2012). There were two different Moran Security Groups officially registered as private companies in Moscow. One, registered in 2011, billed itself as engaging in marine passenger transport,10 under the directorship of Vyacheslav Kalashnikov. It ceased operations in March 2017. The other, registered in July 2012 under the directorship of Yevgenii Sidorov at a different address, billed itself as a private protection company.11 This second Moran Security Group was only registered for two years; it ceased operations on 1 September 2014. Its Deputy General Director Boris Chikin explained the next month that Moran “is not a Russian company, we are registered in a different country” (Korotkov 2014b). He went on to say that if it was a Russian company, it wouldn’t be allowed to work in Iraq with US and UK forces, because back in 2006 the US commander in Iraq had issued an order that Coalition forces could no longer work with Russian companies (Konovalov and Valetskii 2013). As long as Moran was instead registed locally in Baghdad, said Chikin, it could continue working just fine.
Moran first hit the news in Russia when nine of its Russian guards were arrested by the Nigerian government during a raid of their vessel in the port of Lagos in October 2012 (Poteeva and Korotkov 2012). This was probably the marine transport version of the Moran company. While Moran claimed that all of their weapons had been legally declared (Fontanka.ru 2013), the men were accused of gun-running. One source stated that “Nigeria does not allow companies to have armed private guards on their ships” (AFP 2013). In February 2013, the men were freed on bail into the custody and guarantee of the Russian embassy in Nigeria. Russia claimed that it had reached a deal for the men’s release the previous December, and Nigeria finally allowed them to leave the country and go home in October 2013 (AFP 2013). This vignette demonstrates that the Russian state – in this case, its foreign ministry – was willing to go to bat for this PSC abroad and negotiate its employees’ release from prison, when it was engaged in work for state-owned Russian oil shipping interests.
Meanwhile, in the spring of 2013, the Moran Security Group began inviting Russian veterans to interview with a new company called Slavonic Corps, which was headquartered in Hong Kong instead of Russia (Korotkov 2013b). The Slavonic Corps director, Sergei Kramskoi, continued to live in St. Petersburg and operated two additional officially registered firms there also called “Slavonic Corps” (Korotkov 2013a). This new firm’s deputy director, Boris Chikin – as noted above, one of the founders and deputy directors of the short-lived private protection service version of Moran – also lived in St. Petersburg. A different investigation later revealed that Slavonic Corps was wholly owned by Vadim Gusev, who was also a deputy director of Moran (Weiss 2013).
By that October, again through the auspices of Moran, approximately 267 men had signed a contract with Slavonic Corps to work in Syria. Korotkov and his team were able to interview several of the men who had joined from St. Petersburg, and the following paragraphs are drawn from their resulting Fontanka.ru articles.
The contracted men’s first contact point was with the president of Moran (the shipping service version), Kalashnikov, who is a lieutenant colonel in the FSB reserves. If the men passed muster after the interview with Kalashnikov, they got the call to deploy. The new participants were then put on a train to Moscow, after being asked to sign a contract quickly at the St. Petersburg train station that promised big money. They transited from Moscow through Beirut, the contractors said, and then got on a plane in Damascus and were flown to Latakia (where Russia maintains the Khmeimin military airbase). They say they were met there by Gusev, who asked, “Did you come here to fight or to guard? Those who came to guard – [you have] permanent KP duty” (Korotkov 2013b).
They had been told that their contracts were with the Syrian government, but with the implication that the FSB and the Russian government had approved them. Their job was to maintain control of the oil facilities in the eastern Deir-el-Zour region, then threatened by the Islamic State, in order to “free the Syrian Army from the obligation to do so, so that they could take part in the struggle with bandits” (Korotkov 2013a). They were given some rather ancient Soviet-made weapons, which proved inadequate when their convoy found itself in a battle with Islamic State forces (Korotkov 2014a). Several contractors were wounded.12 As they were withdrawn back to the Latakia airbase through Homs, they discovered that Gusev and the Syrian strongman he was working with had different ideas about what they were supposed to be doing there – and at least some of the men believed that the Syrian state wasn’t involved in the deal at all. In any case, the contractors were sent back to Moscow on chartered airplanes – and promptly met by the FSB.
The FSB officers interrogated them, took their telephone SIM cards, and let the contractors go – but arrested both Gusev and the head of personnel for Moran (again, the shipping service version), Yevgenii Sidorov (who was simultaneously the director of the second, short-lived Moran domestic protection service). Gusev and Sidorov were found guilty of mercenary behavior under article 359 of the Russian criminal code (Fontanka.ru 2014), and sentenced to three years in prison. It turned out that the two of them had a three-way contract with the Syrian Energy Ministry and a company called “Energy” to guard the Deir-el-Zour oilfields. Exactly why the FSB chose to prosecute Gusev and Sidorov remains unclear – especially since their contract was with a Russian state ally (more on that later), an FSB reserve officer was the official point of contact and he was not arrested, and the Slavonic Corps had apparently landed at the Russian military airfield in Latakia upon their arrival in Syria. There is probably more to the story than what is available from press reports, but the case demonstrates that the Russian state can at will prosecute PMCs as mercenaries.
Another group of men drawn largely from St. Petersburg remained in Syria until November, guarding key Syrian sites including military depots, and it may or may not have been connected to Slavonic Corps (Korotkov 2014a). Their contract, unlike the first group’s, came from a company called Zeitplus Consultancy Services, Ltd, which was registered in Cyprus. That contract said that they were providing “humanitarian help to the friendly-to-Russia Syrian people and Syrian government,” and implied that they should seek Syrian citizenship before engaging in any warfare (which would evade the prohibitory language of Article 359 of the Russian criminal code). The president of Zeitplus was Igor Tolstoshein. A website run by a group called Mirotvorets (“Peace Maker”), which identifies itself as a pro-bono “Center for Research of Signs of Crimes against the National Security of Ukraine, Peace, Humanity, and the International Law” [sic], includes photos of Tolstoshein in Donetsk and screenshots of his own web postings calling for Russians to come and fight on behalf of Novorossiya in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. The website identifies him as “one of the curators of the Slavonic Corps on the territory of Ukraine.”13 Tolstoshein nonetheless claimed not to have anything to do either with Slavonic Corps or with the guarding of military depots in Syria (Korotkov 2014a).
2014 marked the end of Slavonic Corps as such, but a part of the group morphed again. That same year, Lt. Col. of the Reserves Dmitrii Utkin – a man who claims both to have earlier worked on anti-piracy for the long-lived shipping Moran Security Group, and to have been in Syria with the Slavonic Corps for the infamous trouble – popped up in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine as the commander of a new organization, the Wagner Group (Korotkov 2015b). There is no evidence that this group was ever officially registered in Russia, or anywhere else, although an Israeli website that often reports on global intelligence rumors claims that Wagner is registered in Argentina (Debka 2017). Given the number of German immigrants to Argentina in the early to mid-20th century, “Wagner” is a fairly common name there. There is no clear way to verify whether any of the Argentinian businesses with “Wagner” in their titles are connected to Russia’s Wagner Group.
Utkin was a veteran of the Russian military intelligence agency (the GRU), adding further possible evidence to the idea that Wagner was a GRU creation. He had ended his state service in 2013 as the commander of a special operations (spetsnaz) detachment of the GRU’s Second Brigade, based in Pechory, Pskov Oblast (Korotkov 2015a, 2016a). His nom de guerre was “Wagner,” because “he is known as a follower of the aesthetics and ideology of the Third Reich” (Korotkov 2016a), and while fighting in Lugansk in the Donbas he began wearing a Wehrmacht-style steel helmet. Now the Wagner Group, according to those interviewed, was training personnel in Russia in two camps “attached to the location of the 10th brigade of the GRU Spetsnaz.” While the original Wagner training camp was located in Vesely, in Rostov Oblast, it moved to Mol’kino, in Krasnodar Kray (Korotkov 2015b), across a rural highway from the GRU facility there (Pushkarev 2018).
The Wagner Group operated first in Crimea, amid the Russian military’s special operations “polite people” who took over that Ukrainian peninsula in 2014. It then moved to Lugansk, where Utkin may have played a role in the killings of two local pro-Russian militia commanders in 2015 (Aleksandr Bednov, also known as “Batman,” and Aleksei Mozgovii, commander of the so-called “Ghost” brigade; Korotkov 2015a). While those particular roles are only rumored, Utkin is proud to have played a role in the arrest of a third local militia commander in Lugansk, Aleksei Fomichev, head of the “Odesa Brigade.” According to one local fighter, Anton Banshchikov, the seizure of Fomichev happened violently, despite the fact that Fomichev had told his men to turn over their weapons peacefully to the Wagner Group when it surrounded them with heavy weapons (Znak.com 2015).
The infighting among rebel commanders in eastern Ukraine in 2015 was infamous, and at least in part appears to have been an effort by Moscow to retake control, including from local Ukrainian Cossacks who wanted independence from both Moscow and Kyiv (Kramer 2015). In other words, when Wagner first appeared on the scene, it may very well have been acting as a military enterpriser, playing a “plausible deniability” role for the Russian armed forces in eastern Ukraine while helping them establish a pro-Kremlin order.
That same year the Wagner Group was back in Syria, too. While fighters were required to turn over their cell phones and refrain from posting any locational information on the internet, photos leaked out anyway – including one of members standing next to an Mi-8 helicopter, whose same serial number had been openly photographed by the Russian military in the fall of 2015 at the Russian Khmeimin Airbase in Latakia (Korotkov 2015b). Wagner’s contracts now explicitly stated that “the tasks of the Company involve fulfilling SBZ [Military-Service Problems],” and the men gave up the right to refuse an assignment once they accepted the contract, unless they were wounded (Korotkov 2015b). The payments promised reflected the different jobs Wagner was taking on – with men stationed at the Ukrainian border paid less than those “keeping order” in Lugansk, and those fighting in Ukraine or Syria receiving the most of all (Korotkov 2015a). While the Slavonic Corps had been paid in US dollars (illegal to use for transactions inside Russia), the Wagner Group was paid in Russian rubles.
Wagner fighters were killed in the brutal battle of Debaltseve, Ukraine in January 2015, and at least a few received the Russian military Medal for Courage in Death (Korotkov 2016a). Geolocatable video footage emerged on YouTube in 2018 that provides further evidence for the Wagner Group’s presence in the Debaltseve battle, using new Russian armored trucks (the BPM-97 Vystrel; Zoria 2018). Again this indicates that Wagner had a great deal of support from the Russian Army. The battle was one of the key events of the war in eastern Ukraine, ensuring its transformation into an endless war of attrition. Debaltseve was a rout against the Ukrainian side, involving heavy casualties, the loss of much equipment and weaponry, and retreat from a key transport hub that could now link Donetsk and Lugansk, the two Donbas territories that bordered Russia (Luhn and Grytsenko 2015).
In Syria, Korotkov believed in 2016 that “the Wagner group is often used as elite infantry, which naturally leads to casualties much greater than Special Forces typically see” (Gostev and Coalson 2016). Korotkov was told that the Wagner group had played an especially important role in the second battle of Palmyra in March 2016, when the city was recaptured by the Syrian government from the Islamic State with Russian help.14 According to another Russian journalist, members of the Wagner Group were unhappy that Syrian forces were given too much credit for that victory at Palmyra, when it was really the Wagner Group fighters that had secured it (Rozhdestvenskii 2018). At that time, approximately 2,000–2,500 Wagner forces were thought to have been located in Syria – and the annual cost of maintaining them was estimated to have been about half as much again as the official Russian military budget for Syrian operations (Rozhdestvenskii 2018). This story, too, implies that Wagner was useful for the Russian military in ways that PMCs traditionally are, saving defense budget money and taking casualties in the place of state military forces.
In June 2016 Korotkov broke the story about Wagner’s connection to Prigozhin, as noted above, who is believed to be Wagner’s primary funder. Six months later Korotkov discovered that Utkin had received a medal for heroism at the Kremlin on 9 December, the annual Heroes of the Fatherland Day. So did Andrei Troshev, a military veteran and retired Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) officer, who is known to have traveled with Prigozhin’s security chief during 2014–15 to what appeared to be the Slavonic Corps/Wagner training bases in Rostov and Krasnodar (Korotkov 2016c). Both of these scoops came simply from noticing whose faces appeared on publicly broadcast news reports. Korotkov claims that Troshev had participated in Wagner’s March victory in Palmyra (Kortokov 2016d). A few days later Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Utkin had received the “Hero of Russia and Cavalry Decoration for Bravery” prizes (Fontanka.ru 2016c), although he would not say for what actions the prizes were received. Peskov did not mention Troshev at all.
This evidence indicates that in 2015 and at least the first half of 2016, Wagner was once again, this time in Syria, probably working with Russian military approval and support – even if “plausible deniability” about the Russian presence there was no longer an issue for the Kremlin. Several of those investigating Russia’s military actions in Syria believe that Wagner was used as a substitute for Russian ground forces, so that private contractors, not Russian conscripts, would bear the casualties that resulted and keep the news of the deaths off Russian media headlines (Vasilyeva 2017). They believe that somewhere between 73 and 101 of Wagner’s men were killed in Syria. Wagner, in other words, was being used the way that PMCs are used by many powerful states.
Meanwhile the majority of Wagner fighters had been pulled out of Syria by summer 2016, following the Palmyra battle, with “only small groups of highly qualified specialists and repairmen” remaining (Korotkov 2017a). Shortly thereafter, though, plans were in the works to send them back – this time negotiated through the Russian Energy Ministry. There is no evidence that the Defense Ministry was involved with this contract at all.
Russian Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak revealed in a March 2017 interview that in December 2016, in Moscow, he facilitated the signing of a “serious Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) between his Syrian counterpart and a newly registered Russian firm called Evro Polis. While it could not become a binding contract until a new Syrian law was passed to recognize it, the MOU called for Evro Polis to “liberate oil and gas fields, plants and other infrastructure captured by enemies of the regime, and then guard them.” In return they would receive a quarter of the fields’ output, plus compensation for their military expenditures, over a five-year term (Korotkov 2017b). This draft MOU was published by the Associated Press in December 2017 (Vasilyeva 2017).
Korotkov reports that Evro Polis was headquartered at the same St. Petersburg address as two of oligarch Yevgenii Prigozhin’s firms, and was at least originally led by Oleg Yerokhin. Yerokhin, like Troshev, was a former MVD officer. He had been a special rapid response unit (SOBR) chief who in 2016 co-founded the League for the Defense of the Interests of Veterans of Local Wars and Military Conflicts with Troshev, and is believed to have been in Ukraine and Syria over the same date range as Wagner (Korotkov 2017b).
Simultaneously Korotkov revealed that Evro Polis had a different, continuing role in Syria, too: it was supplying Russian trainers to a Syrian special operations force known as the “ISIS Hunters,” designed to free, secure, and defend the oil fields around Palmyra, then held by the Islamic State. Kortokov added that Wagner had always been interested in the oilfields around Palmyra – and that there was a sense that Wagner’s commander, Utkin, was being directed “from above” in this regard in 2016 (Korotkov 2017b).
While Korotkov and Fontanka.ru fell silent at this point, the story was continued by The Bell (https://thebell.io/). This Russian-news internet site was founded in 2016 by the experienced Russian investigative journalist Yelizaveta Osetinskaya, who believed that she had been fired from her previous editorial job at the Russian media site RBK because of her stories about Russians named in the Panama Papers. The Bell reported that in January 2018, a legally binding version of the energy-related MOU with Evro Polis was signed with the Syrian Energy Ministry, apparently again under the auspices of the Russian Energy Ministry (Malkova, Stogney, and Yakoreva 2018). Once again there was no hint of Russian Defense Ministry involvement.
Then on 7 February 2018 a terrible event occurred, one that killed or wounded scores or even hundreds of Wagner’s men, and that risked sparking a dangerous crisis between US and Russian forces based in Syria. A large group of Russian-speaking militia members crossed the internal deconfliction zone border in eastern Syria that had been agreed by US and Russian forces in 2015.15 When this militia began firing on a US-supported and Kurdish-controlled military base guarding a Conoco gas plant in Deir-el-Zour, US forces fought back. When the attack continued anyway, the US command called in a devastating series of airstrikes.
US forces used the special Syria deconfliction line to communicate with Russian military commanders in Syria “before, during, and after the strike,” according to the Pentagon, and “we were assured by the Russians that there were no Russians involved” (Eckel 2018). Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told Congress, “the Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people” (Gibbons-Neff 2018). Given that US commanders were closely following the progress of the Russian-speaking unit as it crossed the zone, it is a good bet that Russian military intelligence was also acutely aware of the group’s movements. US intelligence documents leaked to the Washington Post furthermore show that Prigozhin was in touch with the Kremlin repeatedly throughout the time of the attack, and indeed that Prigozhin had bragged to the Syrians that some kind of “fast and strong” move would happen during this time frame, so it is likely that the Kremlin knew what was happening (Nakashima, DeYoung, and Sly 2018). While wounded Wagner fighters were evacuated on Russian military airplanes to Russian military hospitals to recover on the Russian state’s dime, the helicopters to get them to the Russian airbase had to be called in from a different subset of Wagner called the Vesna Group; the Russian military would not tend to them on the battlefield, delaying their treatment (RFE/RL 2018). Russia has never officially admitted to the large number of Wagner casualities that day.
This event raises one of the greatest puzzles surrounding Wagner: why didn’t the Russian military command, which was in contact with the US command and hence presumably understood that the US was going to defend the location, contact the Wagner forces and tell them to abort the mission (Marten 2018a)? Given constant communication between Russian and US forces, as well as between Prigozhin and the Kremlin – and the fact that the events played out over an extended timeframe, in which the battle itself was slow to start and then gained in intensity over a period of four hours – it is highly unlikely that a communications breakdown is the explanation. The desire to maintain “plausible deniability” probably explains much of Russia’s actions in this case – as does the suspicion that Moscow wanted to test the mettle and endurance of the US presence in Syria by challenging it on the sly, using Wagner as a proxy (Hanlon 2018; Wall Street Journal 2018). These arguments, however, cannot explain the extraordinary callousness that Russian military officers seem to have shown to the hundreds of Russian veterans in Wagner who had just been lauded by the Kremlin for working with them earlier in both Ukraine and Syria – including the failure to send in helicopters to remove casualties from the battlefield after the devastating American airstrikes.
While there is no way to know for sure what occurred between the Russian military command and the Wagner leaders, one plausible explanation is that Wagner became the victim of infighting among individuals close to Putin (Marten 2018a). It was in March 2017 that the MOU with Evro Polis became public knowledge – and the MOU involved activities (the seizure and guarding of oil and gas facilities) that were suspiciously similar to those that had gotten the Moran Group’s Gusev and Sidorov thrown into prison for mercenary behavior in 2013. But that time around Moran’s men were not punished, and the Moran Group as a whole was not forced to close.
There is no way to determine whether the 2013 contract had also been approved by the Russian Energy Ministry. But Novak was Energy Minister then, too, and it makes sense that the Moran Group’s conduit to the Syrian Energy Ministry would have been through its Russian state counterpart, just as Wagner’s later was. If this is correct, it means that the only major difference between 2013 and 2018 – and hence a factor that may explain the different treatment by Russian security authorities of the low-level fighters involved, where in the first case they were let go, and in the second case they were allowed to be slaughtered – is that Prigozhin does not seem to have been involved in the earlier contract. Evro Polis did not exist then.
Who is Prigozhin, and why might his involvement change things? Two factors stand out. First, Prigozhin has no military background, and the senior officer corps might resent the interference of a profit-seeking oligarch into operations on active military territory. Somewhat similar conflicts (not involving oligarchs, but instead the question of profit from, and intrusion on, the battlefield) often bedevil PMCs that are working alongside regular miltiary forces. Molly Dunigan writes how in one case, for example, resentment over salary differentials and battlefield intrusion, may have led US marines in Iraq to wrongfully imprison, beat, and maltreat a unit of US contractors for three days (Dunigan 2011, 63).
This possibility is bolstered by articles appearing in Russia’s military-related press, which has hosted much of the debate about whether or not PMCs should be legalized. A theme raised there even by supporters of legalization is that PMC “activities should be strictly regulated, so that they do not turn into an instrument of force used in the interests of oligarchs” (Sivkov 2014; also see Pal’chikov 2013). Particular concern has been raised that Russia could face a situation like that in neighboring Ukraine, where oligarchs (according to the Russian analysts) raised militias that “dictate” government policy (Falichev 2016). Russian military commanders may fear that an oligarch like Prigozhin could lead Russia along that path.
Second, Korotkov says that “the army gets its provisions almost entirely from firms tied to Concord,” Prigozhin’s military contracting conglomerate (Berg 2017). But the army may resent what is widely perceived as Prigozhin’s corruption. Prigozhin began his adult life imprisoned for nine years, for deeds connected to organized crime (Zhegulev 2016). When he got out he operated a hotdog stand. Then somehow during the era when Putin controlled business licenses in St. Petersburg for the mayor’s office, this hotdog stand turned into a chain of restaurants. As Putin moved to Moscow, Prigozhin became the major caterer for many of Putin’s state dinners, as well as for Russia’s state schools, before turning to military contracting. His public net worth is $200 million, but is believed actually to be much higher than that – and the Russian Federal Monopoly Service rebuked him in 2015 for engaging in fixed bidding on his military contracts (MacFarquhar 2018). Korotkov’s investigations turned up an additional accusation from a woman who supervised the regional military cleaning business of a Concord subcontractor: that a large chunk of the money paid for cleaning in her region of Ivanovo disappeared, on a scale of perhaps two million rubles (then around $30,000) per month – enough to pay the salary of 80 of her workers. In her words, “That’s not cleaning – it’s a Klondike.” When she informed Prigozhin’s headquarters about the missing funds, believing that she was turning in a thieving employee, her own employment was terminated (Korotkov 2016b).
There are two clues that military displeasure with Prigozhin as a contractor may have affected the Wagner Group and its treatment. First is Korotkov’s statement in August 2017 – months before the Deir-el-Zour event – that something fundamentally changed for Wagner earlier that year. He said in an interview, “In 2016, according to all our sources, there was very close cooperation [between Wagner and the Russian Defense Ministry] at all levels: aviation-artillery support, weapons supplies, military hardware, ammunition, and evacuation of the wounded…. At some point in 2017, the support suddenly dried up, especially when it came to weapons. And of course everyone was also shocked that the cash allowance dried up suddenly” (Berg 2017). This claim was repeated by another Russian journalist (Rozhdestvenskii 2018), although it is not clear whether the two claims are independent of each other. Second are reports that in 2017 the Defense Ministry started refusing to pay Prigozhin for catering and cleaning contracts he had with the military. Four of his companies filed suit against the Defense Ministry to have the contracts enforced, and three of them were ordered by the courts to be fully or partially repaid (Yakoreva and Reiter 2018).
In other words, there is plenty of room for resentment among Russia’s military high command about Prigozhin’s activities. A sad possibility is that they may have been willing to sacrifice the lives of the veterans who work for Wagner, in order to send Prigozhin a message. The message may have simply been that he should stay away from their battlefields when he’s not working with them. It may have been an attempt at retribution either for his reputed theft from military coffers, or his successful lawsuits over military contracts. Or given the recent history of Russian military corruption (Gorenburg 2016), it is also possible that it was an attempt to get Prigozhin to give military commanders a bigger share of his contract earnings.
Despite this tragedy, the events in Deir-el-Zour did not mark the end either of Wagner’s activities, or of its connection to Prigozhin. The Wagner Group is now believed to be working together with Prigozhin both in Sudan and in the neighboring Central African Republic (CAR), and Prigozhin and his forces may also be moving into Libya (Marten 2019a). In the cases of Sudan and CAR, it appears that private Russian firms associated with Prigozhin are gaining mining concessions (gold in Sudan, both diamonds and gold in CAR) in return for having Wagner train the African states’ security forces (Boussel and Sari 2018; Mironenko 2018) – and perhaps guard the mines.
In November 2017, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev publicly announced the signing of a contract for prospecting gold between the Sudanese government and a Russian private company called M-Invest. Russian investigative reporting revealed an overlap in management personnel between the recently founded St. Petersburg M-Invest ore extraction company, and one of Prigozhin’s military catering businesses, leading to the conclusion that M-Invest is probably a Prigozhin firm (Torgasheva 2018; Yakoreva 2018). Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir then publicly lauded Russia’s “exchanges of specialists” who were “preparing Sudanese military personnel” (Sudan Tribune 2018), and Komsomol’skaya Pravda journalist Aleksandr Kots posted a video to Twitter in December 2017 that he said was of a Russian PMC performing such training on the ground in Sudan.16 Several independent sources reported that these specialists were from the Wagner Group (BBC Russian Service 2017). Wagner troops may also be guarding the M-Invest mines in Sudan, although this is less clear (Marten 2019a). While there is no hint that the Russian military was involved in either the mining contract or the military training contract in Sudan, senior Russian and Sudanese staff officers had repeated public meetings in 2018 about various ways to expand defense cooperation between the two countries.
Meanwhile in December 2017, the Russian Foreign Ministry secured an exemption to a United Nations arms embargo against the embattled CAR, allowing Moscow to send in weapons and trainers to boost CAR security forces. Russia announced that it was sending in 170 civilian trainers, along with half a dozen regular military officers. A UN panel of experts reported that these instructors were training police in the use of Russian weapons, while also providing security for newly constructed Russian hospitals in the CAR and for the convoys bringing in building materials for those hospitals (Schreck 2018). Russian personnel were also reported by Russian press sources (with photographic evidence) to be providing personal security for President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and his administration – and by local CAR and French press sources to be providing security for Prigozhin’s mines (Baev 2018; Mironenko 2018). Prigozhin’s purported companies in CAR are named Lobaye Invest and Sewa Security. Lobaye Invest is directed by Yevgenii Khodotov, who was earlier associated with the St. Petersburg League of Veterans for the Struggle against Organized Crime, and the company is connected to Prigozhin’s Evro Polis firm through a St. Petersburg intermediary called M-Finans (Boussel and Sari 2018). Lobaye Invest is reportedly a daughter company of the M-Invest company doing gold mining in Sudan. CNN also discovered that M-Finans shares an email domain name with another one of Prigozhin’s military catering companies, Concord (Lister, Ilyushina, and Shukla 2018).
The CAR trainers are widely believed to be from Wagner, although there is no documentary proof of this (Kamakin 2018; Leviev 2018; Mironenko 2018; Schreck 2018). It is perhaps significant that the Russian ministry involved in this round of cooperation with Prigozhin and this apparent deployment of Wagner is the Foreign Ministry, not the Energy Ministry – a more standard instrument for military training and support deployments internationally – and that this time Wagner appears to be deployed alongside at least a few regular Russian officers.
It was the situation of Prigozhin and Wagner in CAR that the three murdered Russian filmmakers – all experienced war correspondents – had set out to investigate in July 2018. They did so under the auspices of the Investigations Management Center, an organization run by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky is the infamous former oligarch of the Yukos private oil conglomerate (and a former Russian Deputy Minister of Energy under Yel’tsin), whose assets Putin seized and whom Putin imprisoned for a decade and then forced into exile. Khodorkovsky is publicly trying to form a movement in Russia to unseat Putin. There is no question that the journalists in this case were seeking a scandal to report – and that Khodorkovsky has an incentive to portray their deaths as being connected to that purported scandal. There is of yet no clear evidence that they were killed because of their investigation.
Finally in November 2018 Prigozhin appeared on a Novaya Gazeta YouTube video, participating in a high-level meeting in Moscow between senior Russian military commanders and Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan National Army marshal who controls the eastern coastal region of Libya and sometimes challenges the UN-recognized Libyan government in Tripoli.17 In the video Prigozhin appears to be seated on the Russian side of a negotiating table, near Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. While Russian forces are widely reported to be on the ground in Libya, there is no evidence at this time that they are from Wagner. At a minimum, though, all of these 2018 African cases indicate that any rift between Prigozhin and the Defense Ministry has been mended (Marten 2019a).
Russia is unusual among strong states with highly professionalized militaries in its use of PMCs, because Moscow continues to tolerate PMCs operating from its territory that are not legally registered or controlled (and that are referred to frequently as being technically unconstitutional). The Wagner Group is not the only Russian PMC. But Wagner and its predecessors stand out because of the detailed reporting available about their involvement in so many significant events for Russian diplomacy and war: earlier in Nigeria and possibly Iraq, then in Ukraine and Syria, and now in Sudan and the CAR. What can we learn from the Wagner history, and what does this tell us about Russia’s motives in deploying PMCs abroad without legally recognizing them?
First, the Russian state has frequently used Wagner and its predecessors in the same ways that other rational states use PMCs: to save costs, to avoid military conscript casualties, and for reasons of plausible deniability. These patterns were especially marked in Russia’s major military conflicts of recent years, in eastern Ukraine and in Syria. In eastern Ukraine in particular, the Russia state has tried to deny its direct military involvement (Allison 2014; McDermott 2015), giving PMCs such as Wagner an important role in Putin’s information war campaign. In Syria, while the Russian state was proud of its military involvement, Putin had a strong interest in leading the Russian population to believe that the war was both low cost and low danger for Russia, once again providing an important role for PMCs such as Wagner that could operate quietly.
With time, though, plausible deniability became harder and harder to achieve, because journalists (both Russian and foreign) were able to obtain photos, documents, and interviews that told reliable stories of Wagner’s involvement abroad. Whatever use Wagner continues to be for the Russian state today, it would be difficult to argue that at this point plausible deniability is still a major reason for its deployment.
Second, with time it appears that Wagner (or perhaps, in Africa, some other PMC that is being funded by Wagner’s patron Yevgenii Prigozhin) is being used for another purpose entirely: to blur the distinction between state-supported military activities abroad, and the private use of force abroad by an oligarch with a criminal past who is connected to Putin. The first hint of this occurred with the activities of the short-lived Slavonic Corps in Syria (where there was no evidence of Prigozhin’s involvement), when an FSB reserves officer and a Russian military airfield were apparently involved in supporting a private contract. In 2018 this expanded drastically, playing out in Syria, Sudan, and the CAR (and perhaps has started in Libya). That kind of blurring has been frequently practiced by corrupt post-colonial regimes, but it is not expected of today’s great powers who have strong civilian control over their military forces. During the Cold War, and more recently in Iraq, critics certainly accused the United States and its allies of becoming miltiarily involved abroad for the sake of private business profit. But that is different conceptually from what appears to have happened with Prigozhin and Wagner in Syria and Africa, where private command over the seizure or guarding of extraction concessions became intermixed with the command of military force, including in the African cases with Russian state training of foreign troops.
Third, Moscow has blown hot and cold in its treatment of Wagner and its predecessors. When the operational group was legally recognized as a PSC helping Russian state commercial interests – namely, the case of Moran in Nigeria – the Russian state was happy to come to its assistance. The Foreign Ministry bailed its guards out of a Nigerian jail and negotiated their safe passage home. When that same PSC spawned a PMC (the Slavonic Corps), though, which operated for private profit – even one that appeared to be operating with FSB and Defense Ministry knowledge – the state took coercive measures against it, for unknown reasons. Yet the state then allowed Wagner – also a PMC – to train next door to a GRU facility on Russian territory. It gave this PMC’s leaders military medals for service and bravery, and buried this PMC’s forces with military honors for their work in both eastern Ukraine and Syria. When this same Wagner Group signed a private (but Russian Energy Ministry–supported) contract for oil-related activities in Syria, the Russian uniformed command seemed to allow one of the group’s units to go blithely to its death in attacking a US-supported Kurdish base in Deir-el-Zour, rather than warning it about a US counterstrike, even though eventually the wounded Wagner fighters were flown home on Russian military planes to Russian military hospitals. That followed a period when funds for Wagner dried up, and when its funder, Yevgenii Prigozhin, had to go to court to get the Russian Defense Ministry to pay up on contracts he had signed with it. Nonetheless Prigozhin was back in the saddle in Sudan and the CAR, with good evidence that Wagner or some other Russian PMC forces accompanied him both to guard his gold and diamond mining concessions in Africa, and to train Sudanese and CAR military forces. He then appeared in what seemed to be a negotiation with a Libyan strongman, alongside Russian military leaders.
Taken together, these points suggest that it is the corrupt informal network explanation that provides a more complete understanding for Russia’s continuing use of groups like Wagner, and for its decision not to legalize PMCs as of yet. They also suggest that while at times Wagner may work on behalf of rational state interests, at times it also embroils the Russian state in both physical and reputational risks that a rational state might want to avoid.
An analyst from the General Staff Academy who opposes legalization argues that Russia’s laws are used and abused by the rich and powerful, who could twist things in their own favor if PMCs were made legal (Gracheva 2015). But by keeping PMCs illegal, Russian state institutions have a ready-made excuse to employ – or not – an alternative set of enforcement mechanisms to keep groups like Wagner in line. At any time, those associated with Wagner can be prosecuted for illegal mercenary behavior. And at any time, Russian military forces can deny them protection in the field. But illegality can also be overlooked when regime leaders benefit from PMC activity.
In the end, Rogov’s and Ledeneva’s arguments about how the overall Russian political system works on illegality and kompromat (compromising material) seems to carry the day in explaining the state’s relationship with PMCs. The conditions under which the Putin regime and its various bureaucracies choose either to protect and laud PMCs – or alternatively, to hang them out to dry – remain opaque to outsiders. We can guess, though, that those involved at the highest levels of this form of “negotiation” have a better understanding of both the rules, and the stakes, that are actually involved.