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Wagner Group

Updated: Aug 28, 2023


Group Overview


The ‘BTG Wagner Group’ (Battle Tactical Group Wagner; also known as Wagner Group or PMC Wagner) is a Russian mercenary group formed in response to the 2014 conflict in the Donbas Region of Ukraine – during which pro-Russian separatists fought for the secession of the area (1).


The mercenary group was established on the 1st of May 2014 by Dmitry Utkin, a former member of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie – GRU) and bankrolled by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Legally and officially, the Wagner Group does not exist in Russia due to Article 359 of the Russian criminal code which holds a constitutional ban on the “Recruitment, training, financing, or any other material provision of a mercenary” as well as the “Participation by a mercenary in an armed conflict or hostilities.” (2)


Despite this ban, the group has been referred to as a ‘quasi-state actor’ due to its alleged links to the Kremlin (3). These allegations stem from the fact that Wagner’s Molkin base (in the Krasnodar region of Russia) sits adjacent to the base of the GRU’s 10th Separate Special Purpose Brigade (4). Although its objectives are relatively obscure and concealed, Wagner tends to operate in resource-rich nations through which Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mining companies are often granted concessions. Furthermore, the group's objectives often align with the Kremlin’s foreign policy ambitions, with the Group operating in the Middle East, Latin America, Europe and Africa (5).


History & Foundations


Although the origins of the group are contested, prominent scholars have linked the genesis of the Wagner group to a company named ‘Antiterror-Orel’, which undertook security operations for Russian businesses in Iraq. (6) A branch of Antiterror-Oral, the ‘Moran Security Group’ was tasked by the Bashar Al-Assad government in Syria to fight against Islamic State militants (7). Additionally, Moran group members provided security to Russian port facilities, oil tankers, as well as off-shore oil rigs. (8) The Syrian contract resulted in the Moran Security Group establishing a separate entity, the ‘Slavonic Corps’. (9) The Slavonic Corps deployed in 2013 and a series of logistical failures pitted its first combat mission against US-backed Kurdish forces at the Conoco gas plant near Deir al-Zour, in Syria’s eastern region (10). A series of devastating air strikes called in by US forces resulted in massive losses within the Slavonic Corps’ ranks. The humiliation of the defeat led to two of the Corps leaders, Vadim Gusev and Yevgenii Sidorov, being convicted under Russian criminal law for mercenary activities in addition to the dissolution of the Company. (11)(12)


Dmitry Utkin, a former GRU member, Moran Security Group officer and prominent neo-nazi participated in the battle of Deir al-Zour under the authority of the Slavonic Corps (13). After the defeat, Utkin returned to Russia. Utkin’s drive to found the Wagner group was notably influenced by the onset of separatist conflict in Ukraine's Donbas region in 2014 and the financial backing of Yevgeny Prigozhin (the aforementioned oligarch). The name of the Wagner Group is derived from Utkin's former GRU callsign – ‘Vagner (14).’


Military Involvement & Political Abilities


Due to the ban on Private Military Companies (PMCs) under the Russian constitution, the Wagner Group does not formally exist nor is it officially recognised (15). The Russian invasion of Ukraine however, has brought Wagner into international focus, and its links to the Kremlin are becoming increasingly uncovered. These links became most clear through Prigozhin’s online rants, in which he shamed Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu for the lack of ammunition for his troops. (16) Furthermore, the United Nations Geneva and Mercenary conventions illustrate the difficulty the international community faces in attempts to prosecute mercenary groups. As of August 2021, only 46 of 191 member states ratified the convention due to many states funding their own PMC/PSC groups, such as the United States ‘ACADEMI’ group, formally known as Blackwater. (17) Moreover, nations such as Belarus have signed the convention but continue to train and deploy mercenaries. (18)



A series of legal loopholes around Russian companies' permittance to maintain private armed security forces has enabled regular Russian citizens to work for PMCs. Moreover, PMC deaths are not reported by the Ministry of Defence as they operate outside of the regular Russian Armed Forces (19). Some analysts have claimed that the Kremlin exploits these legal loopholes in order to deny Russian involvement in unstable states and proxy conflicts. (20) As seen in the ongoing war in Ukraine, Wagner sought to recruit prisoners in exchange for diminished sentences and/or pardons. As a result of this tactic, Wagner has seen massive losses within its ranks due to the limited training and morale of the prisoner recruits. From this, the term ‘cannon-fodder’ was coined by Ukrainian media outlets due to the group's strategy of sending swaths of untrained recruits to overwhelm Ukrainian positions. Among troops, this is called being sent to the ‘meat-grinder.’ (21)


The case of Sudan, for instance, provides a significant insight into the complex relationship between Wagner, Prigozhin's economic ambitions, and the Kremlin's geopolitical priorities. Wagner's assistance in putting down anti-government protests in 2017 compelled then-president Omar al-Bashir to grant mining concessions to the Prigozhin-owned company, M-Invest (22). These concessions and the resulting flow of gold into the Russian economy lessened the blow of US sanctions after its 2014 invasion of Crimea (23). Furthermore, months before his toppling, al-Bashir proposed a plan to establish a Russian naval base on the Red Sea near Port Sudan (24).


The Wagner Group’s contracts are often based on direct combat engagement, although the group has also been involved in weapons transfers, logistical support and information operations (25). In 2022, Prigozhin was identified as a primary funder of the Russian disinformation outlet – the ‘Internet Research Agency’ – which is ambiguously claimed to have attempted to influence the 2016 US Presidential elections (26). The group’s ‘quasi-state actor’ label is the result of its alleged interconnected relationship with President Putin and the Kremlin (27).


Approach to Resistance


Acting as a private military, Wagner takes up conventional arms against whoever they are contracted against. However, Wagner members are more than mere ‘soldiers of fortune’; Wagner’s organisational structure and alleged ties to the Kremlin mean that Wagner is highly unlikely to enter a conflict on the side of a group or state that runs counter to Russia’s Geopolitical priorities or Prigozhin’s economic ambitions (28). This train of thought continued until June 27th of this year, when Prigozin and his Wagnerites moved on Rostov-on-Don, a strategic city in Russia's Rostov Oblast. (29) The city lies 32 kilometres from the Sea of Azov and is the base of the Russian Southern Military District, which contains the 58th combined arms Army - making it a “key logistical hub during the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive.” (30) The 23-hour ‘Wagner Rebellion’ came as the result of Prigozhin's continuous battle with Russian military elites over a lack of ammunition as well as a lack of recognition of the efforts of his troops in the conflict. (31) In a series of online rants released by Prigozhin, he remained careful to direct his grievances towards Russia's Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu and Russian Army General Valery Gerasimov. “The children of elites…allow themselves to lead a public, fat, carefree life while the children of others arrive back shredded to pieces in zinc coffins,” Prigozhin said in one of his diatribes. (32) Previously, Prigozhin had a relatively good relationship with former Commander of the Russian Forces, Sergei Surovikin, being reportedly united through their grievances against Shoigu. (33) As Gerasimov replaced Surovikin as Commander, Wagner's ammunition stores dried up, with Prigozhin claiming anonymous Russian Generals had to break military code to supply the group with further ammunition. (34)



Although the rebellion lasted only 23 hours, the Kremlin moved quickly to Transport Prigozhin and the remaining Wagner troops to Belarus to await redeployment to Africa and the Middle East. (35) Furthermore, on August 22nd, Prigozhin appeared in an undisclosed African nation claiming “we are working.. The Wagner Group conducts reconnaissance and search activities. Makes Russia even greater on all continents! And Africa more free. Justice and Happiness for the African Peoples. Nightmare of “ISIS “Al-Qaeda” and other gangsters.” (36) Despite this, Wagner has seen tremendous losses while fighting against the Islamic State, as seen in their failed operation in the Cabo Delgado Province of Mozambique, in which an estimated dozen wagner fighters were killed by Islamic insurgents in addition to, the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces eliminating a handful in friendly fire events. (37)


Furthermore, the Wagner Group is highly equipped and it utilises a variety of weapons, ranging from small arms such as the AK-74 and AKM rifles, to heavier arms such as the GP-25/30 grenade launcher, the RPK-74 light machine gun and SVD Dragunov rifle (38). In Africa, the group has utilised the AK-103 rifle as well as 120mm round Mortars. The Wagner Group has also been accused of committing various war crimes in the nations in which they operate (39), notably in the Central African Republic, where Human Rights Watch claims the group has beaten, tortured, and executed civilians.


In Mali, Wagner utilises anti-western propaganda to prop up the nations Military leader Assimi Goita, who gained power through a 2021 coup, while in the Central African Republic (CAR) Wagner conducts counter-insurgency operations against Jihadists and local rebels and by doing so gains access to lucrative mining contracts. In Africa, Wagner employs a multifaceted strategic approach to influence local politics and prop up the group financially. (40)


The contracts Wagner holds with the Nations of Mali, Sudan and the CAR allows the Kremlin to circumvent international sanctions and in turn, continue to fund their war in Ukraine. A US intelligence assessment of the group leaked by former US Airman Jack Teixeria, stated “The Wagner Group is moving aggressively to establish a 'confederation' of anti-Western states in Africa as the Russian mercenaries foment instability while using their paramilitary and disinformation capabilities to bolster Moscow’s allies [...] expanding its presence and ambitions on that continent even as the war in Ukraine has become a grinding [...] problem for the Kremlin.” (41)


International Missions, Alliances & Relations


Wagner currently operates in Syria, Libya, Madagascar, Sudan, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Ukraine, Mali, and the Central African Republic. The pivot to Africa comes as Russia seeks to destabilise the Western foothold in the continent, as seen in Wagner's entrance into the CAR after the French pulled out their 2000-strong counter-insurgency force from the nation and the “UN granted exception to the arms embargo, [after which] Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in October 2017.” (42)


Previously, it has fought for the Kremlin-friendly Libyan National Army, and as aforementioned, propped up the forces of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir (43). The Syrian case highlights the complexities of the alleged Kremlin-Wagner relationship as seen in a 2018 contract between Evro Polis, a Prigozhin-linked firm and the Syrian Government-owned General Petroleum Company (44). The contract marks out that for every petroleum facility retaken from Islamic State forces, Evro Polis is entitled to receive 25% of the petroleum output from said facilities (45). These forces have been reported to regularly use Russian military aircraft to fly to and from Syria (46).


This ‘resource concessions for protection and training’ strategy has enabled Prigozhin’s Wagner Group to enter various African states and receive mining concessions, as well as entrench Russian influence in the region (47). This two-track approach serves to benefit the Kremlin, Wagner operatives and Prigozhin himself. Additionally, these resource concessions create an unsanctioned stream of income, which, as aforementioned, can prop up the Russian economy when the nation finds itself subject to Western sanctions (48). Additionally, around 400 members of the Wagner Group have also been reported to be covertly protecting Venezuela’s leader – Nicolas Maduro (49).


On the morning of August 24th, exactly two months after Wagner's attempted march on Moscow, an Embraer 135 Jet carrying Prigozhin, Utkin and eight others crashed in Russia’s Tver Oblast, killing all on board. (50) What caused the Jet to crash has not yet been determined.


However, the withdrawal of Wagner from Ukraine is likely to be felt by the remaining forces, as analysts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) claim, “The deployment of Wagner Group private military contractors to the front lines in eastern Ukraine in 2023 has further highlighted the poor performance of Russian ground forces, as well as the political risks of a full-scale Russian mobilisation. Consequently, a partially bruised and demoralised Russian army sits behind the extensive fortifications, which may present opportunities for Ukraine. Furthermore, the Russian military likely does not have enough high-quality forces to defend all parts of the line. The 70 combat regiments and brigades Russia has in Ukraine will likely not be sufficient to form a large mobile reserve, even if Russia commands enough soldiers to adequately staff its fortifications. The lack of a strong mobile reserve means that Russia will be hard-pressed to surge forces to fill gaps in its lines, station forces in second-echelon defensive positions, and conduct counterattacks according to its defensive doctrine.” (51) With the deaths of the groups founder and leader, the Future of Wagner in Africa is now called into question.



Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - "Russia: Businessman Prigozhin Confirms He Founded Wagner Group." Asia News Monitor, Sep 28, 2022. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/russia-businessman-prigozhin-confirms-he-founded/docview/2718163202/se-2.

(2) - Lohmus, Erik Herbert, "The Role of the Wagner Group in the Russo-Ukrainian War" (2023). CMC Senior Theses. 3366. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/3366

(3) - Christopher Faulkner, “Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group’s Nefarious Activities in Africa,” Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel 15, no. 6 (2022): 28–35.

(4) - András Rácz, “Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State,” www.csis.org, September 21, 2020, https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/band-brothers-wagner-group-and-russian-state.

(5) - "Russia: Businessman Prigozhin Confirms He Founded Wagner Group." Asia News Monitor, Sep 28, 2022. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/russia-businessman-prigozhin-confirms-he-founded/docview/2718163202/se-2.

(6) - Lohmus, Erik Herbert, "The Role of the Wagner Group in the Russo-Ukrainian War" (2023). CMC Senior Theses. 3366. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/3366

(7) - András Rácz, “Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State,” www.csis.org, September 21, 2020, https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/band-brothers-wagner-group-and-russian-state.

(8) - Lohmus, Erik Herbert, "The Role of the Wagner Group in the Russo-Ukrainian War" (2023). CMC Senior Theses. 3366. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/3366

(9) - Kimberly Marten, “The Puzzle of Russian Behavior in Deir Al-Zour,” War on the Rocks, July 5, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/07/the-puzzle-of-russian-behavior-in-deir-al-zour/.

(10) - Kimberly Marten, “The Puzzle of Russian Behavior in Deir Al-Zour,” War on the Rocks, July 5, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/07/the-puzzle-of-russian-behavior-in-deir-al-zour/.

(11) - Lohmus, Erik Herbert, "The Role of the Wagner Group in the Russo-Ukrainian War" (2023). CMC Senior Theses. 3366. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/3366

(12) - Lohmus, Erik Herbert, "The Role of the Wagner Group in the Russo-Ukrainian War" (2023). CMC Senior Theses. 3366. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/3366

(13) - András Rácz, “Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State,” www.csis.org, September 21, 2020, https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/band-brothers-wagner-group-and-russian-state.

(14) - András Rácz, “Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State,” www.csis.org, September 21, 2020, https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/band-brothers-wagner-group-and-russian-state.

(15) - Kimberly Marten, “Russia’s Use of Semi-State Security Forces: The Case of the Wagner Group,” Post-Soviet Affairs 35, no. 3 (March 26, 2019): 181–204, https://doi.org/10.1080/1060586x.2019.1591142.

(16) - Clarke, C., 2023. Bad Company: Wagner Group and Prigozhin at Crossroads in Ukraine. United States of America. Retrieved from https://policycommons.net/artifacts/4110964/bad-company/4919225/ on 17 Aug 2023. CID: 20.500.12592/jvk255.

(17) - De Melo, R. (2023). The Implications of the Wagner group in Africa and the Middle East. The Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare, 6(1), 53–57.

(18) - De Melo, R. (2023). The Implications of the Wagner group in Africa and the Middle East. The Journal of Intelligence, Conflict, and Warfare, 6(1), 53–57. https://doi.org/10.21810/jicw.v6i1.5405

(19) - András Rácz, “Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State,” www.csis.org, September 21, 2020, https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/band-brothers-wagner-group-and-russian-state.

(20) - András Rácz, “Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State,” www.csis.org, September 21, 2020, https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/band-brothers-wagner-group-and-russian-state.

(21) - Lohmus, Erik Herbert, "The Role of the Wagner Group in the Russo-Ukrainian War" (2023). CMC Senior Theses. 3366. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/3366

(22) - Saini Fasanotti, Federica. Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa: Influence, Commercial Concessions, Rights Violations, and Counterinsurgency Failure. Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2022. https://www.proquest.com/blogs-podcasts-websites/russia-s-wagner-group-africa-influence-commercial/docview/2626352637/se-2.

(23) - Christopher Faulkner, “Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group’s Nefarious Activities in Africa,” Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel 15, no. 6 (2022): 28–35.

(24) - Saini Fasanotti, Federica. Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa: Influence, Commercial Concessions, Rights Violations, and Counterinsurgency Failure. Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2022. https://www.proquest.com/blogs-podcasts-websites/russia-s-wagner-group-africa-influence-commercial/docview/2626352637/se-2.

(25) - Christopher Faulkner, “Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group’s Nefarious Activities in Africa,” Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel 15, no. 6 (2022): 28–35.

(26) - Alexander Rabin, “Diplomacy and Dividends: Who Really Controls the Wagner Group? - Foreign Policy Research Institute,” https://www.fpri.org/, August 2019, https://www.fpri.org/article/2019/10/diplomacy-and-dividends-who-really-controls-the-wagner-group/.

(27) - Kimberly Marten, “Russia’s Use of Semi-State Security Forces: The Case of the Wagner Group,” Post-Soviet Affairs 35, no. 3 (March 26, 2019): 181–204, https://doi.org/10.1080/1060586x.2019.1591142.

(28) - Alexander Rabin, “Diplomacy and Dividends: Who Really Controls the Wagner Group? - Foreign Policy Research Institute,” https://www.fpri.org/, August 2019, https://www.fpri.org/article/2019/10/diplomacy-and-dividends-who-really-controls-the-wagner-group/.

(29) - Oxford Analytica (2023), "Prigozhin’s failed mutiny will weaken Putin", Expert Briefings.

https://doi.org/10.1108/OXAN-DB280072

(30) - Douglas Busvine, Gabriel Gavin and Zoya Sheftalovich (2023), “Wagner Rebels career toward showdown with Putin as they push to Moscow”, Politico.

(31) - Clarke, C., 2023. Bad Company: Wagner Group and Prigozhin at Crossroads in Ukraine. United States of America. Retrieved from https://policycommons.net/artifacts/4110964/bad-company/4919225/ on 24 Aug 2023. CID: 20.500.12592/jvk255.

(32) - Clarke, C., 2023. Bad Company: Wagner Group and Prigozhin at Crossroads in Ukraine. United States of America. Retrieved from https://policycommons.net/artifacts/4110964/bad-company/4919225/ on 24 Aug 2023. CID: 20.500.12592/jvk255.

(33) - Lohmus, Erik Herbert, "The Role of the Wagner Group in the Russo-Ukrainian War" (2023). CMC Senior Theses. 3366. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/3366

(34) - Lohmus, Erik Herbert, "The Role of the Wagner Group in the Russo-Ukrainian War" (2023). CMC Senior Theses. 3366. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/3366

(35) - https://www.brookings.edu/articles/what-is-the-fallout-of-russias-wagner-rebellion/

(36) - Atlas News, (2023) “The Boys (Wagner) Are Back in Town (Africa).

(37) - Dziedzic, Michael. "UN Peacekeeping Will Be Paralyzed as Long as Putin Is in Power: What Can the US and nato Do about It?", Journal of International Peacekeeping 26, 1 (2023): 1-30, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/18754112-26010002

(38) - Travis Pike, “The Guns and Gear of Wagner Group,” GAT Daily (Guns Ammo Tactical), February 10, 2022, https://gatdaily.com/the-guns-and-gear-of-wagner-group/.

(39) - Travis Pike, “The Guns and Gear of Wagner Group,” GAT Daily (Guns Ammo Tactical), February 10, 2022, https://gatdaily.com/the-guns-and-gear-of-wagner-group/.

(40) - Dziedzic, Michael. "UN Peacekeeping Will Be Paralyzed as Long as Putin Is in Power: What Can the US and nato Do about It?", Journal of International Peacekeeping 26, 1 (2023): 1-30, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/18754112-26010002

(41) - Dziedzic, Michael. "UN Peacekeeping Will Be Paralyzed as Long as Putin Is in Power: What Can the US and nato Do about It?", Journal of International Peacekeeping 26, 1 (2023): 1-30, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/18754112-26010002

(42) - Dziedzic, Michael. "UN Peacekeeping Will Be Paralyzed as Long as Putin Is in Power: What Can the US and nato Do about It?", Journal of International Peacekeeping 26, 1 (2023): 1-30, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/18754112-26010002

(43) - Christopher Faulkner, “Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group’s Nefarious Activities in Africa,” Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel 15, no. 6 (2022): 28–35.

(44) - Alexander Rabin, “Diplomacy and Dividends: Who Really Controls the Wagner Group? - Foreign Policy Research Institute,” https://www.fpri.org/, August 2019, https://www.fpri.org/article/2019/10/diplomacy-and-dividends-who-really-controls-the-wagner-group/.

(45) - Christopher Faulkner, “Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group’s Nefarious Activities in Africa,” Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel 15, no. 6 (2022): 28–35.

(46) - András Rácz, “Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State,” www.csis.org, September 21, 2020, https://www.csis.org/blogs/post-soviet-post/band-brothers-wagner-group-and-russian-state.

(47) - Christopher Faulkner, “Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group’s Nefarious Activities in Africa,” Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel 15, no. 6 (2022): 28–35.

(48) - Christopher Faulkner, “Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Clients: The Wagner Group’s Nefarious Activities in Africa,” Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel 15, no. 6 (2022): 28–35.

(49) - Tsvetkova, Maria, and Anton Zverev. “Exclusive: Kremlin-Linked Contractors Help Guard Venezuela's Maduro - Sources.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, January 25, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-russia-exclusive-idUSKCN1PJ22M.

(50) - OurWarsToday (2023), “Russian state services and Wagner channels confirm Prigozhin and Utkin deaths.” Atlas News.

(51) - Jones, Seth G., Alexander Palmer, and Joseph S. Bermudez. “Ukraine’s Offensive Operations: Shifting the Offense-Defense Balance.” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 2023. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep50629.

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