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The Wagner Group: Putin’s ‘chef,’ a Nazi-obsessed commando, and the story of the Kremlin’s private army

For years, Wagner’s mercenaries have lived in the shadows. Now they are in the spotlight of the war in Ukraine.

Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating

Global Security Reporter

October 4, 2022

Officially, Wagner Group does not exist. The now globally infamous private military contractor (PMC), which has operated in nearly 30 countries and taken on a major role in the war in Ukraine, is not actually a registered company in Russia or anywhere else. In fact, PMCs like Wagner are illegal in Russia. And yet Wagner Group has been an essential and controversial piece of the battlefield equation for the Kremlin in its war against Ukraine.

The Russian government has denied any connection to Wagner and rarely acknowledged its existence. For the Russian state, Wagner Group’s secrecy was the point: Its mercenaries could be deployed anywhere, with a minimum of accountability and a maximum of plausible deniability.

Lately, however, the group has been getting a lot more visible. As Russia’s regular military forces began to suffer heavy losses in Ukraine, Wagner began recruiting more openly, posting billboards, social media ads and slick videos promising aspiring fighters glamour, adventure and even an “unforgettable summer with new friends.” Russia’s state-run media outlets are now openly discussing and celebrating Wagner’s activities, not just in Ukraine but around the world. Some 1,000 mercenaries, including senior leaders of the group, were deployed to Ukraine in March, according to Western officials. Since then, they’ve suffered heavy losses but also recruited heavily, making it difficult to know their current strength.

More dramatic has been the emergence, as a public figure, of Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch with close connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin who is widely believed to be Wagner’s financier. Videos circulating on Russian social media have shown Prigozhin in distinctly Putin-esque “man of action” mode, meeting with troops on the front lines. Another video that emerged in mid-September showed him recruiting inmates at a prison, promising convicts their release in exchange for a six month tour of duty in Ukraine.

Prigozhin shocked many by issuing a statement on Sept. 26 saying, for the first time, that he had founded Wagner Group in 2014. This was a remarkable shift for a man who just a few months ago was suing an investigative journalist in British court for suggesting he was involved in any way with Wagner.

The spotlight on Wagner comes as the Kremlin is facing a moment of deep uncertainty following its recent battlefield setbacks, a chaotic troop mobilization and a sudden exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russians. It has fed speculation that Prigozhin may be eyeing a position of more prominence in the Russian power structure. That’s still very uncertain, but it is worth looking at how a group that was built to remain in the shadows has become Russia’s public face in many parts of the world.

Wagner’s overture

The facts about how Wagner was created are all a little murky and sometimes contradictory. It doesn’t help that Russian military contractors have a habit of rebranding and spinning off new entities with new names. And the company’s unofficial status makes it hard to figure exactly who and what the company is.

“Wagner is not registered itself,” Joana de Deus Pereira, a senior fellow at the United Kingdom’s Royal United Services Institute, told Grid. “It is financially supported by an octopus-like combination of several companies.”

The organization seems to have evolved out of several private security companies including one, the Slavonic Corps, which was contracted by the Syrian government in 2013 for an ill-fated mission to help the country’s beleaguered military retake oil facilities from the Islamic State.

One of the Slavonic Corps contractors was Dmitry Utkin, who had served in both Chechen Wars as an officer in the Russian special forces. According to Russian investigative journalists, Utkin had an enthusiasm for Nazi aesthetics and ideology, and was thus given the nom de guerre “Wagner” after Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer.

By 2014, Utkin was fighting in Ukraine, commanding a new organization known as PMC Wagner. According to the official story — to the extent an unofficial organization can have an official story — Utkin founded the company, but according to a 2020 Bellingcat investigation, based on public records from that era, it is “implausible that Utkin was anything but a hired gun to provide the ‘private army’ project a public-facing legend.”

Experts say all the legends and mystique around Wagner disguise a more pedestrian reality. “Rather than thinking of the Wagner Group as an ‘organization’ or as something equivalent to a Western private military company, we should think of it as a contracting mechanism for the Russian Defense Ministry and the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency,” Kimberly Marten, a professor at Columbia University and Barnard College who has written an extensive history of the company’s early years, told Grid.

In other words, when the Kremlin needs more troops, but doesn’t want to take full responsibility for them, it calls on Wagner.

What the “chef” is cooking

Sixty-one-year-old Prigozhin, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, spent most of the 1980s in jail on robbery, fraud and prostitution charges but reinvented himself after his release, starting with a chain of hot dog stands that grew into a successful catering company. Today, that company is a multibillion-dollar enterprise providing meals for Russian military units, schools and hospitals.

Prigozhin has earned the nickname, “Putin’s Chef” for catering events for the Kremlin, including a 2006 dinner with President George W. Bush. But his business interests and his relationship with the Kremlin go far beyond pouring wine and passing out canapés. Prigozhin is perhaps best known in the U.S. for his alleged ties to the Internet Research Agency, the infamous St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” that U.S. authorities say spread misinformation in the United States during the 2016 presidential election. He has been sanctioned by the U.S. for these activities.

According to Prigozhin’s recent statements, he was inspired to start Wagner Group in 2014 after seeing pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine. He says he personally “cleaned the old weapons, figured out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this.” A 2019 report from the Russian investigative site, the Bell, tells a different story. According to the Bell’s sources, the idea for a private, deniable military contractor came from high-ranking officials at the Russian defense ministry who selected Prigozhin to run it, given his preexisting relationship with the military. In Putin’s Russia, Kremlin-connected oligarchs often don’t have much choice about which initiatives they fund.

However Prigozhin’s relationship with Wagner began, he — far more than Utkin — is now the figure most associated with the group. Prigozhin was first sanctioned by the U.S. in 2016 for his activities in Ukraine, and a host of other American and European sanctions have followed since.

Wagner goes global

Wagner fighters were reportedly among the “polite people” or “little green men” — the unidentified special forces troops who carried out Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. They provided support to pro-Russian separatists fighting the Ukrainian military in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as well.

While the group was almost certainly taking its marching orders from Moscow, Wagner helped the Kremlin — which at the time was denying that any Russian military personnel were in Ukraine — to maintain plausible deniability. Another advantage: It allowed the government to avoid politically problematic casualties within the Russian armed forces. And Wagner fighters, who often had backgrounds in the military or special forces, were often used for some of the most dangerous infantry assignments.

Wagner’s reach soon spread beyond Ukraine. It has been operating in Syria since 2015, including serving as “shock troops” in the retaking of the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State. The bloodiest day in the company’s history came in 2018, when U.S. forces launched airstrikes on pro-regime forces who had been moving toward Kurdish positions near Deir al-Zour, Syria, killing an estimated 300 Russians who were believed to have been working for Wagner. In some respects, it was an historic incident: even in the worst years of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet forces avoided direct military combat. But it was quickly swept under the rug: plausible deniability at work again.

All in all, Wagner is believed to have operated in as many as 30 countries in four continents, from Venezuela to Afghanistan to Indonesia, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Most of its contracts have been in Africa. Wagner fighters have participated in Libya’s civil war on behalf of Moscow’s preferred side: the forces led by rebel Gen. Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army. In both the Central African Republic and Sudan, Wagner has been hired by the government for security services, while other companies linked to Prigozhin have been granted gold and diamond mining concessions. Former U.S. diplomat Elizabeth Shackleford told Grid earlier this year that in contrast to U.S. security support which often comes with at least some oversight and human rights requirements, “What you get with Wagner Group is quite simple. You’re basically trading commodities for security assistance.”

It’s not just that Wagner is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. It is widely believed to be actively participating in them. Wagner fighters have been accused by human rights groups of massacring civilians in Malicommitting rape and massacring civilians in the Central African Republiclaying mines in civilian areas in Libya and torturing detainees in Syria. In 2018, three Russian journalists investigating the company were killed in the Central African Republic.

Wagner has also often served as a sort of proxy for Russia in the contest for influence across Africa with the U.S. and Europe. The Malian government’s decision to start talks with Wagner in 2018 was one factor that led the French military to end its counterterrorism mission in the country.

Despite all the controversy that surrounds it, Wagner does have its supporters. According to the Associated Press, backers of Ibrahim Traore, the army captain who carried out a coup in Burkina Faso this week, waved Russian flags in the street calling for Wagner to help the country fight jihadists in neighboring Mali.

The war in Ukraine: Wagner returns to its roots

These days, Russia can’t afford to let Wagner be an all-purpose agent of geopolitical influence. According to U.S. and British defense officials, the company has been drawing forces down from Africa and Syria to help with the fight in Ukraine.

In eastern Ukraine, Wagner has been part of a hodgepodge of Russian forces that includes the actual military as well as local separatist militias. Wagner is believed to have played a role in several key battles in Ukraine’s Donbas region over the summer — including the capture of the cities of Lysychansk and Popasna — and is thought to have suffered heavy casualties in the process.

“They’re clearly hemorrhaging fighters,” Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, who has been monitoring their activities on social media, told Grid. “Attrition on the battlefield is taking a toll not only on the Russian military, but also more on Wagner more specifically,” he said.

These losses may have led the group to lower its recruitment standards, as shown most dramatically by its recruitment in Russian prisons. One prisoner told CNN in August, “They will accept murderers, but not rapists, pedophiles, extremists or terrorists.”

Ukrainian soldiers defending the city of Bakhmut, which has come under attack from Wagner and other Russian forces in recent weeks even as the Russians have retreated elsewhere, say Wagner’s mercenaries send the convicts forward as “cannon fodder.”

As in other parts of the world, Wagner fighters have been accused of atrocities in Ukraine. In May, two alleged Wagner fighters from Belarus, accused of murdering civilians near Kyiv, became the first international mercenaries to be charged by prosecutors with war crimes in Ukraine. Wagner’s activities are also a key plank in the case made by some American lawmakers to label the Russian government a state sponsor of terrorism.

But Columbia’s Marten says it’s a mistake to see the Russian government as a sponsor of Wagner. She argues that they should be viewed as one and the same.

“We see reports from the BBC and others about Wagner Group atrocities in Ukraine, but it’s often when they’re serving side by side with Russian regular forces who are committing the same atrocities,” she said. “That doesn’t mean Wagner isn’t important, but I think what’s really important are the terrible things that the Russian military is doing.”

Wagner’s next movement

For a long time, the first rule of Wagner Group was that the Russian government did not talk about Wagner Group. The deniability was the point. So what does it mean when a group like that comes out of the shadows?

Clarke said Wagner’s activities in Ukraine have made it clearer than ever that it’s simply an arm of the Kremlin. “Yeah, they’re a military contractor, but it’s not like they can say no [to the Russian government.] I think it makes them look less special than they used to be. I wonder if it will tarnish their brand as this shadowy PMC. I think that’s going to cause them some trouble in recruiting.”

Clarke thinks it’s possible Wagner could simply rebrand or morph into a new entity. This is something PMCs, not just Russian ones, are known for: The notorious American company once known as Blackwater became Xe, then Academi, and now operates under the name Constellis.

On the other hand, Prigozhin may not want to return to the shadows at this point. This week, he took the surprising step of publicly supporting remarks made by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, criticizing Russia’s military leaders for failures in Ukraine. Prigozhin is reportedly very unpopular among military commanders, but some Russian military bloggers, who have emerged as surprisingly potent voices of hawkish criticism of the war effort, have suggested he should replace Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Prigozhin has avoided any criticism of Putin himself. Pavel Luzin, a Russian political analyst who is now a visiting scholar at Tufts University, told Grid that the Wagner boss is likely “trying to save his ass through this publicity. He is trying to demonstrate his exceptionality among other domestic actors and his complete personal loyalty to Putin himself.”

Someone seems likely to take the fall for Russia’s military failures. The “chef” seems to be positioning himself to take advantage.

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