By subcontracting high-risk and experimental operations in fragile states to the Wagner Group, the Kremlin obtains a screen of plausible deniability and avoids public scrutiny of combat losses.
London: If you want to find Russia’s most secret training ground, go to the small town of Molkino in the southern Krasnodar region. There you’ll come across a small unmarked road guarded by a checkpoint manned by the 10th Separate Special Purpose Brigade of Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate, the GRU. If you manage to get past the checkpoint, which is rather unlikely, drive left and you will come to the GRU facility. If, however, you drive to the right, you will come across the main base of the Wagner Group, a shadowy private military company (PMC), also known as Putin’s “foreign legion”. It’s highly unusual for any private company to share a base with an elite, special operations military unit, and it’s particularly odd that GRU personnel guard the road leading to the barracks of a PMC. You might conclude that there is a special relationship between the two organisations; and you would be right.
The Russian government persistently denies any connection, of course, and no-one who runs the clandestine organisation will admit to doing so. Wagner is a paramilitary group composed mostly of former Russian military personnel which provides “direct-action” services around the world. Built to serve the interests of the Putin regime, the secrecy of Wagner stems from its origins as a covert creation of the Russian military. Claiming to be private, in reality, it’s closely enmeshed with the Russian security apparatus.
It was in Ukraine in 2014 that the Wagner group first appeared when it assisted the Russian military in the illegal annexation of Crimea. It had been founded earlier that year by a former GRU Spetsnaz, Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Utkin, who named it after his call-sign, “Vagner”, because of his alleged love of Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer Richard Wagner. Utkin himself took part in the Russian operations in Ukraine, his presence verified by Ukrainian signal intelligence which recorded phone conversations of him reporting to GRU Colonel Oleg Ivannikov, as well as to Major General Evgeny Nikiforev, head of Russia’s 58th Army. This leaves little doubt that Utkin was subordinate to both the GRU and to the Russian military command. Two years later, Utkin was photographed at a Kremlin reception held on 9 December, when he was decorated with the Order for Courage for his services in Ukraine by none other than President Putin. Despite all this evidence, the Kremlin continues to deny any connection with the Wagner group.
There’s more. Wagner troops continue to use military transport infrastructure to fly to hotspots around the world. When injured, they are treated and rehabilitated in Russian military hospitals. Bellingcat, the highly respected investigative organisation, recently reported that Wagner personnel use passports issued by a special passport desk in Moscow—Central Migration Office Unit—which supplies passports exclusively to those linked to Russia’s Ministry of Defence. Bellingcat provided solid evidence that this was the unit which issued fake passports to the two culprits, both GRU officers, who attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal in UK on 4 March 2018. With all this support, there is little doubt that the Kremlin not only tolerates but actively supports the operations of Wagner contractors abroad.
Perhaps the most damning proof of the existence and operations of Putin’s “foreign legion” came in spring this year when a small white Samsung tablet with a cracked screen was found in a position earlier held by Russian fighters in Libya’s Ain Zara region. The tablet turned out to be a treasure trove of information about Wagner, providing investigators with copious information about its personnel and tactics. Especially incriminating was a 10-page document dated 19 January 2020, listing vehicles and weapons required by the group for imminent operations. This included six T72 B3s, the latest Russian battle tank in service since 2016; six BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles; six Tigr armoured and armed jeeps, together with a whole host of missiles, heavy machine guns, flame throwers, automatic rifles and drones. The list went on and on, revealing yet again the intimate connection between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defence. The Samsung also provides evidence of the mercenaries’ involvement in the mining and booby-trapping of civilian areas in Libya. Placing landmines without marking them is a war crime.
The jewel in the tablet was a cluster of letters to the “General Director”, whom Western analysts strongly believe to be the wealthy businessman and close associate of Putin from his days as a minor dignitary in St Petersburg, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Also known as “Putin’s Chef”, because of his restaurants that hosted Putin’s dinners with foreign dignitaries, Prigozhin faces economic sanctions and criminal charges in the US. He is alleged to be funding Wagner, something which he denies.
Up to 10,000 fighters are believed to have taken at least one contract with Wagner since it emerged fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. Since then, it has expanded to many countries around the world, particularly in Africa where Putin’s foreign legion is escalating Russia’s geostrategic influence. Here, with offices in 20 countries, Wagner is contracted to train local armies, protect important figures, fight rebel and terror groups, and protect gold, diamond and uranium mines in hot spots. Sudan has become its logistics base for Africa operations, and in the Central African Republic, some 450 of its fighters not only protect President Touadera from rebel groups, which control nearly two thirds of the country, but also the gold and diamond mines from which they retain a portion of the revenue. Mali’s military junta that took power in a military coup in August last year, is the latest to employ Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, creating the danger of a direct clash with Mali’s former colonial power, France, in its decade-old counter-terrorism operations. Reports suggest that Wagner will be paid $10.8 million per month for providing 1,000 personnel to support Mali’s ailing junta in their attempt to cling to power.
In the past decade it’s the Wagner activities in Syria and Libya which have commanded much of the West’s attention. The group was dispatched to Syria alongside Russian warplanes and ground troops following Moscow’s intervention in the civil war in September 2015 on the side of President Assad’s army. Numerous atrocities allegedly carried out by Wagner mercenaries in this “war without end” are currently being investigated by the UN.
In Libya, all eyes are on the elections on 24 December, following the surprising UN-backed ceasefire in spring this year after ten years of civil war. Libya quickly became the world’s most dangerous proxy war after many countries seized the opportunity to promote their interests by providing military assistance to the main factions—the Government of National Accord and Libyan National Army (LNA). Russia obscured its involvement by sending some 1,500 Wagner mercenaries to back the LNA, the insurgent forces led by General Khalifa Hiftar. By using Wagner, Putin has positioned himself for pay-back as the “broker” of an eventual settlement, with eyes on a cut of Libya’s oil revenues which Wagner mercenaries are now guarding, and with plans for a naval base and two air-bases which would threaten NATO’s southern flank.
Putin’s “foreign legion” is a clear win for the Kremlin. By subcontracting high-risk and experimental operations in fragile states to the Wagner Group, the Kremlin obtains a screen of plausible deniability and avoids public scrutiny of combat losses. The Kremlin has sought to downplay the loss of hundreds of Wagner fighters, leaving grieving families bewildered. Also, as PMCs are illegal in Russia, Wagner creates an accountability vacuum for the many victims of atrocities carried out by the group’s operatives. Victims’ relations simply don’t know who to sue.
And there’s little doubt that prisoners are killed, something one ex-Wagner fighter freely admitted when interviewed by the BBC: “no-one wants an extra mouth to feed”. Another ex-fighter told the BBC there were no clear rules of conduct. If a captured prisoner had no knowledge to pass on, or could not work as a “slave”, then “the result is obvious”. Andrey Chuprygin, an expert working with the Russia International Council, summed up the stance taken by the Russian government: “let them join this thing, and we’ll see what the result is. If it works out well, we can use it to our advantage. If it turns out badly, then we had nothing to do with it!” A sentiment which illuminates Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy perfectly.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.