Following its failed attempt to topple the Russian government, President Vladimir Putin declared on 27 June 2023 that it would be investigating the Wagner Group and confirmed that his government had funded its armed operations from its defense budget and state budget. Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin also confirmed earlier in September 2022 that he founded the organization in May 2014 as a private military contractor that carried out tasks in foreign countries on behalf of the Russian government.
A Look Into the Wagner Group: A State-Funded Private Military Company Accused of War Crimes
Origin of the Group: Founding and Leadership
Most observers within Russia and from other Western countries believed that the Wagner Group was not a private military company but a disguised branch of the Russian Ministry of Defense. These assertions came from the fact that it shares bases and some assets with the Armed Forces of Russia and its personnel were entitled to military health care services.
Yevgeny Prigozhin was speculated as its leader and founder but the influential Russian oligarch and restauranteur denied links with the organization. However, after repeated denial, he admitted in a statement that he founded the Wagner Group or PMC Wagner in May 2014 following the Donbas War as a group of mercenaries for the Russian government.
The founder specifically explained that he was tasked to visit several training grounds to recruit people and form a group that would help in defending the Russian population in Donbas against forces from Ukraine. Prigozhin was unsatisfied with what he had found. He then decided to form a group of his own whom he deemed as Russian patriots.
Nevertheless, considering his admission, Yevgeny Prigozhin was both the founder and leader of the Wagner Group. Russian military veteran Dmitry Utkin served as its military commander while Russian colonel general Yevgeny Prigozhin served as its deputy. The organization is headquartered in the PMC Wagner Center in Saint Petersburg.
There are about 50000 personnel working for the organization. Recruits came from different backgrounds. It also recruits foreigners. Operatives are trained in a government facility in Molkino. Prigozhin financed its initial operations through his businesses but it later received billions in funding from the Russian government.
Stated Purpose: Statements from Prigozhin
Private military companies have a vague legal status in Russia. Applicable legislation prohibits the formation of illegal armed and mercenary groups. The government still does not prosecute organizations operating in Russia and employing Russians. The Wagner Group is among these private military companies that have earned preferential treatment.
Nevertheless, in his September 2022 statement, Prigozhin mentioned that he formed the organization in 2014 to support pro-Russian paramilitaries during the Donbas War against Ukraine. He added that the purpose of the Wagner Group was to “protect Russians” when the “genocide of the Russian population in Donbas began.”
The mission of the organization expanded since then. It has been involved in the political affairs of countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, the Near East, and the Middle East and helped governments or factions that are aligned with Russian foreign policy interests. Wagner mercenaries participated in covert and frontline operations.
Observers have noted that Russia funds or hires private military companies such as the Wagner Group as proxies to settle its geopolitical and international relations issues. This strategy has allowed the Russian government and Vladimir Putin to have plausible deniability for specific military interventions and overall global military operations.
A code of honor for Wagner personnel called “The Ten Commandments for Fighters” was accidentally leaked by the television program Vesti Nedeli of the Russian state television. These include protecting the interests of Russia always and everywhere, valuing the honor of a Russian soldier, and fighting from the principle of winning and not for money.
Notable Activities: Operations and Involvements
Understanding further what the Wagner Group is or what it does requires taking a look at some of its notable operations or involvements in various armed conflicts outside Russia. The organization participated in the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and played a role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Russia-Ukraine Conflict.
Reports have noted that mercenaries from the organization were blended with other personnel from other private military companies and the Russian Armed Forces during the annexation of Crimea in February 2014. Furthermore, in the region of Donbas, these mercenaries helped in destabilizing forces from the Ukrainian government.
The organization also sent its personnel from other countries and flew them to Ukraine at the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Some of the mercenaries had a mission to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and members of his government while the others carried frontline operations.
Nevertheless, outside the direct geopolitical affairs of Russia, the Wagner Group was also involved in several civil wars. It participated in the 2015 Syrian Civil War a month after Russia announced its military intervention. It also supported the Transitional Military Council of Sudan during the 2018-2019 Sudanese Revolution.
Wagner Group was also hired for escort purposes. Some of its personnel were in Madagascar in 2017 to provide security for then-president Hery Rajaonarimampianina in the 2018 Malagasy presidential election. Others were sent to Venezuela in 2019 to secure then-president Nicolás Maduro in the middle of the sociopolitical crisis.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Brimelow, B. 2018. “Russia is Using Mercenaries to Make it Look Like It’s Losing Fewer Troops in Syria.” Business Insider. Available online
- Harvey, B. 2022. “Sanctioned Putin Ally Says He Created Russian Mercenary Group.” Bloomberg. Available online
- Preussen, W. 2022. “Russian Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin Admits He Created the Mercenary Wagner Group.” Politico. Available online
- Walker, S. and Sauer, P. 2023. “Yvegeny Prigozhin: The Hotdog Seller Who Rose to the Top of Putin’s War Machine.” The Guardian. Available online
Photo credit: Belarusian Telegraph Agency / Adapted / CC 3.0