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Wagner Group: Russia’s Wildcard in Ukraine

Radhika Shaw

25 April 2023

Richard Wagner was a 19th Century opera composer who was Adolf Hitler’s favourite musician. 140 years after Wagner’s death, a mercenary group named after him is doing Russia’s bidding in Ukraine.

Wagner Group: Russia’s Wildcard in Ukraine

The recent activities of the Wagner group, a Russian Private Military Company have been a hotly debated topic among corridors of power around the world. Wagner mercenaries are known to have played a pivotal role in key Russian advances in the ongoing Battle of Bakhmut and the larger battle for Donbas. Informally referred to by Western media as Putin’s “little green men”, the Wagner group has been termed a “vehicle for Russian influence”. From Africa to Latin America and Europe, the Wagner group has actively served as Russia’s muscle as it seeks to expand its global influence through military intervention in various regions around the world.


Although mercenaries or soldiers of fortune have existed for centuries, the emergence of Private Military Companies (PMCs) is distinctly viewed as a post-Cold War phenomenon. PMCs are akin to corporates who offer specialised services in conflict including combat operations, intelligence collection and training. The USA is known to have extensively employed PMCs during their occupation of Iraq (2003-2011). Russia has maintained a cadre of PMCs that serve as part of its larger irregular warfare strategy, despite Moscow's constitutional ban on PMCs.


Private military contractors flourished in Russia in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They had sprung up amid several challenges plaguing the Russian military’s efficiency. As evident from its relatively unsuccessful operations in Chechnya and Georgia, the Russian military was corrupt, ineffective, and understaffed immediately post-Cold War. It was reliant on out-of-date equipment despite inheriting most of the Soviet Union’s nuclear and conventional arsenals. Moreover, one-fourths of the Russian Army were made up of conscripts with little to no combat experience. This is because the Russian constitution prohibits overseas deployment of conscripts unless in the event of a war.


Outsourcing of fighting to mercenaries hence evolved as an affordable alternative to resolve the Army's staffing shortage while easing domestic criticism. Additionally, it gave the Russian government the legal freedom to intervene in local disputes worldwide without formally declaring war, while allowing for plausible deniability. The conceptualisation of the Wagner Group itself is said to have taken place in a 2010 meeting of the Russian General Staff. Although there are little facts about the meeting, some evidence shows that Eeben Barlow, the creator of the South African PMC, Executive Outcomes, was present at the meeting. The Wagner Group is currently headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch nicknamed by media as “Putin’s chef”.


The entity operates outside of any officially sanctioned Russian legal mandate and does not associate itself with a single ideology. Since its inception, the Wagner Group has focused mostly on ambiguous warfare in developing nations. The Wagner Group’s first assignment can be traced back to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.  The organisation gained notoriety by assisting pro-Russian separatist fighters of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics in the years that followed.


Wagner employed 1,000 workers at the beginning of 2016, 5,000 by August 2017, and 6,000 by December 2017. The company allegedly has offices in Saint Petersburg and Hong Kong and is registered in Argentina. Wagner inaugurated a new corporate office and technological hub at PMC Wagner Center in the east of Saint Petersburg in November 2022. Early in October 2017, Ukrainian security services reported that Wagner had received budget increases of 185 million rubles (USD 3.1 million) and 40 or so Ukrainian nationals, with the remaining 95% of the workforce being Russian residents.


There are three different units of Wagner: Rusich Unit, Serb Unit and Nidhogg unit. A unit of the Wagner Group called as Task Force Rusich, also described as a "sabotage and assault reconnaissance group," has been engaged in combat alongside Russian rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine. Rusich is referred to as a far-right extremist or neo-Nazi group, and a Slavic swastika appears on their logo. After completing a paramilitary training course offered by the Russian Imperial Legion, the fighting wing of the Russian Imperial Movement, Alexey Milchakov and Yan Petrovsky created the group in the summer of 2014.


Wagner is thought to have a Serb unit that was, at least until April 2016, commanded by Davor Savi, a Bosnian Serb who served in both the Special Operations Unit (JSO) and the Serb Volunteer Guard (also known as Arkan's Tigers) during the Kosovo War and the Bosnian War (Ristic, 2016). There have been rumours that the Wagner group includes a small number of Norwegian and Scandinavian nationals. This unit is known as the "Nhöggr," or Nidhogg, is named after a fierce dragon from Norse mythology which is often depicted in its fighters’ patches.


It has established an extensive presence in Africa in recent times. In the Syrian Civil War, it defended the Assad Regime from the Islamic State, Kurdish militants, and other opposition factions. It defended Mozambique’s oil-rich coast from Islamic State’s Central Africa Province’s (IS-CAP) in 2019 and fought the Fulani rebel forces in the Central African Republic on behalf of President Faustin-Archange Touadére. Wagner mercenaries also took part in General Khalifa Haftar's assault on the UN-backed government in Tripoli, Libya in April 2019.


Wagner has also been attempting to establish substantial influence over Africa’s mining sector. Cash-strapped African governments often reward Wagner’s efforts through granting them mining concessions or access to markets, strategic ports and airbases. For instance, Prigozhin was awarded exclusive rights for gold mining in Sudan after Wagner mercenaries helped quell local uprising against Omar al-Bashir. Meanwhile, Prigozhin has also been awarded gold and diamond mining licenses in return for PMC Wagner’s engagement in CAR.


Amid the war in Ukraine, the Wagner Group is known to have recruited mercenaries from Russian prisons. The Russian defence ministry has openly acknowledged the courageous and selfless role Wagner group mercenaries played in capturing the town of Soledar, a key Russian victory in the Battle of Bakhmut. According to Prigozhin, Wagner mercenaries’ primary objective in Bakhmut was to bleed the Ukrainian army dry. "Wagner soldiers openly advance under fire towards us even if they're littering the land with their bodies”, notes Commander Skala who is leading Ukraine’s operation in Bakhmut.


As Russia increasingly relies on the Wagner Group to win the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian and allied forces appear to have little ideas on warding off their pounding assaults. Moreover, Prigozhin has announced his intent to run for Ukraine’s President in 2024. Whatever the outcomes of the war in Ukraine, the Wagner Group is sure to have an outsized impact on what happens in the region.


Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Radhika Shaw

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Radhika is a postgraduate scholar at Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Her research interest areas are broadly related to intelligence studies, terrorism and counter-terrorism and on India's national security.

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