By Ty Joplin
Russia’s secretive mercenary company, Wagner Group, are becoming an indispensable tool for Russian foreign policy and its global economic ambitions. The group reportedly deploys up to 3,000 soldiers around the world to bolster both economic and political Russian interests.
In some countries, they have been seen protecting valuable mineral and oil deposits, securing Russian access to them in the process. In others, they’ve been spotted acting as auxiliary security forces for embattled regimes aligned with Russia. In a select few, they are active combatants in war zones, fighting alongside armies and other militia groups.
Wagner soldiers are generally veterans of Russian conflicts like the first and second Chechen wars in the 1990s. They are occasionally deployed via Russian military aircraft, are treated in military hospitals and are considered for military medals for their actions in combat. According to Bellingcat and Ukrainian intelligence, Wagner troops are known to travel on passports validated by Russia’s military intelligence (GRU), which has also issued the travel documents of Russian spies.
The leadership of Wagner reveals more about the group’s ties to both the Russian military/political apparatus and the country’s rich oligarchy. Wagner is led by Dmitry Utkin, a former lieutenant colonel in GRU. Utkin and Wagner maintain close links with Putin loyalist, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also alleged to have directed several of Russia’s notorious ‘troll factories’ that target the U.S.
Prigozhin-owned business ventures can be found alongside Wagner soldiers throughout the world.
Putin (center) with Wagner soldiers and Dmitry Utkin (far right) (Twitter)
Wagner is widely considered an unofficial branch of the Russian Army that engages in clandestine operations abroad. To understand both Russia’s general foreign policy strategy and the tactics it uses to accomplish its goals, the Wagner Group is essential.
As semi-private mercenary armies become a more prominent tool in foreign policy and warfare in the 21st century, Wagner’s activities are writing the playbook for how states can pursue economic and security interests abroad while claiming plausible deniability.
Here are five countries in which Wagner has been or is currently deployed.
The list is by no means exhaustive, but it does provide details shedding light on how Wagner is deployed as a secretive, multi-use tool; one that can secure oil fields for Russian companies, assassinate rogue commanders, fight alongside regular army units and protect Russian-aligned regimes from protests.
Ukraine Proxy War
“Little green men” in Ukraine (AFP/FILE)
Wagner first made its mark on the global scene by participating in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
A report by the Warsaw Institute claims Wagner troops were aiding Russian troops as early as 2014 in the annexation of Crimea. Wagner troops were initially part of the contingent of Russian occupiers nicknamed ‘little green men’ for their green, unmarked uniforms.
From 2015 onwards, Wagner troops were seen operating in the conflict zones of Donbass and Luhansk, Ukraine, accompanying Russian units and aiding in combat and policing operations.
According to reports from the Ukrainian outlets, about 1,500 - 5,000 Wagner troops were deployed. Many of their tasks involved dispatching dissident militia commanders and reorganizing militia units.
The Kyiv Post found that Wagner troops were behind the killing of six separatist militia commanders in Donbass, while the chief of Ukraine’s Security Services Vasyl Hrytsak claimed that Wagner was behind “The liquidation of opposition-minded leaders and militants of illegal armed groups, the forced reorganization of Russian Cossack and other formations.”
After consolidating disparate separatist militias and assassinating rogue leaders, Wagner troops re-deployed to Syria after Russia intervened in the Middle Eastern country.
Russian soldiers inside the Syrian desert (Youtube)
Russia announced its entrance in the Syrian conflict by deploying its air force to strike rebel targets in 2015, but Wagner ground troops followed close behind.
In Oct 2015, a few weeks after Russia began bombing runs in Syria, reports surfaced that Russian contractors hired by Wagner were dying inside the war zone.
Since then, they have maintained a steady presence in government-held areas and near the frontlines of the war. They’ve participated in several large assaults against ISIS in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour. A New York Times investigation revealed that Wagner troops were being used by the Russian company, Evro Polis, to secure oil fields from ISIS. In exchange, Evro Polis would receive 25 percent of the oil and natural gas produced from those fields.
Conspicuously enough, a report by the BBC suggests Yevgeny Progozhin is the one to have founded Wagner and who currently owns Evro Polis.
Wagner mercenaries have also been involved in battles against U.S.-backed Kurdish militias. In Feb, 2018, around 100 Syrian regime-aligned forces were killed in a four hour battle near Khasham in eastern Syria.
The U.S. and Kurdish forces (SDF) monitored a military buildup that included Wagner troops near its frontlines and bombarded them when they appeared to be moving to capture territory from the Kurds.
Initial reports estimated as many as 200 Wagner soldiers were killed in the quick-fire strikes in what would be the closest to a direct military confrontation the U.S. and Russia have been involved in besides the Ukraine conflict. A subsequent investigation by a team of Der Spiegel investigators found that 10-20 Russian mercenaries were killed, but they had not taken part in the assault; they were merely stationed near the location where the assault occurred.
Another investigation carried out by the Washington Post found that Yevgeniy Prigozhin “secured permission” for a “fast and strong” plan of action for early February from an unspecified Russian Minister. While the details of this story conflict with Der Spiegel’s assertion that Wagner troops were not taking part in the assault, it does indicate that Wagner’s military actions are coordinated and approved by the Russian state.
Ural truck geo-located in Khartoum (citeam.org)
The Wagner Group’s activities in Sudan closely mirror that of Syria. They seem to have the dual-job of providing extra security to the embattled Sudanese regime led by Omar al-Bashir while prying open the country’s vast resources for Russian firms.
Although Wagner troops reportedly entered Sudan in Jan 2018, Yevgeny Prigozhin may have began preparations to send Wagner in the year before.
In Nov, 2017, al-Bashir was flown to Sochi, Russia and agreed to share a portion of the country’s gold deposits with M Invest, a Russian company reportedly owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin. Soon thereafter, as many as 500 Wagner troops were spotted inside the country training rebels from the Central African Republic and Sudan regime troops. Additionally, they’ve been seen guarding lucrative mining facilities throughout the country.
More images of the Ural truck suspected of carrying Wagner soldiers in Khartoum (Twitter)
In late 2018 and early 2019, mass demonstrations overtook many of Sudan’s cities and represented the most serious challenge to Bashir’s power since he seized the government 30 years ago.
During the protests, Russian-made Ural trucks carrying what appeared to be Wagner troops were spotted inside the capital city of Khartoum. Ukraine’s chief of the Security Service claimed that his agency obtained evidence that 149 Wagner troops flew to Sudan and “directly partook in suppressing democratic protests in Sudan in early 2019.”
An anonymous source on the ground relayed to Al Bawaba that she saw unknown, plainclothed militiamen firing live ammunition into protestors alongside regime forces.
“There was heavy police and army deployment, but there were [also] militia elements and men in civilian uniform with Kalashnikovs,” firing towards demonstrators, she said. It is as yet unclear whether these militiamen were indeed Wagner soldiers, but their presence in Khartoum and mandate with the Bashir regime may suggest they have played a role in violently suppressing the ongoing protests.
Central African Republic (CAR)
Wagner troops training CAR soldiers (citeam.org)
The Wagner Group’s presence in CAR coincides with a larger Russian effort to court the country and exchange investment for access to the CAR’s mineral and oil resources.
A report from Coda Story describe CAR’s capital city Bangui being saturated with reminders that Russia is working to remake the country’s economy:
“In the streets of Bangui, billboards are filled with the colors of the CAR flag announcing the opening of a new Russian-funded radio station called ‘Lengo Songo, 98.9 FM’ — which means ‘Build Solidarity.; For now, it is only broadcasting music, but there are plans for news and talk shows.”
Russia’s charge d'affaires in CAR, Viktor Tokmakov, said “Russia has had interests in the African continent for a long time. We decided to come back. We want to develop economic exchanges with CAR, and this can only be done with peace and security. Therefore, we’re trying to help in those fields.”
Wagner troops have been involved in training both government and rebel troops, and in exchange for their help in security, Russian companies are gaining access to the domestic economy.
A U.S. general explained that “By employing oligarch-funded, quasi-mercenary military advisors, particularly in countries where leaders seek unchallenged autocratic rule, Russian interests gain access to natural resources on favorable terms. Some African leaders readily embrace this type of support and use it to consolidate their power and authority. This is occurring in the Central African Republic where elected leaders mortgage mineral rights—for a fraction of their worth—to secure Russian weapons.”
Venezuela President Maduro with Putin in 2015 (AFP/FILE)
Little is concretely known about Wagner’s presence in Venezuela, but if the group’s current pattern is anything to go by, its likely goal is the preservation of President Maduro’s power in exchange for access to the country’s vast oil and mineral reserves.
A Reuters report from Jan 25, 2019 found that “private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela in the past few days to beef up security for President Nicolas Maduro in the face of U.S.-backed opposition protests.”
In the weeks before Wagner’s deployment to Venezuela, Russia invested $6 billion in the country’s oil and gold sectors. Many interpreted the deal as Russia giving Maduro an economic lifeline and sign of confirmation they are willing to secure his hold on power.
The presence on Wagner troops would undoubtedly tell Maduro that Russia is willing to give him military manpower as well.
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