The issue of the usage of private military companies (PMC’s) in world conflicts has been a constant topic of discussion concerning international institutions, governments, and journalists around the world. Issues of the legal and ethical context surrounding the methods used by those organizations to accomplish the missions that they have been assigned are other significant matters. The amount of money allocated to these organizations has been increasing in recent years. The most recent case of mercenary forces being used is taking place in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The Wagner Group originates in Russia and has been active in many regions globally. Discussions about this organization have been ongoing regarding the practices used in the field of action by them. The group has been accused of targeting unarmed civilians and violating human rights. Additionally, there have been reports of mistreatment of prisoners taken after the conflicts.

The role of Yevgeny Prigozhin

The leader and founder of this group were completely unknown in the beginning. But, later, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch, publicly stated his involvement with Wagner. He started as a member of a petty criminal squad, which was then called Leningrad. He ended up in prison, where he spent 13 years, and after his release from prison, he witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and the birth of the new Russian state. After his time in prison, Yevgeny started selling hotdogs in St. Petersburg, a humble yet profitable profession. In later years, he expanded his influence and connections, which helped him grow his business even more. He created a catering company that provided food for the Kremlin and the Russian army. He was observed numerous times serving and standing by the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This endeavor created the most important link of Yevgeny that opened up a world of the highest political connections and influence. His catering company hosted many prestigious and formal governmental dinners, with famous cultural and political figures during state visits. He was provided with even more contracts and received offers to cater to Russian schools that secured around $200 million in funding.

Funding began to come through in government contracts to supply the military forces in Russia with food. In 2013, reports from Forbes Russia revealed that the Concord Company of Prigozhin received $1 billion for his services. The networking he was trying to accomplish through various connections to the Kremlin reached Putin’s chief of security, Viktor Vasilyevich Zolotov, who has risen to become the commander-in-chief of the National Guard of Russia. However, since March 2022, he and other high-ranking officials have disappeared from public life. Those high-profile connections helped Prigozhin reach the man himself, Vladimir Putin, to form a sturdy and close relationship that has proven quite beneficial for both men. When Putin decided to engage his troops in Syria, to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Prigozhin was there to provide the army with catering. This was a great opportunity for Prigozhin to send Wagner Group forces to the area.  That was one of the most significant deployments of the Wagner Group. The Group’s involvement in Syria began in 2015 when it deployed a small number of mercenaries to protect Russian military installations and train Syrian government forces. However, over time, its role expanded to include direct combat operations, and it became a crucial actor in several significant battles, including the siege of Aleppo. The group is believed to have suffered significant casualties during its time in Syria, but it also played a critical role in turning the tide of the conflict in favor of the Assad regime.

Wagner Involvement Around the Globe

In Libya, Wagner is believed to have supported General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army in its fight against the government in Tripoli. In the Central African Republic, the group has been accused of helping former President François Bozizé in his attempt to regain power. The group has also been linked to operations in Sudan, Venezuela, and several other countries. The Wagner Group’s activities have raised concerns among many governments and international organizations, and have been widely perceived as a destabilizing force in conflict zones worldwide. The group’s ties to the Russian government have also led to speculation about its geopolitical goals, including a desire to expand Russian influence in key regions. Despite these concerns, the Wagner Group’s activities show no signs of slowing down, and it is likely to remain a major player in conflicts worldwide for the foreseeable future.

In light of the recent Pentagon leaks, Karar, a Turkish newspaper of the opposition, revealed that there are reports of Wagner being present in Turkey, during February, searching for a supply of weapons. Wagener personnel met with their Turkish contacts to negotiate for artillery needed in their operations in Mali and Ukraine. Moreover, reports from the Washington Post show the intensity of Wagner’s presence in Africa. Leaked documents from the Pentagon show the intentions of the Russian leadership in Moscow to create a network of anti-west states. The American secret and military services didn’t waste any time to try and find a way to undermine this effort of the Russian PMC. In a leaked document, there are suggested at least ten ways to make this happen, even as far as killing high-ranking members. That shows the efforts by American intelligence to catch up with the Russian influence in the region. Wagner, as a mercenary group, does not obey the same principles that the American forces are obliged by. It is challenging for the American or other Western powers to compete with Wagneners when their work ethic is, in fact, nonexistent and anything is allowed. When the West has to follow international law and the Wagner Group plays by its own rules and under the protection of Putin, in fear of his retaliation if anything happens that disturbs its operations, then the choice is evident for the African leaders, dictators, and warlords. This gives significant precedence in forging relationships with African leaders that hire Wagner to help them establish their undemocratic rule while using questionable tactics. In Africa, paramilitary groups are acting uncontrollably and this is what Prigozhin is trying to take advantage of, assisting any activity promoting Russian influence and monetary gain. The most recent example of Wagner’s involvement in Africa is the ongoing fighting in Sudan, where, according to CNN, Wagner is closing deals with Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to provide them with surface-to-air missiles. Although, the RSF, of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, is denying that it has received help from Russia and the Wagner group while accusing the al-Burhan’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) of doing that.

Also, Russia is expanding its cultural influence to parts of Africa. Reporting from the New York Times shows that the Russian news outlet reached an agreement with the African TV news channel, Afrique Média, and now it broadcasts to millions, content that paints a positive picture of the Russian president. Pro-Russian TV channels and newspapers were not enough, so the influence reached social media and creators on various online platforms. This shows the intensity of the Russian strategy of gathering allies and supporters all around the globe that are typically outside the range of interest of Western countries. We could say that Russia is following in the footsteps of the Chinese, who have, for many decades, been investing money and building diplomatic and military ties with African nations. China is, of course, one more huge ally that came closer during the visit of Mr. Xi, the President of the CCP. So, it is expected for Russia to borrow some strategies from the Chinese in international relations. Since Russia is isolated from the wealthy European states and the US, its only solution is to look for an alliance with the Asian and African nations, with which it shares values and tactics at the political level.

This is also visible in the reports that the Wall Street Journal released, showing the relations between the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Because of the high numbers of artillery needed in the conflict with Ukraine, the Kremlin has been doing business with the Iranian government through the Caspian Sea. During the last months, huge numbers of artillery shells and other kinds of ammunition have been transferred by Russian ships and delivered to the Ukrainian front. It makes the situation grimmer for the NATO allies that have been supplying the Ukrainian side since the beginning of this conflict. As a result, the Russian national army and the Wagner mercenaries have more supplies to spare to succeed in their goal. Russia is creating a circle of anti-west states so it can have more support during this conflict because there is no opening left to the West.

Wagner in the Ukraine Conflict

The most significant deployment yet of the Wagner Group was in Ukraine, where it played a vital role in the conflict in the Donbas region. The group’s involvement in Ukraine began in 2014, shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea, and it quickly became a significant player in the conflict. Its role was to support the Russian military forces to annex the Crimean Peninsula. At that time, there were plenty of reports about soldiers without any insignia that would imply Russian connections. They did not have anything on them that would signify their role or origin, and for that, they were called “little green men” which matched their green military uniforms. They appeared during the occupation of the International Airport of Simferopol, most of the military bases in Crimea, and the Parliament of Simferopol. In April 2014 President Putin recognized the involvement of the Russian military in the region, despite claiming in the beginning that they were “self-defense groups” that the local population had organized and used their equipment.

The Wagner Group was responsible for some of the most intense fighting in the conflict, and it is believed to have suffered significant casualties during its time in Ukraine. Despite the Minsk II ceasefire agreement, fighting continues in the region, and the Wagner Group is believed to remain active there. In Russia, it is illegal for Private Military Companies (PMCs) to exist and this is particularly helpful for the Russian regime as it could easily deny the existence of Wagner.

According to reports from the British Ministry of Defence, the current number of the groups’ deployed forces is around 50.000 fighters. Many of them are fighting on the Ukrainian front, and others are in conflicts around the globe. This number of active fighters includes prisoners from Russian prisons and even foreign fighters. The majority of that personnel is currently deployed in Ukraine. The invasion that Putin started more than a year ago has been seriously straining the military and monetary resources of the Kremlin. It is clear that the original intentions and calculations of the Russian side were a swift and almost effortless takeover of Ukraine’s territories. This expectation turned out to be the furthest from the truth. In an exclusive interview given by captured Wagner fighters to CNN reporters, cruelty can be seen in the group, even towards their own: retreating without order would get you killed, not eliminating the deserters would get you eliminated, getting hurt means finding a way out of the conflict and getting treated by yourself, those and more are only a few of the horrors that the fighters of Wagner have to face when joining the company. One would think that only Wagner’s enemies were terrified of them.

Prigoznin’s Wagner has been the reason for all kinds of atrocities committed during the war in Ukraine. Another account of a captured Wagner mercenary, in the Guardian, details the order of no prisoners delivered to them in eastern Ukraine, which meant that every Ukrainian that could be taken as a prisoner was executed on the spot. Situations like those had the group classified as an international terrorist group by the US and accused its leadership of committing war crimes. This accusation is also based on the fact that unarmed civilians fall victim to harrowing deaths at the hands of Wagner fighters, of which, a large portion are ex-convicts released on the condition of going to fight in the war against Ukraine for at least six months, and in the case they survive, they are rewarded with freedom by presidential pardon. This has created another problem for Russian society, where murderers and criminals are free to roam the streets of towns enjoying the protection of Prigozhin himself. As stated in the Guardian report: “The police should treat you with respect. If they are being unreasonable … I myself will call and sort things out with the governors and so on. We will find a solution,” Pirgozhin recently told a group of former prisoners. Those ex-Wagner fighters have been the cause of many crimes committed, such as murders. This will only be getting greater and greater as the problem might create chaos among Russian civilians.

The hurdles in Wagner-Russia relations

But the constant developments of the war in Ukraine keep coming. The once close and strong relationship between Putin and Prigozhin is now under severe stress. The Wagner Group’s leader is now distraught and has been for a while now. He has been ignored by the Russian military and political leadership when it comes to artillery shortages that threaten the Russian positions in Donetsk. This means that the more Wagner soldiers stay there with fewer and fewer means to fight the Ukrainian army the more territory Russia is losing. Recently, Prigozhin uploaded a video to social media from the frontlines where dozens of Wagner’s members were laying dead. He openly accused Sergey Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister, and Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of Russia, of intentionally neglecting support and resupply that has led to the death of soldiers. For that reason, Prigozhin announced that he decided to leave the battlefield on May 10th and retrieve his men to a base for regrouping. This decision surprised many because Wagner has proven to be a lot more powerful than the Russian national army and could possibly hurt the Russian positions in Ukraine in the case of its absence.

And while everyone was trying to calculate the future of the conflict in Ukraine without the strong presence of Wagner, Prigozhin announced that the line of supplies of artillery was restored and he will continue to have his forces deployed in Bahmut. This backtracking led some to believe that the relations inside the Kremlin were restored, but many doubted that. The tense relationship and resentment between Prigozhin and Shoigu are well known, so it might be possible that Putin stepped in to resolve this issue and keep Wagner fighting in order to avoid any unnecessary loss. Moreover, in some of Prigozhin’s public statements seems that he attacks Putin, but how could he actually do this and get away? Or is he expendable to the Russian regime? This might be a way into understanding more about the true nature of the relationship of those men. The first possibility is that Putin may know that Wagner is his only real weapon that is truly effective in the war against Ukraine and the support that it gets from the Western countries. Putin has no natural allies like Zelensky, who has been getting money and weapons from the EU and the US from the very beginning, and the ones, like China and India, do not explicitly state their suppose but they remain neutral to much of his distaste. The other possibility might be that Putin is patient right now because he needs Prigozhin and the influence he exerts over Wagner’s fighters. It is a possibility that the tolerance shown to Prigozhin’s public outbursts against the Russian leadership will end as soon as Putin’s goals have been achieved. There is no such thing as certainty when it comes to Russian politics, as the past, during the years of the USSR, has repeatedly shown.

Even though Prigozhin will remain in place with his forces in Bakhmut, the recent report from Washington Post brings to light under-the-table communications between Wagner’s leader and the Ukrainian intelligence directorate. The breaking story of the past few weeks has been the “Discord leaks”. Jack Teixeira, an airman at a National Guard unit in Massachusetts was arrested and charged with leaking classified documents over Discord, a platform for gamers, hence the name. In those documents, there is information regarding the secret communications between Prigozhin and the Ukrainian side, where Prigozhin was asking the Ukrainians to pull back their forces in Bakhmut, where Wagner has been struggling and has been taking heavy losses, despite the fact that Prigozhin had promised to take over the city in time for the May 9 celebrations in Moscow. In exchange for that, Prigozhin offered to reveal the positions of the national army of Russia. Zelenky in a recent interview with the WP declined to confirm or deny this information, stating that this issue is an issue of national intelligence. It is yet unknown if the Russian President’s position on this situation is because reports state that this back-and-forth between Wagner and the Ukrainians happened more than once, so it is likely that he was aware of this happening. And of course, this could be one of many tries of Russian intelligence to sabotage the opponent’s trail of information and their actual position on the battlefield. In fact, the Ukrainian side and the US government were skeptical and hesitant about those interactions and declined to take part.

It is not surprising that the Wagner Group can be characterized as the long arm of the Kremlin in world conflicts. It has been acting with the Russian interest in mind since its inception. We can understand that any action taken by members of Wagner is in line with what Putin desires. This direct communication between Putin and Prigozhin indicates the strong position that he has in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation. Wagner has practically taken the place of the national army of Russia and has been proven vastly more effective in achieving the objectives, and for this reason, Putin is deploying them more and more often and they are being provided with governmental funding. Maybe, it is hard for us to separate them and treat the Russian government and Prigozhin’s PMC as two distinct entities operating independently. But, we will need to look further and see if Mr. Prigozhin has any future political aspirations that possibly coincide with Mr. Putin’s. The struggle for power in Russian politics is real and very dangerous, with implications and consequences for global politics and the economy.

Συντάκτης: Θανάσης Κατζιγκάς