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Are Russia’s Mercenaries a Threat to US Interests?

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Editor’s note: Shadowy mercenaries offer Moscow deniability on the battlefield and a cheap way to build influence across the globe, reveals in this Q & A by Nathaniel Reynolds.

WHAT IS RUSSIA’S WAGNER GROUP?

The Wagner Group emerged from the Kremlin’s need for off-the-books fighters in its wars in Ukraine and Syria. In both conflicts, Wagner’s mercenaries helped the Russian military avoid official casualties and reduced the political risk for President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Since then, Wagner has evolved. It now helps the Kremlin build influence by providing training and protection services in at least two African countries. This covert, unacknowledged group of mercenaries is emblematic of the Kremlin’s foreign policy ambition, assertiveness, and penchant for denying responsibility.

Numbering between 3,600 and 5,000fighters, the group trains at a secret base next to a Russian military intelligence (GRU) facility. Its commander is Dmitry Utkin, who retired from the GRU’s special operations troops. Some of its members have strong military backgrounds. Others are former convicts or have no professional military experience and little training. Most seem to be Russian citizens, but no ideology drives the group as a whole. Money is a major draw for those who join. Their combat pay in Syria was roughly six times the average wage in Russia.

IS THE WAGNER GROUP DIFFERENT FROM A PRIVATE MILITARY COMPANY?

The Russian military created Wagner with Western private military companies in mind. But the differences are stark. The group is not a true commercial entity—the state created it to serve the needs of Putin’s regime; there is no registered, legal entity named Wagner Group; it does not operate in the global market; and those who run it deny that it exists.

DOES PUTIN CONTROL ITS ACTIVITIES?

Wagner could not operate without Putin’s blessing, but he relies on a well-connected businessman, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, to run and finance its day-to-day operations. As an ex-convict turned successful restaurateur, Prigozhin seems an unlikely choice for the job. But he built connections to Putin’s circle in the 2000s, started gaining millions of dollars in state catering contracts, and found ways to make himself useful to the regime. He is infamous for running the Internet Research Agency, or troll factory, and has been indicted and is under U.S. sanctions for the agency’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Press reports have also linked him to violent attacks on Russian journalists and bloggers. 

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As a member of Putin’s feudal court of elites, Prigozhin runs Wagner and the troll factory to show his loyalty to the Kremlin. In return, he seeks to be rewarded with highly lucrative deals, including defense-related construction and service projects. In countries where Wagner is active, Moscow also helps him negotiate the rights to natural resources. However, giving Prigozhin latitude to pursue commercial interests carries some risk. In early 2018, the group lost 200 fighters in an ill-fated attack on U.S.-allied forces in Syria, which Prigozhin’s team may have staged to grab oil and gas assets. The attack was dangerous and embarrassing for the Kremlin, but Prigozhin managed to maintain his standing with Putin.

WHERE IS THE GROUP OPERATING AND WHY?

Since its incursion into Ukraine in 2014, Wagner has been active in Syria, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. A handful of press reports place it in Madagascar, Venezuela, and Libya, but these deployments have not been confirmed.

In Sudan and the Central African Republic, the group is performing more traditional functions, such as training missions for local security forces. Prigozhin also has personnel serving as advisers to government officials on security and other topics, taking on roles normally reserved for diplomats. In Sudan, for instance, Prigozhin’s team counseled the regime of Omar al-Bashir on issues like economic development, before Bashir’s removal from power. This new capacity offers the Kremlin a flexible, opportunistic way to expand its geopolitical influence, albeit with limited results to date. 

HOW DOES RUSSIA’S WAGNER GROUP THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AND OTHER COUNTRIES?

The group poses two separate problems. First, the Kremlin could use Wagner’s mercenaries in a covert war or subversion campaign as it did in Ukraine. This remains a particular concern in the post-Soviet space. Of course, the group would have limited capacity to wage such a war on its own, given its small size and mixed levels of professionalism. It is more likely to deploy alongside official Russian military forces to help cloak their movements and hide Moscow’s hand in a conflict, at least temporarily. Whether the strategy would be successful, with the West’s increasing awareness of Wagner, is debatable. But it could create enough confusion to impede Western decisionmaking and prevent an appropriate, robust response.

Second, in Africa and elsewhere, Moscow could further expand Wagner’s role to build influence cheaply and, at times, at the expense of the United States and its allies. Outside this geopolitical prism, with Prigozhin at the helm, the group will likely worsen problems of corruption, human rights, and rule of law wherever they operate. They may also prop up authoritarian leaders with whom they have economic deals and shared interests. 

WHAT CAN THE UNITED STATES DO TO PUSH BACK AGAINST THE GROUP?

Not every deployment of Wagner requires a tough U.S. response. Some missions are limited to training in a country where the United States has few options and interests. However, the United States should launch broad public and private diplomacy campaigns to stigmatize the group and keep it marginalized. By emphasizing Wagner’s shortcomings—including questions about its professionalism and its failure to adhere to even limited international standards for private military companies—the United States can make it less attractive for regimes with other options for assistance.

The United States should also work with the EU to sanction Prigozhin and front companies linked to him. The EU does not currently have any sanctions in place.

More broadly, U.S. allies should regularly share intelligence to build a common Western view of Wagner. This could inform responses during a conflict and make it tougher for Moscow to deny responsibility.

Reynolds is a Visiting Scholar in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from the US Department of State.

Note: The views represented herein are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government, Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.

Credits| CEIP


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