The Wagner Group is a private mercenary group and go-to organization for Russian military operations.
By Laurence F. Sanford
Vladimir Putin’s Wagner Group has been designated a “transnational criminal organization” by the U.S. government. It is more than just criminal. It is a sadistic mercenary terror group operating in Syria, Ukraine, Africa, and South America. The Wagner Group, also known as PMC (Private Military Company) Wagner, acts as a private army for Vladimir Putin.
Yevgeny Prigozhin founded the Wagner Group in 2014 to support Russian forces in Ukraine. A close confidant of Putin, Prigozhin is a former convict and is called “Putin’s chef” because he owns restaurants and catering companies that service the Kremlin.
Another cofounder of Wagner was Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, who had served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the GRU, the military intelligence arm of the Russian army. Upon retirement from the GRU, Utkin became head of security for Prigozhin’s companies. Utkin named the mercenary group Wagner after his GRU call name and passion for German composer Richard Wagner, who was Hitler’s favorite composer. Utkin has not made a public appearance since 2016.
The Wagner Group is a private mercenary group and go-to organization for Russian military operations. By being “private,” the Wagner atrocities are not labeled acts of the Russian state and are, therefore, in the “gray zone” of activities that lie between state kinetic force and normal diplomatic action.
In Syria, Wagner has supported Russia in its efforts to prop up the Assad regime and protect the Russian naval base in Tartus. In February 2018, a 500-plus force of Wagner Group mercenaries and Syrian forces attempted to take out a small U.S. Marine and Special Forces outpost in the Kurdish area of Syria established to fight ISIS. Known as the Battle of Khasham, the U.S. Air Force from a Qatar base launched waves of fighter jets in support of the outpost. Several hundred Wagner mercenaries and Syrians were killed, but no Americans were killed. The Russian military denied any involvement, saying only that five contractors were killed because of American aggression.
In Ukraine, the Wagner Group was deployed as locals in support of the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas region. With the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Wagner Group became part of the fighting force. Rape, torture, and theft are some of the accusations made against Wagner in Ukraine. An estimated 50,000 men were in the Group — 40,000 convicts and 10,000 contract soldiers. The convicts were recruited from prisons with the promise of a pardon if they served six months with the Wagner Group. Thousands have been killed in the fierce Ukraine fighting, and Wagner is no longer recruiting from prisons.
The Wagner Group is active in Africa and has stationed approximately 5,000 men across the continent, filling the void left by departing European and American forces. Wagner is expanding alliances with the Central African Republic, Chad, Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Mozambique. By forming alliances and protecting the various African country government leaders from Islamic jihadists, Wagner is gaining access and control of mines worth billions of dollars in strategic minerals. With Wagner’s support, local governments are not constrained from committing atrocities in suppressing native populations. And, of course, slaughter and other atrocities follow when Wagner itself engages in kinetic actions.
The alliances also further Russian political objectives of undermining Western democracies — many African countries abstained or voted against UN resolutions condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since 2015, Russia has signed 19 military collaboration agreements with African countries to supply arms.
In South America, the Wagner Group has been active in Venezuela, supporting Russian interests. One activity is designing and implementing Nicolas Maduro’s security circle along with Cuban agents. Maduro is a communist autocrat who succeeded Hugo Chavez as ruler of Venezuela. Chavez and Maduro together have taken the country down the socialist road to tyranny, poverty, and scarcity despite having the largest known oil reserves in the world. Maduro survives, with the aid of Cuban intelligence services, only because of a sophisticated police state and the jailing of opponents.
Russia has deployed military equipment, troops, and mercenaries (Wagner Group) to train Venezuelans in equipment, espionage, and surveillance. In the resource-rich Orinoco Basin, Russians protect and control companies extracting the minerals.
Recent elections in Latin America have resulted in leftists/communists winning power. Increased penetration by Russia and China is following.
The PMC Wagner Group is a “gray zone” military group supporting Putin’s policies. Wagner is known for its brutish behavior, such as sledgehammering a prisoner’s head, as an example of what happens to deserters. Murder, torture, rape, and pillage are all part of Wagner’s modus operandi.
What can the United States do to counter Wagner and Russia?
- Continue to support Ukraine — how and with what is the subject for another day.
- Build and develop alliances with countries and organizations opposed to totalitarian China and Russia.
- Rebuild America’s military, economy, and infrastructure.
(Laurence Sanford is Senior Analyst with the American Security Council Foundation)
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