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Could Russian mercenaries conquer the world? The Wagner Group's tentacles stretch beyond Ukraine

A still from 'Le monde en face'. Credit: YouTube


March 3, 2022   5 mins

Four days before the invasion of Ukraine, an eerily prescient documentary aired on France 5. Le monde en face:Wagner, l’armée de l’ombre de Poutine assiduously tracks the activities of the Russian President’s “shadow army”: the Wagner Group, which arranges military “solutions” for the Kremlin. Since the film was broadcast, members of the 6,000-strong mercenary organisation have been deployed to Ukraine. Their orders: to kill President Zelenskyy and dismember his government.

This isn’t the first time the Wagner Group has taken part in a war; it’s just the first time it’s caught the attention of UK newspapers. In France, though, it has been on the radar for years. And with good reason. The Putin regime has long had bases in the south of France (Putin himself was actually holidaying in Biarritz when Yeltsin called him with the order to take over the Kremlin). But more pressingly, in the last decade Wagner have increasingly interfered in French zones of influence in the Middle East and Africa: Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and, in January this year, Mali, the focus of France’s Operation Barkhane against Sahel jihadists.

As Alexandra Jousset and Ksenia Bolchakova’s TV documentary made plain, the key problem in understanding the Wagner Group is this: it does not officially exist. No company of that name is registered in Russia. Instead, Wagner is a grey network of Russian businesses and mercenary activity. But what is clear in the murk are two key figures.

Wagner’s founder and leader is former Russian special forces officer Dmitry Utkin, a veteran of the Chechen wars. Reputedly, Lieutenant-colonel Utkin’s military call sign was “Wagner”, after Hitler’s favourite composer (Utkin is obsessed with Nazi Germany, suggesting Putin’s “de-nazification” programme could start closer to home than the Ukraine). But the power behind the Wagnerian throne is oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is serially sanctioned by the United States, including for his financing of the troll-factory Internet Research Agency, which interfered in American elections in 2016 and 2018.

In 2020, investigative news site Bellingcat published telephone records revealing that Prigozhin had made 99 calls to Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff in eight months. So cosy is Prigozhin with the Russian president that he is dubbed “Putin’s chef”, metaphorically serving up what the Kremlin requires in foreign policy. The Kremlin itself maintains that Prigozhin is quite literally Putin’s caterer — he is, after all, a skilled restauranteer. Beginning as a hot-dog seller in Leningrad, Prigozhin went onto oversee a chain of classy restaurants good enough even for the epicurean French president Jacques Chirac, and has coordinated many banquets for Putin.

Still, the Kremlin continuously and strenuously denies it has any influence over Wagner. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently blasted the group for ”supporting” Mali’s ruling junta, and accused Russia of lying about Wagner’s existence. “When we asked our Russian colleagues about Wagner, they said they don’t know anything,” Le Drian told France 24. He added: “When it comes to mercenaries who are Russian veterans, who have Russian weapons, who are transported by Russian planes, it would be surprising if the Russian authorities did not know about it.”

In truth, Wagner and Russian security departments overlap. Putin has been photographed at a Kremlin banquet with Wagner troops (including Dmitry Utkin), whose training facility at Molkino in southern Russia is next door to that of Russian special forces, the spetsnaz.

The Wagner Group was birthed in Ukraine in 2014, when Russian military intelligence backed unmarked troops led by Utkin in the annexation of Crimea. Since then, the group’s web of influence has spread to the Middle East, Latin America, and principally Africa. Shocking revelations about the conduct of Wagner fighters followed. In 2017, four Wagner operatives — the group’s distinctive skull logo clearly visible on their uniforms — mutilated and eventually beheaded a Syrian army deserter, Mohammed Taha Ismail al-Abdullah, with a spade. (Tracking down, interrogating and murdering rebels and deserters is very much the Wagner Group’s modus operandi; in Ukraine it is most likely to be at work in areas already seized by the Russian Army.) A fifth Wagnerian acted as the cameraman for the movie. A lawsuit brought by al-Abdullah’s brother got unsurprisingly short shrift from the Moscow City Court.

Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, both the UN and France claim that Wagner have been responsible for raping and robbing unarmed civilians in the country’s rural areas. An exclusive document obtained by France 5 details the execution of a man on the side of a road in the north of the country by a Wagner unit. In Libya, the BBC obtained a Samsung tablet owned by a Wagner fighter, which revealed he had been placing unmarked personnel mines in a civilian area — an unalloyed war crime, enough to get any real army in the dock at Den Haag.

Which explains, perhaps, why Putin uses the Wagner Group. In the words of Kevin Limonier, Professeur en Géopolitique et Études Slaves at the University of Paris, subcontracting operations to Wagner allows the Kremlin the “denial of causality”. Cost is also a factor: Wagner creatively self-finances (Bashar al-Assad’s regime allowed the Group 25% of the profits from oil and gas fields seized), thus lifting pressure on Moscow’s coffers.

But the group’s usefulness goes beyond that. Using Wagner as a proxy avoids home scrutiny of combat losses. As many as 600 hundred Wagnerians died fighting in Syria alone. In early 2018 Wagner fighters — who, paid about £2,000 a month, are mostly former Russian regulars — attacked an outpost manned by US special forces and their allies at a Conoco gas plant in Syria’s Deir Ezzor Province: embarrassingly, the Wagner company suffered 200 casualties. Yevgeny “The Chef” Prigozhin is unlikely to inform potential clients that his crack force is not all it’s cracked up to be.

It is flexible, though. An examination of the Central African Republic’s recent history shows how Moscow has shifted Wagner from combat roles to propping up fragile regimes by providing troop-training, defence of installations, and the protection of top officials. France 5 also discovered that Wagner is behind troll factories in Mali and neighbouring countries pumping out anti-French propaganda.

Indeed, no regime seems more prone to Wagner’s influence than Mali, where the group’s appearance at Camp 101, north of Bamako airport, in January was one of the reasons given by French president Emmanuel Macron for his recent decision to pull out 2,400 troops from the country. Macron told French media that the Mali military junta considered Wagner “the best partners they can find to protect their power, not to fight against terrorism”. France was not interested in junta-propping. Macron also claimed the Wagner group was “arriving with predatory intentions, but why?”

To build Russian influence, Monsieur Macron. Wagner is the Kremlin’s new favoured tool for establishing a political presence in receptive regimes. Macron’s retreat from the Sahel, where the French army has fought an insufficiently applauded and under-supported war against Islamic extremism, leaves a vacuum, and politics hates a vacuum. Enter: Putin, Prigozhin, and 1,000 Wagner troops.

Ukraine. Mali. Syria. As far as the Wagner Group is concerned it is all one simultaneous war. As Vassily, an active Wagner mercenary, told France 5, “At present, the Russian Federation is not yet an empire, but it intends to become one again… Wagner is one of the instruments to achieve this goal.” The danger is that while all eyes are on Ukraine, Putin is wielding the Wagner Group to achieve victories for Russian power politics in parts of the world British newspapers pay less attention to. And that would be a real Götterdämmerung for the West.


John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.

JLewisStempel

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Simon Diggins
SD
Simon Diggins
2 years ago

Mercenaries can be a problem but Wagner Group are not so different from Blackwater, G4S, KeenyMeany (yep!), ControlRisks, and all the other ‘western’ private security outfits, that have rampaged around the world in recent years. The Russians were probably slower into the game because of their paranoid fear of anyone, except state authorities, carrying weapons. But, even their roles: training, private security, a little light fighting, are not so different.

We need to be aware of them, even wary, but also keep them in perspective; the ‘schlock’ horror headline is unnecessary.

How do you deal with them? They’re mercenaries so buy them up!

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Diggins

Or shoot them on sight.

John Dewhirst
JD
John Dewhirst
2 years ago

With the likely collapse of the Russian economy I suspect that we will hear more of the Wagner Group. Not simply as the means by which Russia pursues its foreign policy objectives but also as a means by which Russians find work.

A Spetzari
AS
A Spetzari
2 years ago

 The Putin regime has long had bases in the south of France

Plus ça change… 😉
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_wintering_in_Toulon

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
2 years ago

I would think in the grand scheme of things a relatively poorly trained mercenary force of 6000 spread over the world is of minor concern to most western governments, who undoubtedly have networks of such resources that are far larger and better equipped. Private security guards on the oil fields of Iraq and other delightful areas are paid more a week than what the Russian chaps earn in a month.

Kevin Casey
KC
Kevin Casey
2 years ago

Reads like a Jason Bourne novel. Well written piece. Rather than criticise the Russians we could also no doubt add America to the list of country’s deposing or propping up governments.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Casey

Maybe word it – as well as criticising the Russians…

Kevin Casey
KC
Kevin Casey
2 years ago

True thanks for the correction

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Casey

Whataboutism seems to be very common when Russia is criticised.

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

That’s because that’s the only way the Putin apologists can defend the morally indefensible

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

‘Putin apologist’ is the new ‘anti-vaxxer’.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Yes, default to zero discernment,

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

If you come up with a better description for those seeking to excuse that animal’s behaviour then I’ll happily use it, but personally I find trying to defend a dictator who jails and disappears political opponents, poisons people with nerve agents on foreign soil and launches unprovoked land grabs of sovereign nations rather distasteful

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

No it is because we are criticising Russia for doing exactly what the US has been doing for the last 20 to 30 years and no one seems interested

Last edited 2 years ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

The Russian bots are beginning to stir.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

In the last 60 years the US has staged/sponsored coups, some against elected governments and some of which involved the assassination of leaders, in Vietnam, Chile, Brazil, Iraq, Indonesia, Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Syria, Poland, Panama, Grenada…and the list goes on in furtherance of it own economic as well as political interests.
It has also also interfered with democratic elections in many more countries including, ironically, Russia in 1996.
In 2003 it (and unfortunately the UK) staged a WMD false flag operation to justify the invasion of Iraq.
In and around 2010 it actively engaged in destabilising the Arab regimes giving rise to the Arab Spring and creating the mess we now have in Syria and Libya
More recently it was actively involve in attempts to remove the current Government of Belarus.
Is it any wonder Russia and Putin are concerned about US future designs.
Also, In the 1970s and 80s the US unashamedly justified its actions in the Americas on the basis that they were within the US sphere of influence and so they were not prepared to tolerate left wing governments.
Given this history on what basis does the US now believe it is any position to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
I used to believe that the old Soviet Union was, if not quite the “evil empire” then something pretty adjacent. I have slowly come round to the conclusion that the US was, in reality little different and, since the demise of the Soviet Union, has become has become the source significant harm in the world as it doggedly pursues its own interests or more accurately those of its ruling elites.
I have also come to view that through its iron control of the MSM it has reduced 90% of the population of the West, including its politicians, to NPCs (“non-player characters”). Who needs bots when you own the media

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Over the last 60 year the US has stage or sponsored coups, some against elected governments and some involving the assassination of leaders, in Vietnam, Chile, Brazil, Indonesia, Argentina, Nicaragua, Cambodia, Laos, Bolivia, Syria, Panama, Grenada and others. Often the regimes it has put in place and supported have engaged in the violent suppression of opposition, including pass killings with the support of the US. Here I have in mind in particular Indonesia In relation to which documents from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, declassified in 2017, confirmed that the US had knowledge of, facilitated and encouraged mass killings for its own geopolitical interests. There is also Operation Condor in Central and South America.
In addition, the US interfered in democratic elections in many countries including, ironically, in Russia in 1996.
In 2003, the US (and shamefully the UK) used a WMD false flag operation to justify the invasion of Iraq. Naively, I bought into this narrative at the time. I said no British Prime Minister would lie about something so serious.
Starting in about 2010 the US attempts to destabilise Arab regimes resulted in the Arab Spring and the situation we now have in Syria and Libya.
In 2014, we witnessed the US, assisted by the EU, oust the elected government of Ukraine and more recently attempt to destabilise Belarus.
Is it any wonder that Putin and Russia have real concerns that the US has designs on them next?
In the 1970s and 80s the US shamelessly justified its activities in Central and South America on the basis that they fell within its sphere of influence and so it had the right to remove any government of the wrong political complexion on the grounds that they constituted an existential threat. Is that not exactly what Russia is doing in Ukraine. Given the history of the US is it (and to a lesser extent the EU and UK) in any position to criticise, at least on moral grounds, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a very real sense we have legitimised this kind of military action and so we are now(or rather the Ukrainian people are)  reaping what we have sown.
Once upon a time, I did think that, if not quite Regan’s “evil empire”, the Soviet Union  was something approximating to it. The older I get the more I realise how increasingly the US resembles the old CCCP, and how in many ways it is more destructive. It has, at least since the 1950s and probably since before the turn of the last century, ruthlessly pursued its own political and economic interests, or more accurately the economic interests of its ruling, regardless of the damage inflicted on friend or foe alike.
The US gets away with it because of its iron grip on the MSM, which has turned 90% of the West, including its politicians into NPC (non-player characters), as someone else put it. If you own the MSM you do not need bots.

Kevin Casey
KC
Kevin Casey
2 years ago

Thank you , exactly my point

Kevin Casey
KC
Kevin Casey
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

My comment would hardly place me in the Putin apologist camp , but I’m always reminded that people who throw stones shouldn’t live in glass houses. What Putin has done is reprehensible, but so was Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq

Frank Freeman
FF
Frank Freeman
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

That is because many of the wars that the west have caused are not mentioned in the media very often and even less so now. 377,000 Yemenis have died while Britain, the US and France have sold weapons to the Saudis.

Jonathan Weil
JW
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Casey

Have you considered the costs imposed by the masters you serve, wittingly or unwittingly, “Kevin”? The hundreds of Ukrainian civilians, the thousands of Russian boys already dead? The show-motion fiasco that, I guarantee you, will not end well for Moscow either? Time to change your life…

Last edited 2 years ago by Jonathan Weil
Kevin Casey
Kevin Casey
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

I would be happier if you addressed my argument rather than attacking me personally. As I’ve already noted I’m not a Putin apologist and I find his actions despicable. My comments whichever way you want to take them, with regards to America are not only historically correct but relevant especially when, as I’ve noted we start casting stones

Neven Curlin
NC
Neven Curlin
2 years ago
Reply to  Kevin Casey

Everything concerning Russia reads like a Jason Bourne novel. Apparently, it sells well. If only reality were a novel, eh? We’d just call in Matt Damon and all would be solved in 90-100 minutes.

Kevin Casey
KC
Kevin Casey
2 years ago
Reply to  Neven Curlin

If you read my comment before putting pen to paper and attempting to put your words in my mouth my Jason Bourne reference was to the fact that I for one had never heard of this “secret” Russian outfit Wagner and after reading the whole article it indeed read like an adventure novel. No where did I imply that “everything concerning Russia reads like a Jason Bourne novel.” They’re your words not mine

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

One of the dirty little secrets is that the United States, Russia, China, and others use “private military contractors” in pursuit of their goals and to provide support where they do not want to be seen sending troops. These “contractors” receive actual support and logistics from their parent country. A lot of countries would prefer to use actual mercenaries to these guys since you are the one writing their paycheck and dealing with them directly. It helps keep you on the same page so to speak. The services of these contractors are often offered “free of charge” to the small African Government of your choice. Just remember there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Howard Gleave
HG
Howard Gleave
2 years ago

Could Russian mercenaries conquer the world? When US special forces kill 200 of them in one action, the answer seems obvious. These thugs are writing cheques their experience can’t cash.

Neven Curlin
NC
Neven Curlin
2 years ago

Could John Lewis-Stempel scare everybody in the world?

Last edited 2 years ago by Neven Curlin
Kiat Huang
Kiat Huang
2 years ago

I see in the comments use of the tried and tested Putin method to deflect criticism or even just questions, from individuals, by trying to convince you that the Americans, the UK or whoever are doing the same based things, or that they have similar problems of their own making. It’s a criminal saying, don’t look at me, look at these other criminals. Well, you are still a bad guy and you will be held responsible for your actions.