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Wagner Group
Private Military Company ‘Wagner’, a.k.a.
Chastnaya Voennaya Kompaniya ‘Vagner’, a.k.a.
Chvk Vagner, a.k.a.
PMC Wagner, a.k.a.

"Wagner group" is a Russian paramilitary organization associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and close associate of President Vladimir Putin. Vagner commanders have fought for the company both in Syria and, before that, in support of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. One of the groups sent to Ukraine was headed by Utkin, who fought under the nom de guerre Vagner, after 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner. Dmitriy Utkin is the founder and leader of PMC Wagner. It is said that Vagner has a swastika tattooed on his shoulder, wears a helmet with horns, and practiced a form of paganism.

"If you are fighting under a Russian flag, with a Russian weapon, even if you are eating moldy food and are 10,000 kilometers from home, you are nonetheless fighting for Russia," one Russian mercenary commander told RFE/RL in March 2018. "There is no Syrian war," he added. "There is no Ukrainian war. There is only a war between the Russian Federation and the United States."

Wagner Group seem like something from Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. In the novel, the main character Count Alexei Vronsky leaves to Serbia as a volunteer to fight against the Ottoman Empire as a part of a squadron he formed at his own expense. Pervasive in Russian literature these militias were used by tsars to pacify internal unrest and to achieve directed military and policy objectives. Today, Russian foreign policy has embraced many of the same ambitions that were born out of a need for “plausible deniability” in Kremlin’s military operations abroad.

The Wagner Group’s roots date back to Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine in 2014, when the Kremlin’s definitions of “soldier,” “mercenary” and “volunteer” first blurred at convenience amid its tacit support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east. While Moscow has long insisted Russia is not formally part of the conflict, Russian fighters have routinely taken part in battles — lured by idealism, propaganda and money.

“A huge number of people went to work for Wagner with pleasure,” explained journalist Denis Korotov of Fontanka.ru, an online publication in Saint Petersburg who first broke news of the Wagner mercenaries. “Russia has more than enough people who know how to shoot a gun, and these people can’t make anything close to this kind of money working in the civilian sector,” he added in an interview with VOA in January 2018.

Officially, the Vagner mercenaries sign contracts for civilian work in oil and gas fields. Mercenaries can earn 150,000 rubles ($2,650) a month, plus a bonus of up to 100 percent for completing a three-month tour. In three months, a mercenary can make nearly a million rubles. A commander can earn about three times as much. But a fighter who changes his mind is sent back to the supply port to unload crates at 1,000 rubles a day.

"There is a rumor that Vagner is a so-called meat-grinder project," one of the commanders said in 2018. "What is to be done with those who fought in Donbas? With the idiots from the first wave who are real ideologues? These are scary people who could catalyze society. They can cause trouble like yeast in bread. But in Syria, you can help the interests of the country and get rid of some yeast at the same time. That's what some people are saying. And probably there is something to it."

The representative of the co-owner of the group of companies Yevgeny Prigozhin told RBC 15 November 2017 that the businessman was not related to the "Wagner" PMC and is generally surprised by the very fact of its existence (mercenarism in Russia is legally banned). "We are not aware of the activities of the organization you mentioned. Also, Yevgeny Viktorovich asked to convey that he was extremely surprised by the very existence of this company and does not have anything to do with its activities, "said the representative of the businessman.

"The appointment of Dmitry Valerievich Utkin as general director is a private decision of the owner of Concord Management and Consulting LLC," the representative of the businessman said. He added that previously Utkin had never held positions in the structures of an entrepreneur. "SPARK-Interfax" reported that this post was taken by Dmitry Valerievich Utkin - the full namesake of the alleged commander of the "Wagner" PMC.

Vagner Group in Syria

The first Russian mercenaries were sent to Syria by an organization called Slavic Corps in 2013 -- 267 men, according to an investigation by the St. Petersburg website Fontanka.ru. Their official mission was to guard oil facilities and pipelines, but they were soon caught up in the country's civil war and suffered heavy losses. When the survivors returned to Moscow in October 2013, their leaders were arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for illegal mercenary activity.

Nonetheless, the idea of a role for mercenaries apparently took hold somewhere among the Russian authorities. Russian online investigative newspaper Fontantka provided evidence that around 500 pro-Syrian fighters – most of whom spoke Russian – played a pivotal role in the efforts to seize Palmyra and Deir Ezzor in 2016 and 2017. Leaked telephone conversations revealed Prigozhin himself ordered the assault. The commanders RFE/RL spoke with in 2018 estimated that some 400 Russians had been killed in Syria since 2015. Not all the killed mercenaries, they said, were returned to Russia.

Wagner links soon emerged in Syria, where the Kremlin launched a military campaign in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in the fall of 2015. Although President Vladimir Putin insisted at the outset that Russia’s military role would be limited, “Wagner became the Kremlin’s main tactical group in Syria. Because the Syrian army can’t do the job on their own,” Ruslan Leviev of the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of researchers who have also tracked Wagners movements using online forensics stated 07 August 2018. “An air campaign can’t win the war and a ground invasion meant big losses,” he added.

Putin wanted Russia's involvement in Syria to be different from its intervention in Afghanistan and Chechnya, which claimed many lives and were widely unpopular. The secret deployment of private contractors in Syria has helped keep the official Russian death toll low as Putin sought re-election. When Russians were killed in February 2018 in a US attack in Syria’s Deir el-Zour province, the Russian government insisted that Moscow did not send them there. Hiring mercenaries or working as one is against Russian law.

The Wagner group “is not a classic private contractor; it is ... an unofficial arm of the Defense Ministry,” said Ruslan Leviev, whose Conflict Intelligence Team studied the clandestine Russian deployment in Syria. He said Prigozhin was the right person to take up the task,” compared to any other oligarch of Putin’s.” Evro Polis, a company linked to Prigozhin, signed an agreement with Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp., which gives the Russian company 25 percent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its contractors capture and secure.

In February 2018, an unknown number of Russian mercenaries -- some reports say a dozen, others as many as 200 -- were killed by U.S. air strikes during fighting in Syria. The men were hired by a private military contracting firm called ChVK Vagner, which has been sending Russians to fight in Syria since 2015.

The Russian mercenaries fighting in Syria said they were not in the country for the money or to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "[Syrians] can't stand Assad," one Russian mercenary commander told RFE/RL in March 2018. "Really. Only a tiny percentage of the population there supports him and the rest oppose him. Only [Russian President Vladimir] Putin supports him. Russia supports him -- no one else."

RFE/RL's sources estimated in early 2018 that there were about 2,000 Vagner fighters in Syria, although other media reports put the figure at 4,000. In addition, the Vagner troops fight together with a unit called Karpaty, which is made up primarily of about 300 Cossacks with Ukrainian citizenship.

The mercenary groups worked hand-in-hand with the Russian military. They trained at a military facility near Rostov-on-Don and were commanded by experienced officers from the special services and the Defense Ministry. By June 2014, the first groups of about 250 mercenaries each had crossed the border into Ukraine. They were basically company-sized tactical groups. There were no private military contractors then, but people were paid on time.

By 2018 there were several Russian private military contracting companies working in the country, but only the Vagner troops are said to engage in combat operations. RFE/RL's sources estimated that there were about 2,000 Vagner fighters in Syria, although other media reports put the figure at 4,000. In addition, the Vagner troops fight together with a unit called Karpaty, which is made up primarily of about 300 Cossacks with Ukrainian citizenship. Including Russian military forces, there were some 8,000 Russians supporting Assad in Syria now, the commanders say. "There were 6,000, but they announced a draw-down and reduced it to 8,000," one commander quipped to RFE.

Vagner Group in Ukraine

In 2014, as Moscow was annexing Ukraine's Crimea region and stoking a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, a Soviet and Russian army officer named Dmitry Utkin and others began forming paramilitary units to fight in Ukraine's Donbas. PMC Wagner recruited and sent soldiers to fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine. When fighting broke out in 2014 in eastern Ukraine between the pro-Moscow separatists and Ukrainian government forces, Russia limited its presence there to clandestine troop deployments and funding and training for the rebels. Former Russian soldiers were recruited to join the separatists by a shadowy company called the Wagner Group, whose founder, Lt. Col. Dmitriy Utkin, came under US Treasury Department sanctions for the firm's actions in Ukraine.

The mercenary groups worked hand-in-hand with the Russian military. They trained at a military facility near Rostov-on-Don and were commanded by experienced officers from the special services and the Defense Ministry. By June 2014, the first groups of about 250 mercenaries each had crossed the border into Ukraine. "They were basically company-sized tactical groups," one commander said. "There were no private military contractors then, but people were paid on time."

The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on 20 June 2017 reinforced existing sanctions on Russia by designating or identifying a range of individuals and entities involved in the ongoing conflict under four Executive orders (E.O.s) related to Russia and Ukraine. As a result of these action, any property or interest in property of the designated persons in the possession or control of U.S. persons or within the United States must be blocked. Additionally, transactions by U.S. persons involving these persons were generally prohibited.

PMC Wagner was being designated for being responsible for or complicit in, or having engaged in, directly or indirectly, actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine. Utkin is being designated for being responsible for or complicit in, or having engaged in, directly or indirectly, actions or policies that threaten the peace, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine; and for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, PMC Wagner. Prigozhin was sanctioned in 2016 by the US, which cited his companies' Defense Ministry contracts related to the conflict in Ukraine.

Vagner Group in Libya

A Russian drive to recruit Syrians to fight in Libya for warlord Khalifa Haftar accelerated in May when hundreds of mercenaries were signed up. Private military contractor Wagner Group is conducting the hiring with Russian army supervision. A former Wagner Group member said it first sent Syrians to Libya in 2019. Moscow's involvement in Libya is an extension of its ambition to project influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Wagner has up to 1,200 people deployed in Libya, according to a confidential UN report seen by Reuters in May 2020. The Russian state has denied having forces in Libya. When asked in January 2020 if the Wagner Group is fighting in Libya, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if there were Russians in Libya, they were not representing the Russian state, nor were they paid by the state.

Vagner Group in CAR

In the Central African Republic, by 2018 some contended Wagner’s mission had shifted once again — this time, to protect economic as well as political interests. Media reports suggest Wagnerites were there to flush out — or, perhaps, blend in with — 175 Russian civilian and military “instructors” tasked within a larger United Nations mission aimed at shoring up the CAR’s government amid a civil war. The Kremlin has also openly worked with CAR to develop its diamond and mineral industries. “We conclude that the ‘Russian civilian instructors’ in CAR were in fact Russian mercenaries from Wagner,” says Conflict Intelligence Team’s Ruslan Leviev. Russian officials, in turn, stress the Russian presence is there with UN backing. “There is nothing sensational about the presence of Russian instructors in the Central African Republic,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “No one has been concealing anything.”

The company M-Invest, which Prigozhin is rumoured to own, has an interest in Sudan’s gold deposits and Libya’s oil-rich east region, presumably secured by offering various military services in exchange for natural resource contracts. Wagner’s influence might go even deeper. Proekt Media, an independent Russian news outlet, produced four lengthy reports unearthing a CAR government mining contract with Prigozhin’s conglomerate Lobaye Invest.

It finances the training of army recruits in the CAR by some 250 Russian mercenaries. Attempts at scrutiny became even more complicated when three Russian journalists investigating Wagner’s activities in the CAR were murdered under mysterious circumstances in the summer of 2018, and two additional individuals who tried to investigate their murder were poisoned. Unfortunately, details on Wagner’s deployments in CAR were scarce, but based on what can be gleaned from sources available, they follow a similar pattern.

By early 2022 more than 1,000 Russians were deployed to CAR by the Wagner Group.

Vagner Group in Mali

By early 2022 there were increasing reports of Russian soldiers being deployed in Mali, believed to be fighters from the Wagner group. According to these exclusive photos, 200 of them are currently in Segou, 200 kilometres north-east of Bamako. Mali's government denied the presence of Russian mercenaries in the West African country after 15 Western powers accused Russia of providing material support to a deployment of private military contractors. The US Army estimated hundreds of Wagner personnel were in the Sahel state, but the country’s ruling army has denied this.

The nations involved in the fight against a jihadist insurgency in Mali, including Canada, Germany, France and Britain, said they "firmly condemn the deployment of mercenary troops on Malian territory". They said "We are aware of the involvement of the Russian Federation government in providing material support to the deployment of the Wagner group in Mali and call on Russia to revert to a responsible and constructive behaviour in the region". It was one of the first official acknowledgements by Western capitals that the deployment of fighters has begun in Mali after months of warnings to the Bamako government.

Ned Price, US Dtate Department Spokesman, said 15 December 2021 "We are alarmed by a potential deployment of Russia-backed Wagner Group forces in Mali. We understand that the reported deal — costing $10 million per month — diverts money that could be used to support the Malian Armed Forces and public services to pay for the deployment of Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Wagner Group forces to Mali. Wagner forces — which are known for their destabilizing activities and human rights abuses — will not bring peace to Mali, but rather will destabilize the country further."

Mali's government denied any deployment of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group following charges by a group of 15 Western powers involved in the fight against jihadists in the Sahel country. The government "gives a formal denial to these baseless allegations" of "an alleged deployment of elements from a private security company in Mali," it said in a statement released 25 December 2021. Mali's government "demands that proof be brought to it by independent sources" and said "Russian trainers" were in Mali as part of strengthening the operational capacity of the national defence and security forces. Bamako was "only involved in a state-to-state partnership with the Russian Federation, its historical partner", said the statement signed by government spokesman Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga.

France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has accused Russian private military contractor Wagner Group of plundering Mali’s resources amid heightened tensions between Paris and the country’s military government in recent weeks, including over the fate of European forces deployed in the region to fight armed groups. Relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply since Mali’s army led by Colonel Assimi Goita staged a coup in August 2020.

The Wagner mercenaries are “former Russian soldiers, armed by Russia and accompanied by Russian logistics”, Le Drian said. “They are already at the moment helping themselves to the country’s resources in exchange for protecting the junta. They are despoiling Mali,” he told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper in remarks published on 30 January 2022. “Wagner uses the weakness of certain states to implant itself… to reinforce Russia’s influence in Africa,” Le Drian added, though he said it did not seek to replace the Europeans in the region.

Vagner Group in Burkina Faso

Reports that Russia is connected to the coup in Burkina Faso made their way to the Pentagon, though U.S. defense officials decline to say whether the allegations have merit. Burkinabe soldiers went on national television 24 January 2022, announcing they had deposed President Roch Kabore due to "the continuous deterioration of the security situation which threatens the very foundations of our nation."

A day later, Alexander Ivanov, the official representative of Russian military trainers in the Central African Republic, issued a statement offering training to the Burkinabe military. The CAR has been employing mercenaries with Russia's Wagner Group to help with security since 2017. "The Department of Defense is aware of the allegations that the Russian-backed Wagner Group may have been a force behind the military takeover in Burkina Faso," Cindi King, a Defense Department spokesperson, stated.

The Daily Beast first reported the allegations that Wagner was tied to the coup in Burkina Faso, citing sources close to the deposed president as saying his final acts in office were to oppose requests by the Burkinabe military to hire Wagner. "The president quickly rejected the idea," one official told The Daily Beast. "Kabore didn't want to run into any problems with the West for aligning with Russia."

Speakers at a rally of about 1,000 people in Ouagadougou, the capital, repeatedly called for Russian military intervention. Major General Andrew Rohling, the commander of the U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, said "It is a way that Russia of course is able to influence [a] military without actually putting a Russian flag on it," calling the situation in Burkina Faso "a little bit of an unknown right now."

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Page last modified: 06-10-2022 11:55:16 ZULU