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.
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.
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 have been killed in Syria since 2015. Not all the killed mercenaries, they said, are returned to Russia.
"There is a rumor that Vagner is a so-called meat-grinder project," one of the commanders said. "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.
PMC Wagner is a private military company that 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."
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 practices a form of paganism.
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. 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.
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 are 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.
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 are 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." There is a bigger motivation, the mercenary claimed. "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," he said. "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."
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 are 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 are 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.
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 are 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 are 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 are scarce, but based on what can be gleaned from sources available, they follow a similar pattern.
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