Chasing Influence: Wagner Group and the Future of Competition

Wagner Group members
Wagner Group members. Image credit: Security Service of Ukraine

Recently, three Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have filed a legal case in Russia against the Wagner Group concerning the torture of a detainee in Syria. The end of the Trump Presidency has also prompted the Pentagon to put a spotlight on the fact the United Arab Emirates has been possibly bankrolling of Russian mercenaries in Libya closely associated with the Wagner Group. Consequently, there have also been more revelations of the UAE’s linkages in relation to its fleet of Russian fourth-generation fighter jets which have been observed to be deployed for the benefit of the Wagner Group. Furthermore, the observations by the Pentagon emerged alongside a renewed focus on talks in Morocco to end the war in Libya which has likewise saw the involvement of the Group. In addition to financial support, the UAE  has also been offering “air strike and logistics support” to the group who are in turn assisting Khalifa Haftar in violation of an UN Security Council embargo which forbids transfer of arms in Libya. 

Strategic analysts have tracked the ties of the Wagner Group to oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin who has earned the moniker of “Putin’s Chef” and has been instrumental in utilizing the group to advance Russian state interests in an unofficial capacity as well as the troll factory working to sway domestic politics in different countries around the world. There is a patronage between Prigozhin and the Kremlin wherein defense contracts are provided to Prigozhin including contracts pertaining to construction and services as well as contracts in other countries involving natural resources. The Kremlin in turn can then employ the Wagner Group to expand its influence across West Asia and Africa. 

The Wagner group has been noted to be a lattice of companies collectively at the vanguard of Russia’s meddling exertions overseas including in Libya and Sudan. The name derives its origin from the germanophilia of Dmitry Utkin who was a military advisor in Damascus in 2013 and has been heavily involved with Private Military Contractors (PMC). PMC are “expeditionary conflict entrepreneurs,” who  “kill or train others to kill” in foreign settings. PMC who frequently work together with regional militias, volunteers, and criminal groups have been part of Russian security ecosystem since the 1990s and are distinguished from their Western counterparts due to their combat-oriented focus. However, the Wagner Group had its genesis in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria wherein the precursor of the group had ties to the so-called little green men in Crimea in 2014. Furthermore, these conflicts saw Russian involvement which consequently could have resulted in military casualties which may well have spelt catastrophe for Vladimir Putin.  

The Group has been indispensable in providing Russia with plausible deniability while being intensely entangled with military and intelligence in Russia. The Wagner Group has a base near Russian military intelligence (GRU) facility. Its members mostly have been reported to be Russian citizens. However, pro-Russian combatants from post-Soviet states and Serbia have joined as well. Some members have been serving in advisory roles or roles with diplomatic functions therefore cementing the control of Russia in these countries. Notably, Wagner Group is highly reliant on military infrastructure, the members of the Group fight alongside Russian military, receive military healthcare amenities and have Russian military medals. This is extremely significant considering the fact that private defence contractors are barred inside Russia. A fact which has been enshrined in the Russian constitution, scholars opine this may well be due to resistance put up by the state security services as well as the military to ensure their control over PMCs. Additionally, to protect plausible deniability, Vladimir Putin has signed a decree in 2018 which has made it illegal to report on the Group. 

Prigozhin’s involvement with the Wagner Group has led to him being sanctioned by the US Treasury due to the Group’s actions in the Central African Republic and Libya. Furthermore, the group has acquired agreements with external players in conflict ridden countries including Burundi, Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Nigeria, Crimea and Mozambique. This has led to a blurring of objectives of the group which is simultaneously securing the geopolitical imperatives of the Russian state and working for its own for-profit purposes. For instance, the leader of the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic was chosen to be the national security adviser in the country, the group provided the President of the country with private guard amenities besides training to Central African Armed Forces. Experts opine that involvement in the country had led the Group to diversify their financing as they received partial payment in diamond and gold along with increasing Russian influence in the country. Additionally, there are multiple vulnerabilities in the country for Russia to exploit including vast resources wealth along with limited regional expertise to mine those resources, international isolation as well as domestic uncertainty.

In the Central Africa Republic, Russian interests have been listed to fall into the categories of geoeconomic which includes precious stones as well as mining and geopolitical wherein the reasoning is focused on limiting the influence of the US on the continent along with the attainment of increasing backing from African nations of Russia’s UN undertakings. However, Russia is facing resistance from France which likewise has interests in the country that it wants to protect. France has described the use of mercenaries by Russia as part of “predatory” maneuvers which further include anti-French information ventures. However, this intermingling is also witnessed in other countries such as Sudan where Omar al-Bashir provided Prigozhin’s mining company, M-Invest which maintains links with the Ministry of Defense in Russia, access to gold mines in Sudanese territory. In Syria, Prigozhin’s Evro Polis, in exchange for the services rendered by the Wagner Group, acquired the rights to one-quarter of the profits from reserves of hydrocarbons it captured for the Assad regime.

Subsequently, the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) has delivered overhead imagery that demonstrates in the command’s calculation Russia supplying Wagner Group forces functioning in Libya with gear including armored vehicles, air defense systems, fighter aircraft. Furthermore, these developments signal an enlarged Russian footprint in Libya which has overlapped with UAE’s drawdowns alongside increased Turkish military presence. Additionally, Russia has heightened dependence on Russia on PMC to operate as its proxies in Africa to provide strategic deception. Analysts view the Wagner Group as a prism to look into the wider undercurrents below the surface of Vladimir Putin’s regime including exactly how it utilizes the aspirations and self-interests of elites like Prigozhin to generate adaptable apparatuses for advancement of Russian interests.

The expansion of interests is being witnessed keenly in Mozambique where the Wagner Group was purportedly deployed to the country’s distant north to train as well as to aid government forces in its fight against an Islamist insurgency which had links to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant where reports of losses were reported and it resulted in the disengagement of the group from the area. The Group was also involved in securing chromite mines retained by a Russian entity. In Libya, Russian interests pertain to hydrocarbons, docking privileges which ensure access to the Mediterranean as well as leverage over the Western countries can be secured through the Wagner which has been using Russian military equipment in the country.

The presence of mercenaries from the Wagner group has been observed in areas where there is an inherent power vacuum, showcasing Russia’s assertiveness as well as ensured resource consolidation for Russian regime affiliated companies which has drawn comparisons to companies controlled by colonial powers operating especially in Africa. Russia is equally offering an alternative to countries that have legacies of colonialism as well as an alternative to the US and China while in return acquiring access to the country’s internal politics. However, these developments do not obfuscate the fact that Russian state interests are heavily tied up in private interests which is likely to augment the need for PMCs backed by Moscow and unconstrained by military bureaucracy as Russian conglomerates expand their operations. 

Furthermore, Russia utilized its diplomatic heft to aid Russian PMC’s entry to foreign markets such as in 2017 when Russia was able to obtain an exemption from the arms embargo in the Central African Republic to provide light arms. PMC have been referred to as “force multipliers” yet, nevertheless, remain vulnerable to conventional forces. However, the inevitability of the increased use of PMC lies in the  PMC’s capabilities pertaining to improved tractability with an inherent ease to be able to infuse or remove combat forces on a limited time frame, therefore, fitting seamlessly into Russia’s asymmetric strategy.

Arushi Singh is pursuing a master’s degree by the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations (GIR) at Manipal Academy of Higher Education. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of author.