Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State
This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
The Russian private military company Wagner Group may appear to be a conventional business company. However, its management and operations are deeply intertwined with the Russian military and intelligence community. The Russian government has found Wagner and other private military companies to be useful as a way to extend its influence overseas without the visibility and intrusiveness of state military forces. As a result, Wagner should be considered a proxy organization of the Russian state rather than a private company selling services on the open market.1
Historical and legal background of private military companies in Russia
The post-Cold War era brought a renaissance of private security companies (PSCs) and private military companies (PMCs). Both state and non-state actors have frequently relied on their services, as these companies are more flexible, cheaper, less accountable, and often a lot more capable than regular militaries. Conflicts of the 21st century, particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw PMCs getting involved on all levels, from providing logistical support to high-intensity operations.
Post-Soviet Russia followed the trend of privatization of state violence relatively late, mostly due to the internal resistance of the armed forces, as well as to economic hardships. While there are thousands of private security companies operating in the country, guarding infrastructure and providing VIP-protection services, private military companies still can not be established legally on the territory of the Russian Federation. Although certain legal loopholes, to be explained later, made it possible for a few companies resembling Western PMCs to operate in the 1990s, Russian private military companies gained worldwide attention only in the 2010s, as a result of their participation in the wars in Syria and Ukraine.
Russia builds on the Soviet Union’s long history of operating proxy forces abroad. For example, the so-called Soviet Volunteer Group was an air force detachment deployed to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Nominally, all the pilots and technicians were volunteers, and Moscow officially denied any connection to them; in fact, they belonged to the Soviet Air Force. A few years later, during the Winter War against Finland, the Soviet Union used the puppet government of pro-Moscow Finnish politician, Otto Wille Kuusinen, as a cover for its attack on Finland. The 400,000-plus strong attacking force nominally belonged to the Kuusinen-government; however, this cover was so weak that Moscow abandoned it before the end of the war.
In the Cold War era, the Soviet Union sent thousands of military specialists under the cover of “advisors” to many conflicts worldwide, primarily the Middle East. Soviet advisors played an important role in modernizing the armed forces of Syria, Egypt, Libya, and a number of other states. In the 1990s, Russian “volunteers” participated in the separatist conflicts of Moldova and Georgia, while the Russian state officially denied its involvement in the conflicts and labelled them civil wars.
More recently, Russian military scholars have closely studied how the United States and its allies employed PSCs and PMCs in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, Russia had direct, though sporadic, contacts with Western PSCs in Afghanistan. The arms trafficking network of Viktor Bout occasionally even cooperated with several PSCs while it provided logistical services to the U.S. forces in Iraq.
Private military companies as tools of influence
The Kremlin has developed its own view of PMCs. Instead of approaching the question from the budgetary perspective—namely that PMCs are more flexible and cheaper than the regular military—Russia perceives them mainly as political-military tools of state influence, which can be employed under the cover of plausible deniability. As pointed out by Anna Borshchevskaya, in 2009 several special operations units of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) were subordinated directly to Chief of Staff Nikolay Makarov. Though there is no direct evidence, these units were probably intended to become the personnel source for private military companies to be set up in the future. A year later, Makarov publicly spoke about the need to use private military companies “for delicate missions abroad.” The logic prevailed: in April 2012, when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was asked in the Russian Duma about whether he supported the idea of creating a network of Russian private military companies, he replied positively and emphasized that PMCs could be tools of influence abroad, allowing the realization of national interests without the direct involvement of the state. As examples, he noted that such companies could provide protection of important facilities, as well as training for foreign military personnel abroad. Plausible deniability played a key role in Russia’s considerations about setting up private military companies, based also on the rich historical experiences Moscow has.
Another motivation for using PMCs is that it permits the Russian state to hide personnel losses from the Russian public. As these formations are formally private companies, their losses do not count in the official Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reports of how many servicemen have died or been injured. Thus, Russian MoD reports about the lost voennosluzhashchie (servicemembers) never include losses suffered by Russian private military companies operating in the same operational theater. The same logic allows Russia to deny the involvement of its proxies in the conflicts, as PMC contractors do not count as voennosluzhashchie. This is significant because Russian PMC operatives often fight in the front lines and attack difficult positions, and so their losses are much higher than those of the regular military.
The legal background
The Russian constitution specifically stipulates that all matters of security and defense belong solely to the state. Consequently, the establishment of private military companies is illegal in Russia, despite repeated efforts of certain powerful groups to change that. Pro-legalization arguments mostly center around the wide international practice of using PMCs, which would justify Russia doing the same. According to news reports, however, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other security agencies are strongly against lifting this ban.
However, there are a number of important loopholes in the Russian legislative system. While individuals are not allowed to serve as mercenaries, per the Russian Criminal Code, state-run enterprises are permitted to have private armed forces and security foundations. Combined with a usually dense de facto network of subcontractors, this allows Russian citizens to work for private military companies despite the nominal ban. Another workaround is to register companies abroad, which allows Russian authorities to ignore the operations of the “foreign” PMC. As Candace Rondeaux argues, the likely motivation of the Russian state to not push for the full legalization of private military companies is that this legal opacity adds to the overall ambiguity surrounding these entities; thus it increases the state’s freedom of maneuver in using them.
In practice, the legal environment is so permissive that most Russian private military companies prefer to recruit exclusively Russian citizens. Meanwhile, the formal ban on serving as a mercenary provides the Russian state with strong legal leverage over PMC operatives, ensuring their overall compliance with the state’s preferences.
Wagner Group is far from being the sole Russian private military company. Anna Maria Dyner lists several other Russian private military companies that have operated abroad, such as the E.N.O.T. Corporation in Syria and the Feraks group in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Sri Lanka, as well as the Antiterror-Orel Group and many others.
Direct predecessor of the Wagner Group: the Slavonic Corps
In line with the restrictive legal environment and the logic of plausible deniability, the so-called Slavonic Corps, a private military company, was set up in Hong Kong in 2013 by two employees of a conventional Russian PSC: the Moran Security Group. According to a Norwegian study published in 2020, however, it was in fact the Syrian government that contracted the Moran Security Group to assist Syrian government forces in fighting the Islamic State. As Moran itself was not up to the task, even though it had been operating in Syria already for at least a year, the decision was taken to set up a new entity; this became the Slavonic Corps.
Operatives of the Slavonic Corps deployed to Syria in 2013. Their mission was to assist Syrian forces in re-capturing oil facilities from Islamic State militants. However, several coordination and logistical problems arose. The key problem was that the Slavonic Corps relied on the Syrian government for logistics, but instead of the promised modern weapons, it received outdated weaponry in insufficient numbers. Its first combat mission in Syria ended with a spectacular defeat near Deir al-Zour. Survivors were transported back to Russia, and the company was disbanded.
The Wagner Group and Its Connections to the Russian State
The private military company Wagner Group appeared shortly after the Slavonic Corps ceased to exist. While Wagner is frequently referred to as a private company connected to the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, there are several factors indicating that the entity is closely linked to the Russian state.
An important detail is that Wagner Group is not registered either in Russia or anywhere else— de jure, the company does not exist. In line with the logic of ambiguity described above, the Russian state not only tolerates but, in many cases, actively supports its actions.
The career of Dmitry Utkin
Dmitry Utkin is the founder of the Wagner Group. A veteran of both Chechen wars, Utkin served in the GRU until 2013, after which he commanded a Spetsnaz unit, reaching the rank of a lieutenant colonel. In 2013, he quit the service and joined the Moran Security Group, in whose ranks he participated in the Slavonic Corps’ above-mentioned, failed operation in Syria. In 2014, he quit Moran and established the Wagner Group. The company was named after his old callsign “Vagner.” It cannot be verified whether Utkin initiated the establishment of Wagner Group or was only a front man for someone else.
Operatives of the Wagner Group, as well as Utkin himself, participated in the Russian operations in Ukraine in 2014. During the period from 2014 to 2015, Ukrainian signals intelligence intercepted three phone conversations of Utkin reporting to GRU Colonel Oleg Ivannikov, as well as to Major General Evgeny Nikiforov, chief of staff of Russia’s 58th Army. These conversations indicated that Utkin was subordinated both to the GRU and to the Russian military command. Another indicator of Utkin’s very close connection to the Russian state is that he was photographed at a Kremlin reception held on December 9, 2016, where he was decorated with the Order for Courage, allegedly for his services in Ukraine.
Shared base with the GRU
The main base of the Wagner Group is located in a town called Molkino, in Russia’s Krasnodar district. What makes this facility highly unusual is that it is operated jointly by the 10th Separate Special Purpose Brigade of Russia’s GRU and the Wagner Group. After passing the first checkpoint guarded by GRU soldiers, if one drives left, they will come to the GRU facility, while the road on the right leads to the Wagner barracks. An investigative report, published in the Russian journal Znak in March 2018, revealed that despite the fiasco at Deir ez-Zor, the base was constantly expanded and new buildings were being built.
It is highly unusual for any private company to share a base with an elite, special operations military unit, and it is particularly odd that GRU personnel guard the road leading to the barracks of a PMC. The fact that Molkino base operates the way it does implies that relations between the two organizations are indeed cordial.
Reliance on Russian military infrastructure
There have been several documented occasions where Wagner operatives used transport infrastructure related to Russia’s Ministry of Defense. When Wagner operatives were deployed to Venezuela to assist President Nicolas Maduro, they arrived onboard Russian Air Force transport aircrafts, an Ilyushin Il-62M and an Antonov An-124. In Libya, Russian military Ilyushin Il-76 cargo aircrafts supply Wagner operatives fighting on the ground. Wagner personnel regularly fly in and out of Syria on military transport aircraft.
And transport is not the only sector where it can be documented that Wagner is relying on Russian military infrastructure. Multiple investigative reports confirm that operatives of Wagner Group are treated and rehabilitated in Russian military hospitals. For example, after the February 2018 defeat at Deir ez-Zor, the wounded survivors were evacuated by Russian military medical aircraft to the military hospitals in Rostov and Moscow. This detail indicates that Wagner is connected so closely to Russian military structures that their operatives are entitled to receive specialized military health care—a benefit unlikely to be received by any normal private company.
According to reports of the Ukrainian security service (the SBU), verified by Bellingcat’s investigative reporting, Wagner operatives often use passports issued by a special passport desk in Moscow: Central Migration Office Unit 770-001. This unit issues passports almost exclusively to people linked to Russia’s Ministry of Defense. It was the same Unit 770-001 that issued the passports on the fake identities of the two perpetrators of the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal. Moreover, the documented passports of Wagner operatives were issued with sequential numbers, implying they were given out in groups, in an organized way. As the journalists of Bellingcat observed, this indicates that the Russian state not only tolerates but actively supports the operations of Wagner contractors abroad.
Presidential-level intervention for the sake of the Wagner Group
The last weeks of the 2020 presidential election campaign in Belarus brought an unexpected development: on July 29th, Belarusian authorities arrested 33 Russian citizens who allegedly belonged to the Wagner Group. While Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko used the story of the arrested Wagner operatives for his election campaign, accusing them of planning to interfere with the elections, independent sources revealed that, in fact, the Wagner Group has been using Belarus regularly as a transit country to various operational theaters; thus their presence on Belarusian territory was by no means extraordinary.
On July 31st, Russian President Vladimir Putin specially convened a meeting of the Russian National Security Council to discuss the issue. Thereafter, Putin raised the matter at leasttwice during his bilateral phone conversations with Lukashenko. Not surprisingly, the arrested Russian Wagner operatives were released shortly after the Belarusian elections were over, without any charges. The fact that the arrest of Wagner operatives made Putin urgently convene a special meeting of the National Security Council and that he discussed the issue directly with Lukashenko indicates that the fate of the arrested Wagner operatives was of extremely high importance to the Kremlin—which would be unlikely had Wagner not been closely connected to the Russian state.
Wagner is closely, often directly, connected to the Russian state. There is evidence indicating that the Wagner Group was subordinated to the Russian military in Ukraine. Wagner extensively relies on Russian military infrastructure, from using a shared base to being transported by Russian military aircraft to using military health care services. The Russian state is also documented supporting the Wagner Group with passports and, as implied by the recent events in Belarus, even by presidential-level political intervention.
Considering these factors, the transatlantic scholarly discourse about the Wagner Group should change. Instead of using the Russian narrative, according to which Wagner is a private military company, Wagner should be viewed as a classic proxy organization and handled accordingly. In this context, the fact that Wagner intends to appear as a private military company should be considered of limited relevance.
András Rácz is Senior Research Fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) operating in Berlin, Germany. The views expressed here are solely of his own, and do not represent the official position of CSIS, of any other institution, or state.
Background research for the present study has been conducted with the support of the research grant No. 129243., titled 'Tradition and Flexibility in Russia’s Security and Defense Policy', provided by the National Research, Development and Innovation Office of Hungary.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
1An important methodological particularity is that this analysis concentrates solely on the direct connections between the Wagner Group and the Russian state. Hence, questions of oligarchic interests occasionally overlapping with Russian state priorities, which may direct Wagner’s operations in various parts of the world, are outside the focus of the present study.