This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.
Wagner Group is Russia’s best-known private military company (PMC), appearing in conflict zones
in Europe, the Middle East, and across Africa. From its origins as one of several Russia
-based PMCs offering armed protection
, Wagner Group now provides a range of services, including military and paramilitary capabilities, covert media, and political manipulations. It provides state and corporate security abroad, without regard for international law or convention, and positions Russia as a less-constraining alternative to the United States and China for clients at the peripheries of international politics. The blurring of corporate and geopolitical interests by Russia through the use of its cutout Wagner Group, as implausible as denying the connection may be, allows it to challenge both competing powers without commensurately increasing the risk of great power conflict. Strict focus on Wagner Group’s military prowess (and sometimes spectacular failures, such as its total loss
at Deir ez-Zor, Syria in 2018) is misleading because it has evolved from a standalone fighting force to be just one part of Moscow’s efforts to provide a full suite of intervention services to current and potential clients abroad. This paper begins by identifying why Russia would need a PMC to achieve its strategic goals. It then explains how Wagner Group emerged to fit into Russia’s great power competition strategy of expanding Russia’s security, political, and economic influence abroad while remaining beneath the threshold of catalyzing overt, large-scale military conflict.
1989 vs. 1991 as Sources of Russia’s Strategic Dissatisfaction
Over his twenty years and counting in office, Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his desire to restore Russia to the status lost in the overlapping conclusions to the Cold War in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991. While Putin has overseen the modernization of Russia’s military forces, expansion of nuclear capabilities and doctrine, and use of fairly aggressive information operations, the development of a private military and security company represents a more concerted effort to close the gap between the status afforded to the Soviet Union as it negotiated a peaceful end to the Cold War and the much-diminished status experienced by Russia following its predecessor’s collapse. Russian policymakers have identified PMCs as an important mechanism to revise the international order and increase Russian influence along the peripheries of international politics without unduly risking great power conflict with the United States and China.
The collapse of socialist governments across Central Europe in autumn 1989 provided then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev an opportunity to end the Cold War by declining to use force to keep the Soviet sphere of influence in place. At the Malta Summit in December 1989, Gorbachev and his U.S. counterpart, President George H.W. Bush, agreed to end the era of superpower confrontation when both agreed to let events on the ground play out without the use of force. The Soviet leader returned to Moscow believing that a new era of international politics was in place: The two superpowers would jointly govern international affairs and the newly unaligned states would keep the peace as a buffer, allowing Gorbachev the opportunity to pursue internal reforms. Of course, the events of the subsequent two years created a very different scenario. The Soviet Union ceased to exist, the states it previously controlled as subordinates turned immediately to pursue NATO and European Union membership, and Russia and other post-Soviet states went through a turbulent political and economic era.
At the core of Putin’s strategic dissatisfaction is the gap between the joint stewardship that Gorbachev believed the end of the Cold War provided and the subordinate position Boris Yeltsin actually inherited. Putin wants what Gorbachev thought he would enjoy, which is for the United States, as the leading power of the system, first, to recognize Russia’s unique geopolitical rights, privileges, and capability to make the world a more dangerous place, and then, to develop political, economic, and security institutions that reflect Russia’s core interests. While the content of those interests has shifted over time, they generally include managing the external interests of former members of the Soviet Union, rejecting Euro-Atlantic democratic and market norms of free elections and free trade while continuing to enjoy unimpeded social and market access, and consulting on international and especially European security crises and architecture. In return, Russia would acknowledge its relative material, ideological, and soft power limitations and work with the United States to maintain a system where it was simultaneously subordinate to the United States but in a privileged position compared to other states.
Russia’s inability to assert these privileges and interests and force the United States to create the institutions it prefers to reflect both material and social limitations that oblige its leaders to recognize the fiscal limits on pursuing revisionism through great power conflict and the social limits the Russian public places on the state, as authoritarian as it may be, on military casualties
. As Putin’s goals have remained fixed, the development and use of PMCs allows Russia to engage in the revision of the international order via the states and leaders seeking alternatives to American- and European-led multilateral economic, political, and security institutions, and China’s excessive size, without exceeding Russia’s own limitations. By offering a broad range of kinetic and non-kinetic services through PMCs that allow foreign leaders and aspirants to choose what they want, Russia has developed a highly cost-effective method to revise the international order by offering alternative institutions that undermine the Western-led order and provide a lighter touch compared to China’s often-criticized foreign economic policy
. The use of PMCs outside formal diplomatic and military channels permits Russia to construct hierarchical relationships with foreign states that can be formalized if successful and jettisoned if not. PMCs, therefore, supplement Russia’s broader efforts at military modernization, nuclear parity, and overt interventions abroad.
How Has Wagner Group Become So Ubiquitous?
Wagner Group has succeeded in becoming Russia’s preeminent PMC and has elevated its sponsor Yevgeny Prigozhin from running a catering business to the upper tiers of Russia’s power brokers. According to Russian investigative reporting
, Prigozhin’s contacts in the Russian military’s general staff recognized that a Russian PMC could be used to increase Russian influence on the margins of international politics without having to employ the civilian intelligence services, their bureaucratic rivals. These officials then approached Prigozhin, a decades-long personal associate of Putin who had parlayed that relationship into becoming a large-scale contractor to the armed forces, to develop a PMC capable of deploying wherever the Russian state or its enterprises had a clear geopolitical or commercial interest or, more broadly, wherever it could leverage its presence as evidence of expanding influence relative to its great power rivals China and the United States without increasing the risk of great power conflict. Wagner Group, therefore, is successful because it is a member of Prigozhin’s corporate group that provides authoritarian leaders and aspiring leaders across the world with coercive capabilities, credited to—but not directly the consequence of—Russian state involvement.
Prigozhin’s rise to prominence is a testament to his mastery of the informal practices that characterize Russian power politics. Prigozhin has no known or publicly acknowledged military or security background, yet Wagner Group has become the pre-eminent private provider of these services in Putin’s Russia. His expertise lies in navigating unwritten rules, delivering services of strategic value to the state while benefiting from its largesse. That patrons of PMCs also are clients of Putin reflects classic patterns
of Russian politics dating back to the Muscovy period. Such firms do not serve private interests as they might have done in the 1990s, nor are they like fairly autonomous Western firms driven largely by profit. Putin’s re-centralized system of the political economy rests on an unwritten bargain with private interests: Enterprises of strategic value rely on the state for protection and public resources, while the state allows them to function with some measure of autonomy in exchange for rents. Russian PMCs are extra-legal parastatal organizations hypothetically subject to Article 359
of Russia’s 1996 Criminal Code, which expressly forbids “mercenarism.” Wagner Group is, therefore, subject to selective prosecution or other forms of coercion for breaking its “understanding” with the state. In this regard, Wagner Group effectively blurs the line between corporate and state interests, working with and for the state while not being of the state, in effect externalizing domestic informal practices to a foreign policy setting. This informality also explains Wagner Group’s flexibility, deploying for itself, the Russian state, and Russian state-owned enterprises for a number of reasons, including:
- Profit motive: Pursuing and securing profit-making enterprises for informal networks around Putin and other senior members of the Russian state apparatus.
- Political benefits: PMCs are less politically costly compared to uniformed soldiers, so they can prevent public dissatisfaction with foreign policy actions abroad.
- Strategic messaging: Implausible denials of Wagner Group’s activities are useful by showing the West cannot stop Russia from acting with impunity overseas.
- Status seeking: PMCs emulate Russia’s traditional military in power projection, effectively performing activities commonly associated with great power competition and blurring the distinction between different great power competitors. In 2018, a Russian newspaper interviewed a Wagner Group employee who made this final point on the geopolitics of using PMCs: “If you call us [Wagner Group fighters] ‘mercenaries,’ then aren't our soldiers mercenaries? . . . They’re also on contracts, like we are. I can't even call American PMCs mercenaries, because they also work for the state—for the State Department, for the CIA, for the Pentagon, or for some of the special services.”
In addition to the broad range of purposes for why Wagner Group is employed, the dramatic expansion of where it is employed
reveals the full suite of intervention services it offers across the world. Its initial deployment was to Ukraine in 2014, where it helped enforce Russian order over the kaleidoscope of Ukrainian separatists, before it moved into Syria in 2015. An attempt to capture a gas field and infrastructure in a side deal with the Syrian Ministry of Energy saw it suffer a devastating loss of 300 fighters to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Deir ez-Zor in 2018. That debacle, ironically, saved Wagner: According to investigative reporting by Bellingcat
, Prigozhin accepted the military subordination of Wagner to Russian military intelligence (GRU) and the direction of the Minister of Defense to reduce activities in Syria to expand Wagner’s activities elsewhere in the world. The internal political defeat turned into a lucrative opportunity for Prigozhin to gain clients in new markets, as an informal representative of the Russian state, through both his PMC and his Internet Research Agency, and the Patriot Media Group for non-kinetic operations under his Concord Management company. In this regard a political leader, aspirant, or non-state group can seek support for a wide range of tasks:
- Attack opponents if that individual needs to maintain a hold on power (Syria);
- Seize the state from internationally recognized authorities (Libya);
- Foment separatism from the state (Ukraine);
- Deliver illegal commodities to market (Central African Republic);
- Protect a leader from regime change pressure (Venezuela); or
- Conduct disinformation campaigns and electoral manipulation (Mozambique/Sudan/Madagascar).
Wagner Group’s success results from this corporate diversification
to offer intervention or support services, solely or in concert with formal elements of the Russian state, without the reforms commonly associated with support from the United States, such as protections for citizens from human rights abuses, greater democratization, and anti-corruption efforts, or from China, which may seek to interfere in local labor markets. Wagner Group’s ubiquity is that it helps Russia to increase its influence abroad without directly challenging China or the United States and running the risk of great power conflict, the need for arms racing, or public dissatisfaction. Although the U.S. government is trying to make the world more aware
of Wagner’s connections to the Russian state, Wagner Group’s comparative advantage is the blurring of those corporate to state responsibilities.
As demonstrated in Syria, the Wagner Group acting alone poses little challenge to the United States military. Rather, it undercuts the United States by appearing in areas where the U.S. is not engaged and challenges American prerogatives by supporting leaders hostile to American interests or who destabilize the balance of coercive capabilities. Wagner Group has the capability, intent, and therefore potential to shape the operational environment in other ways: provoking confrontation, conducting sabotage, inducing fear, paralyzing strategic targets, and providing a range of covert actions.
Russia’s continued use of Wagner Group presents a thorny policy problem for the United States: If PMCs’ presence signals Russia’s state interest in increasing influence abroad as a method to conduct great power competition, ignoring them allows their presence to be normalized and to serve as a symbol of U.S. decline, but trying to compete with them runs the risk of spreading American attention and resources too thinly and permitting Russia to cherry-pick the times and places where the United States commits itself.
Yuval Weber is the Bren Chair of Russian Military and Political Strategy at the Brute Krulak Center at the Marine Corps University and a Research Assistant Professor at the Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington, DC.
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).