The more hybrid our reality gets, the more hybrid warfare becomes. The statement is Russia’s latest informal creed, underlying a disproportionate war waged abroad. For that, the country has been using a “no man’s army”, and its best-known avatar is the Wagner Group.
The war in Donbass and the mercenary company of a (former) GRU officer
The international media has written volumes about this shadowy military outfit. Still, too little has yet come to light regarding the activity of the Wagner Group and the true purpose it serves. The uncertainty tied to its legal statute and the exact nature of its operations further mystify the truth.
The Wagner Group first grabbed headlines in 2014 when fighting broke out in the Donabass region. At the time, Ukrainian experts warned Russia is seeking to conceal its military presence in the region by using various shadowy units, without official military status or a known link to Moscow.
The company known as the Wagner Group is being coordinated by Dmitriy Utikin, a former officer of the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence agency), born in 1970 in Ukraine. In 2014, military experts saw that Wagner Group mercenaries were fighting alongside Moscow-backed local separatist military forces. According to some sources, most notably the “Fontanka” Saint-Petersburg-based newspaper, which carried a series of articles on this military group, Dmitriy Utkin is a Third Reich sympathizer who named his paramilitary unit after the German composer Richard Wagner, whose operas are said to have inspired Adolf Hitler.
Fontanka was unable to substantiate a legal or official link between the Wagner Group and the Russian Ministry of Defense. So was Reuters, which in turn investigated Utkin’s company. This doesn’t mean, however, that the Kremlin isn’t overseeing Wagner’s activities.
Ghost armies of offshore companies
The Russian law forbids the setup and functioning of private security companies, irrespective of whether these intend to carry out their operations on the country’s territory or overseas. It is equally illegal for Russian citizens to work as mercenaries. Nevertheless, since 2018, Russian officers on reserve have been allowed to sign contracts with foreign military companies operating outside the country’s territory. This creates a loophole whereby paramilitary companies can be set up offshore using Russian capital. This is not the only method allowing companies to operate this way.
Compared to other security outfits, the Wagner Group is even more obscure. There’s not a single registered document attesting to the existence of the group, according to an investigation conducted by Bellingcat, The Insider and Der Spiegel. It is just a name. As it stands, the Wagner Group has scarcely detailed public records, and yet it is the best-known Russian private security contractor globally. This is very much owed to the fact that Putin couldn’t resist the temptation of associating his image to this company that showcases Russia’s military prowess beyond the country’s borders. Some leaders within the Wagner Group have received honors, each time little to no explanation being offered from either Vladimir Putin, or the Ministry of Defense, as to the exact reasons. Needless to say, Moscow has always refused to go on record regarding a possible link between the Kremlin and Wagner.
By employing contractors such as the Wagner Group, Russia can first of all mask, if it wishes, its military operations abroad. Secondly, this helps Russia keep its image untarnished when the operations don’t go as planned. Moscow can thus conceal its casualties in overseas operations in countries such as Ukraine, Sudan or Syria, such as it did in the aftermath of a battle against the U.S.-led forces in the Syrian region Deir al-Zor. According to Fontanka, mercenaries sign a 10-year contract, during which time they are sworn to secrecy over their missions – the perfect “maskirovka” strategy. Even when and if the real death toll does comes out, it is not attributed to a state army, but to a private military contractor. Conversely, when successful, the company’s operations are acknowledged by officials back home, albeit merely hinted at or by means of a decoration ceremony. As a result, Russia’s image as a victorious and powerful state remains intact.
Hybrid funding for hybrid activities
The Wagner Group is not just the product of a need to operate outside the country’s border by avoiding the headache an official military intervention would entail. The company also reflects the corruption and cronyism inherent to today’s Russian state. Investigations carried out by RMK and “Fontanka” reveal the funding channeled into Russia’s secret army is hybrid. The training is done close to a GRU base in the Krasnodar region, food and equipment are delivered by the Defense Ministry, transport is covered by foreign partners and other interested companies, and the origin of the capital used to pay the mercenaries is not entirely known. It’s become a habit for major businessmen who want to enlist the Kremlin’s support or simply to score some loyalty points from Putin, to take over some financial responsibilities over a period of time: they either pay the salaries (in cash only), or the transport, etc. This military group is therefore a consequence of social and political relations inside Russia.
The Wagner Group is believed to be funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, “Putin’s chef” as he was once called, a Russian businessman controlling the troll factory in Saint Petersburg. The United States periodically extends sanctions on Prigozhin and his associates in connection to the activity of the troll factory. The client – patron system in Russia resembles relations in feudal times. Yevgeny Prigozhin bankrolls the troll farm, the Wagner Group and other projects, and in return his companies get millions in government contracts to supply meals to children in schools and nurseries in Moscow and to the army!
Several Russian businessmen financially support the activities of the Wagner Group and other paramilitary outfits. In return, they are awarded Government contracts for big public procurement projects, or simply earn political favor. CSI media has alleged the Wagner Group is charged with assassinating officers or leaders in Donbass and other regions who’ve fallen short of the Kremlin’s expectations (as is the case of Aleksandr Bednov, the commander of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic in Ukraine) or other enemies of Moscow. For these reasons, British expert Mark Galeotti has labeled the Wagner Group “a pseudo-mercenary firm”, the term being meant to underline the hybrid nature of the company. According to RBK, Wagner mercenaries were promised control over gold, gas and oil deposits as spoils of battles fought in Syria and Sudan.
Wagner touring war zones, from Donbass to Syria and Africa
Ukraine was the first country where the combat skills of the Wagner Group were put to the test, and the local media repeatedly published information on the activities of the company, accompanied by testimonies of those who faced Wagner combatants head-on. In 2017, the head of the SBU – the Security Service of Ukraine, Vasyl Hrytsak, said the Wagner Group is a secret army of Russia, and Kiev believes all subcontracted mercenaries are Russian military. The Group was involved in the battle of Debaltseve and in the IL-76 airplane shoot-down. In 2015, to increase its “legitimacy”, the Group hired a number of Ukrainians, creating the “Carpathians” company, whose members were supposed to create diversions and instability in Ukraine. Information is scarce on the Group’s actions outside the self-proclaimed republics in Donbass.
The years that followed saw a surge in the Group’s operations in Syria, Sudan, Libya, Mozambique, etc. In 2020 the international media wrote about 33 mercenaries detained in Belarus. The Kremlin announced the Russian men were “working for a private security company” and were temporarily staying in Belarus on their way to Istanbul, “to visit the Hagia Sophia!” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko blamed Russia for trying to destabilize the country ahead of the election. Instead, Russia shifted blame, claiming Ukraine wants to set the two allies against each other. During the interrogations the mercenaries’ statements were inconsistent, “less than half” saying their group was flying from Minsk to Istanbul, while the rest indicating entirely different destinations.
“No man’s army”
Each time the Wagner Group is brought up, Moscow refers to it as a private company. Therefore, we have a de jure “no man’s army” which is de facto involved in Russian operations in several states. In August 2016, RBK journalists said the Group consists of 2.500 people. In 2017, the SBU announced Wagner allegedly employs over 5.000 mercenaries. Starting 2014, the Wagner Group also includes a division of ethnic Serbs, and the personal data of the 6 Serbian nationals who died in Donbass were published by the SBU.
This “no man’s army” allows Russia to “innovate” and take the hybrid war to a whole new level, a method different from the one used to invade and annex Crimea with the help of the famous “little green men”. It allows Russia to keep its overseas military profile low. At the same time, Wagner is deeply intertwined with the complex mechanism of patrons and connections in Russia, a mix of public and private that, layer upon layer, makes up the system of power in Russia. The company is funded by oligarchies contingent on the state’s goodwill, but also defends their interests by securing enterprises, locations or exploration areas abroad belonging to the said oligarchies.
Whereas the role of the Wagner Group as a geopolitical tool for Russia can be subject to scrutiny, all its other functions seem hard to grasp to Western analysts, representing a continuation of relations between the Kremlin and its internal vassals. But, as the Russian writer Fyodor Tyutchev said, “you cannot grasp Russia with your mind”.