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Who are Russia's mercenary Wagner Group?

June 27, 2023

The private military company, owned by one of President Vladmir Putin's former allies, has been around since long before the war began in Ukraine.

Logo des russischen privaten Sicherheitsunternehmen und Militärunternehmen Wagner Gruppe (paramilitärische Organisation)
Wagner is not the only private military company in the world but stands out because of Russian government supportImage: imageBROKER/Siegra Asmoel/imago images

The Wagner Group used to be a more secretive private military company, generally operating comparatively anonymously in conflicts worldwide. But after Russia invaded Ukraine, the group stepped out of shadows and grabbed international attention for its involvement in that war.

Last Saturday, the Wagner Group gained further notoriety when Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the private military company, or PMC, led what seemed to be a rebellion within Russia itself. Wagner Group fighters took control of military headquarters in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

But less than two days after doing so, the Wagner Group called off its mutiny. The reasons and consequences remain unclear but Prigozhin had been criticizing Russian military leadership for months.

So who are the mercenary Wagner Group and what sets them apart from other private military companies? 

Where did Wagner Group come from?

The group was founded in 2014 and one of its first known missions was in Crimea, Ukraine, that same year, where mercenaries in unmarked uniforms helped Russian-backed separatist forces take over the area.

A mural in Serbia idealizes Wagner Group fighters
A mural in Serbia idealizes Wagner Group fighters as 'Russian knights'Image: Darko Vojinovic/AP/picture alliance/dpa

After Russia's official invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Moscow initially used the mercenaries to reinforce frontline forces but came increasingly to rely on them in critical battles, such as those around the cities of Bakhmut and Soledar. The company, its owner and most of its commanders have been sanctioned by the US, UK and EU.

Who funds Wagner mercenaries?

Kremlin-linked oligarch Prigozhin owns the Wagner company. According to the US Treasury Department, Prigozhin uses Wagner mercenaries, along with his other multinational businesses, to operate a transnational criminal organization. He has been accused of receiving energy concessions and valuable raw materials in exchange for military support in Syria and Central Africa.

A reportby the British newspaper, the Financial Times estimated that between 2018 and 2021, revenues from Wagner's holdings in natural resources reached approximately $250 million.

Who belongs to Wagner Group?

The Wagner PMC existed long before the war in Ukraine broke out and was made up of a few thousand mercenaries. Most of these were believed to be highly trained former elite soldiers. But as Russia's losses in the Ukraine war began to mount,  Prigozhin, began to expand the group, recruiting Russian prisoners and civilians, as well as foreigners.

In a video circulating online from September 2022, Prigozhin is seen in a Russian prison courtyard addressing a crowd of convicts, promising that if they served in Ukraine for six months, their sentences would be commuted.

The Wagner Group's recruitment efforts have extended far beyond Russia, with research revealing recruitment information in 16 languages, including French, Spanish, Vietnamese and Polish, shared on social media platforms.

According to a study conducted by Logically, a UK-based research group focused on disinformation, the mercenary group has been utilizing Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to attract new members globally. Some posts promised earnings of up to 240,000 Russian rubles per month (€2,700, $2,945) and additional, possible bonuses. Job ads for the mercenary group garnered almost 120,000 views on Twitter and Facebook over a 10 month period.

Some foreign armed forces, such as Nepalese soldiers in India's service, have reportedly joined Prigozhin's mercenaries.

The Wagner Group is now estimated by the British Defense Ministry to have as many as 50,000 soldiers altogether. 

Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin, standing in grave yard
Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin has close ties to the KremlinImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

Is the Wagner Group legal in Russia?

The establishment of private military companies is illegal according to the Russian constitution, which states that the responsibility for security and defense lies solely with the state. Russia's Criminal Code prohibits citizens from serving as mercenaries but state-run companies are allowed to have private armed security forces. Such loopholes in Russian law allow the Wagner Group to operate in a semi-legal gray zone.

The Wagner Group has worked in Africa, for instance, providing support and security for Russian mining companies and other clients. Russia has been accused of using the group as a tool to gain control over natural resources in Africa, as well as to influence politics and conflicts in foreign nations including Libya, Sudan, Mali and Madagascar. 

Wagner Group fighters were also present in Syria, working in support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. 

What makes Wagner Group different from the rest of PMCs?

Russia is not the only country with private military companies. Many other countries, including the United States, South Africa, Iraq and Colombia, have private military companies operating inside and outside their own borders. Many such groups operate with a low profile. The International Criminal Court and the United Nations have raised alarm about how many mercenaries and private military and security companies are engaged in current armed conflicts.

Smoke billows during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Soledar
The company's oligarch owner claims Wagner mercenaries have played a vital role in the battles of Soledar and BakhmutImage: AP/Libkos

The Wagner Group stands out due to its close ties with the Russian government as well as its broad range of activities. While many private contracters focus on providing security services, the Wagner Group has been involved in a wide range of tasks in conflicts and civil wars

The Wagner Group's mercenaries alleged embrace of far-right ideologies has also brought the group infamy. Dmitry Utkin, the group's founder, has close ties to a white supremacist, ultranationalist organization known as the Night Wolves, a motorcycle club sanctioned by the US, UK and EU. 

The Night Wolves are also thought to be tacitly supported by the Russian government, and social media is full of images of Wagner Group members promoting the Night Wolves' brand of far-right rhetoric.

The Wagner Group has also become infamous for its brutality. Members have been implicated in human rights abuses and war crimes.

This includes the apparent murder of Yevgeny Nuzhin, a former convicted murderer who had joined the group as a mercenary. After surrendering to Ukraine, Nuzhin gave a series of interviews, criticizing Russian leadership and revealing the dire conditions on the front lines that led him to defect. After being exchanged as a prisoner of war, a horrifying video appeared on the Telegram messenger service showing Nuzhin being executed with a sledgehammer. The sledgehammer is a popular symbol of the Wagner Group.

This story was first published in January 2023 and was updated with further information on June 27, 2023.