Russian Military Companies. Wagner, How Many Divisions?

Implicated in Moscow’s interventions in Ukraine since 2014 and in Syria since 2015, Russian military companies have more recently shown up in Libya and in several sub-Saharan African countries. The mys-terious Wagner group, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, closely connected with Vladimir Putin, has drawn special attention. This entity with undefined contours has been deployed for different purposes, depending on the situation and the country.

Russian mercenaries in Syria (Slavonic Corps, near 2013)

The market for private security, centred around bodyguard activities and building security was quickly organised in post-Soviet Russia. Private military companies (PMC), offering protection in critical areas, mine clearance, instruction and training, came later, at the end of the 2000s. The development of PMCs in Russia went hand in hand with the growing interest in this phenomenon inside the Russian strategic planning community.

Similar to their Western counterparts, Russian PMCs—there are around twenty of them—are registered as ordinary commercial companies since their activity is not recognized in law, even if there is an ongoing debate in Russia as to the appropriateness of creating such a framework for them. They have in particular been used for security missions on freighters running the Gulf of Aden, in mine-clearing operations in the Balkans and in Libya, or by the UN in Syria to guard refugee convoys. Mercenary activities are illegal in Russia, as stated in article 359 of the Russian penal code.

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s numerous hats

Interestingly enough, in recent years the attention paid to the role of Russian private military companies in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, is not so much focused on the conventional PMCs mentioned above as on other entities and particularly the Wagner group, which has no definite commercial status or any legal existence at all for that matter. Five years after it first appeared, Wagner seems mainly to be made up of groups of Russian mercenaries recruited on an ad hoc basis by this one man, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has to be regarded more as a “vassal” of the Kremlin than as an ordinary company director.

Prigogune is an entrepreneur who made his fortune in the nineties with fast-food restaurants. He has close ties with Vladimir Putin and among their other activities, his companies cater dinners and various events for the Russian presidency. The US have placed him on their sanctions list, Washington accusing him of having had a hand, via several of his companies, in the alleged attempts to manipulate the 2016 election. The interconnection between Wagner and the Russian armed forces is far more developed than that of ordinary PMCs. The latter include many retired officers with operational competencies acquired in the course of Moscow’s various armed interventions in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the Northern Caucasus, for example. The Wagner paradigm is quite different, as various features published in Russian investigative journals like Meduza, Fontanka or Novaya Gazeta have shown, a majority of the personnel recruited by that structure were trained on a military base located at Molkino in the Krasnodar region and belonging to the 10th brigade of the GRU, (Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces), and their equipment was drawn from Russian army surplus stocks.

The chief difference between Wagner and the ordinary PMCs is that the former has taken part in various armed operations, particularly in Syria and Libya, while the latter have had no combat activities. Thus Wagner has a proxy role and enables Moscow to take part in military operations without having to deploy regular armed forces or having to justify its implication. This procedure known as “plausible deniability” has often been used for various operations in which the Russian Federation has been involved.

“The little men in green” on the front line

At the beginning of the nineties, when separatist conflicts broke out in Moldavia and Georgia, Moscow provided decisive military support for the Transnistrian, Abkhazian and South Ossetian secessionists against the central authorities in Chisinau and Tbilisi, without formally taking sides in these conflicts. The annexation of Crimea is another example of plausible deniability, since the operations which led to this process were conducted by the “little men in green”, soldiers wearing no distinctive insignia whom Putin claimed were members of “local self-defence forces”, and whose uniforms could be purchased in any army surplus store. They were in fact members of various elite units of the Russian army, mainly the special forces of the GRU and the very secret special operations command created in 2013 and which would later play a key role in Russian military interventions in Syria.

Another illustration of plausible deniability is the armed conflict raging in the Donbass since the spring of 2014: while the main body of the 35,000 separatist fighters are in fact Ukrainian citizens, they are trained and commanded by some 3,000 members of the Russian armed forces and intelligence services, according to data compiled by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. and posted on the website Military Balance 2020,

It may be tempting to describe Wagner as a mere instrument for establishing plausible deniability, controlled by the Kremlin and allowing Moscow to intervene wherever it sees fit without having to bear the potential costs. However, this reading provides only a partial understanding of the Wagner phenomenon, as is suggested by the larger operations in which the structure has been involved.

The Slavonic Corps fiasco in Syria

The matrix of Wagner can be traced back to October 2013, when the Slavonic Corps, a filial registered in Hong Kong of the Russian PMC, Moran Security Group, was involved for the first time in armed operations in the Syrian conflict. The 270 members of the Slavonic Corps, originally recruited to protect oilfields for the Syrian regime in the Deir ez-Zor region, were sent to reinforce pro-governmental troops in the town of Al-Soukhna, in the region of Homs, under attack by the rebels. This venture ended in a fiasco, several Slavonic Corps fighters were killed and upon their return to Russia two men in charge of the operation were arrested by the FSB, the federal intelligence service.

In October 2014 they were sentenced to several years in prison for mercenary activities—it was the first time such a sentence had been pronounced in Russia—corroborating the idea that the operation had not been ordered by the Kremlin nor approved by it. This indeed was confirmed by Oleg Krilitisin, head of RSN-Group, the largest Russian PMC. In an interview given to Fontanka in November 2013, he said that the misfortunes which befell the Slavonic Corps in Syria were the result of sheer adventurism and a private initiative, that Russian authorities were never consulted.

Wagner gets its start in the battles for Palmyra

It was on the side of the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass that Wagner was formed around the person of Dimitry Utkin, reserve colonel in the GRU, having served in the Slavonic Corps venture.1 Wagner arrived in Syria in 2016 at the time when Yevgeny Prigozhin had taken the group in hand. It made its mark through the participation of several hundreds of its members in the two battles for Palmyra, in March 2015 and March 2017, in close collaboration with regular Russian troops, the air force and special operations command units, as well as Syrian troops. Wagner provided a consequential presence on the ground which the Russian military command in Syria had found lacking, since from its inception the Russian intervention had been largely confined to the air.

To the extent that Russia assumes full responsibility for its intervention in Syria, carried out under the terms of a military cooperation agreement signed with Damascus in 1980, the use of Wagner at Palmyra does not come under the heading of plausible deniability. It was not to conceal Russian participation that Wagner was used in those two battles but in order not to have to resort to regular army personnel since casualties in their ranks would have been hard to justify in the eyes of Russian public opinion. The other widely publicised operation in which Wagner took part was the attempt made in February 2018 to recover, for Damascus, oilfields in the region of Deir ez-Zor, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, an attempt which failed and cost the lives of several dozen members of Wagner..

In that particular instance, the use of Wagner was not based on what Moscow considered to be at stake but actually resulted from a contract between the General Petroleum Corporation, a State-owned Syrian company in charge of the exploitation of gas and oil, and Evro Polis, one of Prigozhin’s companies. Under ths contract, Evro Polis received 25% of the revenue of these hydrocarbon sites in exchange for their protection by Wagner. The upshot of this operation would tend to show that it was not carried out in close coordination with the Russian military command in Syria, which raises a question: what is the actual degree of control wielded over Wagner by the Russian General Staff and at the end of the day by the Russian executive?

Participation in Haftar’s Libyan offensives

Prigozhin’s arrival in Libya with his structure was, among other factors, the consequence of a meeting in Moscow in November 2018 between Sergey Choygu, Russian Minister of Defense and a delegation of high-ranking Libyan officers led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, also attended by Prigozhin. In order to understand the reasons for the latter’s presence in Libya, we must recall that Moscow’s role in that country has nothing like its proportions on the Syrian front. Unlike Syria, there is no substantial Russian military presence in Libya and until recently Moscow’s involvement in settling the Libyan crisis consisted mainly in parallel diplomacy, via Chechen intermediaries or via businessman Lev Dengov, chairman of the Russian contact group on Libya and president of the Russo-Libyan chamber of commerce, created in 2017. While officially, Moscow supports both Fayez El-Sarraj’s Tripoli government and Marshal Haftar, the latter has in fact the Kremlin’s preference. Indeed, Russia is one of the Tobruk strong man’s staunch supporters, after Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Wagner fighters took part in Haftar’s offensives, in the Spring and Autumn of 2019, when he tried to capture Tripoli, as was notably shown by the analyses of the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian bloggers set up in 2014, originally to monitor and denounce Moscow’s military intervention in the Donbass. The number of Wagner members who fought alongside Haftar’s National Libyan Army varies according to the sources. The Russian investigative press refers to several hundred fighters whereas in December 2019 the Turkish president denounced the presence in Libya of 2000 Russian mercenaries; the former estimation is probably closer to the truth. Be that as it may, though the presence of Russian fighters in Libya was implicitly acknowledged by Vladimir Putin last January when he said “If there are Russian citizens on the ground, they do not represent the interests of the Russian State and receive no funds from the Russian State”, they did not play, nor could they have played. a decisive role in Marshal Haftar’s plans.

An instrument to be used when the opportunity arises

Several interpretations have been proposed. It is plausible enough that Moscow facilitated the participation of mercenaries in the Libyan war—knowing full well that their presence would have no decisive consequence on the field of battle—merely to up the ante on the diplomatic front and claim to play a more important role in the Libyan affair. If so, the ploy was successful. In early January 2020, Moscow and Ankara put together a joint initiative in favour of a cease-fire in Libya and shortly afterwards a summit was arranged in Moscow between Sarraj and Haftar. Vladimir Putin then participated in the international conference on Libya held in Berlin on 20 January Moreover. Following the start of the Russo-Turkish dialogue, the Wagner fighters are said to have withdrawn from the combat zone.

It is also possible, and both interpretations may be correct, that the Kremlin authorised Prigozhin to sell his services to Marshal Haftar, so long as this did not fundamentally modify the balance of forces on the ground. Most of Libya’s old fields are on the territory controlled by the latter and it is likely that the Kremlin approved a deal between the Tobruk government and Prigozhin stipulating that in exchange for a military contribution to the offensive against Tripoli, the Russian businessman would take over the protection of the sites of hydrocarbon production. This was the model on which Prigozhin’s activities in Syria were principally based.

Several years after Wagner first appeared in the Donbass and its trial in battle in war-torn Syria, the entity’s definition remains a conundrum. While it is reductive to see it as an ordinary PMC, to describe it as a new tool in the Kremlin’s arsenal is equally deceptive because this would suggest that Wagner is an organised, future-proofed structure over which the Russian executive wields full control, which is simply not the case. Characterised as it is by a collusion between Prigozhin’s business interests and, in certain cases, but not systematically, Moscow’s operational or diplomatic goals, Wagner should be thought of as a means for the facilitation of certain opportunities in this or that area rather than as a new instrument in the service of an overall strategy.

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: A Ukrainian by birth, Utkine is a neo-Nazi admirer of the 3rd Reich and named his group after the composer glorified by Hitler’s regime. (Cf. Wikipedia)