The mysterious Russian mercenary organization, The Wagner Group, has been spotted fighting in Ukraine. Drone video shows Wagner Group fighters throwing grenades into houses and involved in a heavy firefight, as Russia turns its attention to the Donbas region.
The shadowy group has long been suspected of fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway regions and they have even been linked to war crimes in Mali. Despite its notorious reputation, The Wagner Group still operates under a cloud of legal jargon and a tangled web of different privatised security groups.
The main problem with looking into The Wagner Group is the question of whether the group is even a coherent business entity. Sorcha MacLeod, head of the United Nations working group on mercenaries, reiterates this issue, as she says “From a legal perspective, Wagner doesn’t exist.”
No business has ever officially registered as the “Wagner Group.” Rather, the name has caught on as a way to report on the opaque network of private security that serves Russian geopolitical goals.
The characterization of the Wagner group as an organization may inadvertently play into their own mythos. Candace Rondeaux, a senior fellow at the Center on the Future of War, described this characterization of the loose group of Russian mercenaries, as part of the Wagner Group, as “extremely problematic.” According to Rondeaux, it “Makes them sound like these ghostly operators that cannot be traced, and that is just not the case.”
Russian Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin has been linked to the funding and financial side of operations within the Wagner Group. While, Dmitry Utkin, a former GRU Colonel covered in Nazi tattoos, plays a large role in directing military operations.
The group rose to infamy in the Syrian civil war, where Russian military forces played a large role in bolstering Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. However, they have also been linked to Russian military activity in the Sahel region and the annexation of Crimea.
The key component of the Wagner group is plausible deniability. They can conduct military operations that advance Russian strategic goals without officially being part of the Russian state.
A 2018 battle in Syria between American troops and Wagner mercenaries resulted in the deaths of up to 300 Russians. The Russian state was quick to cut ties with the mercenaries, as to avoid an all-out war with America. Following the battle, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying “Russian service members did not take part in any capacity and Russian military equipment was not used.” However, the Foreign Ministry did add that “Russian Citizens” were involved in the battle and that they were in Syria “of their own free will and for different reasons.”
This sort of ambiguous language is by design as it follows a Russian military strategy of provocations within the ‘gray zone’ of warfare. The Center for Strategic and International Studies defines the gray zone as the “contested area between routine statecraft and open warfare.”
Mercenaries like the Wagner Group, fit seamlessly into this style of warfare. For example, Russian troops are unlikely to directly engage in a firefight with Estonian troops because Estonia is part of NATO and this would trigger a war between NATO and Russia. However, the Kremlin could have Wagner mercenaries stage a provocation with Estonia to subtly test the NATO alliance and still maintain enough distance from the conflict so as not to trigger Article Five. Mercenaries are crucial to maintain a “gray” area in world affairs and avoid open warfare.
This type of reliance on privatized military contractors is not unique to Russia. American audiences may be familiar with Blackwater, an American private military contractor, that gained notoriety through its involvement in the Nisour Square Massacre.
In 2020, The Intercept reported that Blackwater Founder and Trump administration founder Erik Prince had attempted to form a business relationship with The Wagner Group. Prince had attempted to supplement Wagner Group forces with Blackwater contractors in Mozambique and Libya. At the time The Wagner Group had been sanctioned as an entity of the Russian Government.
Great powers using guns for hire to do their dirty work is hardly surprising or a new historical phenomenon. However, it makes sense in an age where war is defined by digital disinformation campaigns, that private contractors with vague connections to state security apparatus will take on greater importance. As mercenary expert and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Sean McFate put it, “Plausible deniability is more important than firepower.”
With both the Russian and Ukrainian sides preparing for a longer more protracted war in the Donbas we will see if Russia relies more on Wagner firepower. The implications of creating a two-tiered public and private military within Russia could determine the outcome of the war.
Noah Schwartz is a recent graduate interested in foreign affairs and international security.