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PUTIN’S WAGNER

Russia’s undeclared “War against Europe” includes weaponization of its energy market and of illegal migration at the Polish-Belarusian border, but much much more. The war extends to Europe’s former colonies: Last month, American and French governments condemned the nation of Mali for hiring the Wagner Group, an organization named after Hitler’s favorite composer. But the Wagner Group is not an orchestra. It’s a private armed force that employs thousands of Russian mercenaries to wage war or simply to stir up trouble around the world. Such soldiers of fortune have been around throughout history, but Wagner is unique. It has grown in just…

NOVEMBER 18, 2021

Diane Francis

 

Russia’s undeclared “War against Europe” includes weaponization of

its energy market and of illegal migration at the Polish-Belarusian

border, but much much more. The war extends to Europe’s former

colonies: Last month, American and French governments condemned the

nation of Mali for hiring the Wagner Group, an organization named after

Hitler’s favorite composer. But the Wagner Group is not an orchestra.

It’s a private armed force that employs thousands of Russian

mercenaries to wage war or simply to stir up trouble around the world.

Such soldiers of fortune have been around throughout history, but Wagner

is unique. It has grown in just seven years into a multinational that

operates in 10 African nations plus another 17 elsewhere. Washington and

some EU countries accuse the Wagner Group of being a proxy force for

Russia’s Defense Ministry. The Kremlin denies formal connections

with the group.

 

Wagner struck the first blow in Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war

against Europe in 2014 when its personnel helped Russia seize Crimea and

invade eastern Ukraine. It provides political cover for the Kremlin

which has steadfastly, and unbelievably, denied any involvement in this

war against Ukraine. From that, Wagner has grown exponentially, landing

“gigs” such as civil wars in Libya and Syria, and beyond.

 

Officially, Russia does not acknowledge any direct contact with or

ownership of Wagner, but it’s not coincidental that its

battle-hardened soldiers and cyber warriors have been involved in

conflicts and situations designed to advance Vladimir Putin’s

geopolitical aims. Mali is its most recent, controversial expansion.

 

The founder, and presumably co-owner of Wagner Group, is Dmitry Utkin,

a former Russian special forces officer who named his new outfit

“Wagner” after the military call-sign he chose in honor of the Third

Reich. A big Nazi fan, he left the military and became a mercenary, then

started his own shop. But he hit the big time when he hooked up with one

of Putin’s pals, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a big-time Russian oligarch who

began as a juvenile delinquent, then took up cooking.

 

He left behind his life of crime and parlayed his skills and became a

successful caterer and restauranteur, where he befriended Russia’s

powerful. Nicknamed “Putin’s cook”, he soon realized that serving

up salads was not as lucrative as serving up soldiers, so he formed a

partnership with Wagner and, thanks to Kremlin connections, the two have

built one of the world’s largest privatized armies.

 

Wagner mixes business with warfare: Its soldiers fight, kill, or are

killed, train military forces, and act as bodyguards or security guards

for governments, organizations, and businesses. They are paid

considerable fees but also negotiate “in-kind” compensation deals

such as mineral rights, oil fields, enterprises, or other non-monetary

privileges.

 

Its recruits are drawn from the Russian military. They are well-paid and

sign 10-year confidentiality agreements. Because they are mercenaries,

they are not entitled to any protection in armed conflicts as per the

Geneva Conventions, because they are not deemed combatants or, if

captured, prisoners of war. That’s why they, and others like them, are

known as “ghost soldiers”. When they die, are wounded, or are

captured, their true identities are never disclosed and they simply

disappear.

 

Wagner operated under the world’s radar for years, then surfaced in

early 2018 after U.S. forces in Syria killed hundreds of Russians in

unidentified combat gear. Surprisingly, there was no claim by Russia for

the bodies, no diplomatic flap about casualties, and not even a mention

of this event by Moscow. In fact, Russian officials distanced themselves

from the affair completely. Then the truth came out. At the time, Wagner

was quietly assisting Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad in his civil war

on behalf of Russia, in which officially Russia never admitted it was

involved. So when the hundreds died, they were simply “ghosted”.

 

The reality is that Wagner has been the principal weapon in Russia’s

hybrid wars around the world. It’s also expanded into cyber warfare

and disinformation operations. In 2016, Prigozhin was charged by the

United States with setting up an internet “troll factory” to

influence the U.S. elections for Donald Trump. And in 2020, the U.S.

State Department imposed sanctions on him and on the Wagner Group

following alleged human rights abuses perpetrated in Sudan.

 

Wagner may be the world’s biggest mercenary force, but it’s also the

most successful. Its 2014 operations involved several hundred Wagner

operatives in green uniforms who were sent to Crimea, during the chaos

that resulted after Ukrainians overthrew their dictator. They disarmed

Ukraine’s military installations with the help of Russians stationed

there at Moscow’s naval base. They took over facilities, then helped

organize teams to take over the local government and institutions. They

staged a snap referendum and Crimeans allegedly voted to secede from

Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

 

They also participated in a similar scheme in eastern Ukraine with the

backup of Russian soldiers and tanks. Thousands of Ukrainians and

Russian operatives died, the region’s property was confiscated, assets

were looted, and two million Ukrainians were displaced. The region,

called Donbas, is now occupied by so-called Russian separatists but

Wagner is still there along with gangsters. In 2015, Wagner went to

Syria and participated in a civil war that destroyed the country, killed

millions, and drove out 7.4 million Syrians who fled to Europe or ended

up in refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan.

 

Rumors are that Wagner’s compensation for its Syrian effort included a

25 percent share of a gigantic natural gas and oil field near Deir

Ezzor, a template that it has replicated across Africa and beyond.

Wagner also signs “defense cooperation” deals and is involved in

anti-terrorist activities, or simply to provide bodyguards or security

guards for mines, oilfields, pipelines, or potentates.

 

Its first known foray into the Western Hemisphere took place in early

2019 when the Kremlin hired Wagner contractors to protect Venezuelan

leader Nicolas Maduro whose followers were defecting in droves. This

deployment was also useful to help guard the oil assets of Russia’s

oil giant Rosneft which has made huge investments there.

 

Clearly as witnessed by Wagner’s involvement, Africa has become a

focus of Russia’s attention, like China’s, because it is

resource-rich, corruptible, and unstable. China snaps up vassal nations

through its Belt and Road Initiative — a mercantilist “Marshall

Plan” — that builds infrastructure and provides loans and workers.

Russia’s approach, on the other hand, is geopolitical and provides the

muscle.

 

Mali is a case in point. Mali hired Wagner to provide 1,000 mercenaries

at a cost of millions of dollars per month. A U.S. Defense spokesperson

said: “Given the Wagner Group’s record, if these reports are true, any

role for Russian mercenaries in Mali will likely exacerbate an already

fragile and unstable situation and would complicate the international

response in support of the transition government.”

 

The French were upset because they had planned to leave their former

colony and repatriate their 2,000 counter-terrorism forces fighting to

keep the peace. Mali’s leader blamed France’s looming exodus as the

reason why he hired the Russian operatives to fend off terrorists there.

“They are combating terrorism,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

said during a news conference at the U.N. last week. “And they have

turned to a private military company from Russia in connection with the

fact that, as I understand, France wants to significantly draw down its

military component. We don’t have anything to do with that at the

government level; we are also contributing to providing for military and

defense capacities of Mali.” The continent is ripe for the picking but

so are other regions.

 

Wagner serves as the tip of the spear in Russia’s global influence

maneuvers, unaccountable and ruthlessly effective. Other Russian

paramilitary groups have been created too, which has forced the US, UK,

and others to create or support their own private-sector mercenaries.

They also field governmental “mixed teams” comprised of intelligence

personnel and special forces operatives who undertake dangerous and

daring missions in secret. One such team found and assassinated Osama

bin Laden.

 

Whether run by governments, or private contractors like Wagner, these

organizations are responsible for most of the sabotage,

counter-terrorism, and disinformation campaigns around the world. Secret

hybrid warfare companies have become a huge asset class, but the fact is

that skulking around causing trouble has been with us forever. As

military strategist Sun Tsu wrote thousands of years ago in “The Art of

War”: “All warfare is based on deception.”