NOVEMBER 18, 2021
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
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
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
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
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.”