Inside The Shadow War Fought By Russian Mercenaries

The Wagner Group has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle but blurs the line between what is and isn’t happening on Moscow’s orders.

KIEV — Chained to a radiator in eastern Ukraine, the former soldier watched his captors closely.

It was 2014, at the start of a war that saw Russia-backed rebels seize towns and cities across the region, trying to wrest the area from the central government in Kiev and push it into Moscow’s orbit. The former soldier had been collecting intelligence on the rebels, and they’d captured, beaten, and interrogated him once they discovered it.

Slumped against the radiator in a commandeered government building, beaten and bloodied, he noted that most of the rebels bustling about the room were local amateurs, clumsy with their weapons and nervous about fighting. With them were two unarmed men in plainclothes who kept to the background — and who, earlier, had observed his interrogations, taking notes. The former soldier took them for members of the Russian intelligence services that had sent officers across the border to assist the various rebel groups. But it was two other outsiders who piqued his interest.

These men kept their faces hidden behind black ski masks, and they carried themselves like hardened soldiers. They were boisterous and mingled with the locals, telling stories and giving advice. At one point, they laid their assault rifles on a table, took them apart, and gave a lesson on how to clean them. The former soldier believes that these were members of the shadowy mercenary outfit called the Wagner Group, working behind the scenes to help foment the war in Ukraine.

It would be months before Ukrainian spies would pick up on the existence of the Wagner Group. But the two men fit the portrait Ukrainian authorities have since painted of Wagner members and their role in Ukraine and elsewhere, as the Russian mercenary group has expanded to several countries. Wagner bills itself as a private military company and often acts like one, and yet it also carries out work on behalf of the Kremlin — “blurring what’s state and nonstate, and what’s the hand of the state,” according to Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert formerly on the National Security Council who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Wagner is believed to be owned by a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Credible estimates of its membership are hard to come by, Weiss notes, but numbers reported by the Russian media range between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters, including reserves; many have experience in Russia-backed wars. In Ukraine, according to authorities there, Wagner soldiers trained and aided rebel groups and fought Ukrainian troops, while also acting as Moscow’s enforcers, intimidating and assassinating rebel leaders who wouldn’t fall into line. From there, Wagner expanded into Syria, where its operatives have trained pro-government militia and guarded oil facilities and died in combat. A year ago, Wagner fighters and their local allies attacked US forces in eastern Syria, apparently trying to dislodge them from an oil field. The US responded with airstrikes, and reportedly killed more than 200 of the attackers.

Wagner has also surfaced in war-torn Central African Republic, where its soldiers serve as a presidential guard for the embattled dictator and protect gold and diamond mines. It is believed to be operating amid the unrest in Sudan and the civil war in Libya. Gen. Stephen Townsend, President Trump’s nominee to lead the US Africa Command, said in congressional testimony this month that he considers Russian mercenaries second only to terrorist groups as a threat on the continent. “They concern me greatly,” he said, referring to them as “quasi-military” forces.

There have been reports in recent months that Wagner soldiers are aiding President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, though US officials haven’t confirmed this, even as they have condemned Russia for sending military assistance. One thing that is clear about Wagner, said a US congressional source monitoring it, is its penchant for targeting places with “unstable security situations and the potential for economic profits.”

As is often the case with Russian forms of hybrid warfare, much else about Wagner remains the subject of debate, as experts wonder whether it’s a serious threat to US interests, a diversion, or an experiment that has seen limited success but is otherwise overhyped. Some, like the Ukrainian authorities, consider it a covert arm of the Russian security forces and a threat to undermine other vulnerable Eastern European countries. Others regard it as a group of common mercenaries fashioned in the mold of Erik Prince’s US outfit Blackwater (now known as Academi) — and likewise run by a controversial businessman who seeks out contracts via connections to government elites. Still others dismiss it as bungling, pointing to the deaths in Syria.

The truth may be that it is all of these things — directed by the Kremlin at times while also allowed to pursue its mercenary greed, inept at times but also just about competent and reckless enough to be dangerous. Peter MacKay, the former Canadian defense minister, thinks Wagner’s muddled identity is one of its strengths. “They can do extraterritorial work for Russia but not have it attributable directly to the Kremlin,” he said.

MacKay said NATO countries are wary of the Wagner Group’s expansion. “They’re nervous,” he said. “[Wagner's forces] seem to be probing further and further afield.”

Shackled to the radiator, the former Ukrainian soldier listened as the two masked men tried to calm the anxious local rebels. His suspicion that they were Wagner soldiers can’t be proven, but he was a source of reliable information about the rebels early in the conflict, and other details from his account of captivity proved true after his release. The rebels were worried about an attack from the Ukrainian army. It was still the beginning of the conflict, and some wondered if they should flee, fearing they’d be arrested if their insurgency proved to be short-lived. They couldn’t know then that the war would drag on for years — or that many local rebels would one day join Wagner in Syria and beyond in a bid to escape the conflict’s misery. The masked men seemed untroubled. “Don’t worry,” one of them said. “Stick with us, and you’ll be fine.”

Much of the information that has emerged about the Wagner Group has the feel of the former soldier’s story — fragmentary, nebulous, and pieced together in hindsight.

A murky aura persists around Wagner and the man who is thought to own it. A balding 57-year-old who often manages to be photographed scowling, Yevgeny Prigozhin is an example of how people close to Putin build their wealth — and then are deployed as useful tools. He was a little-known restaurateur until he appeared in Putin’s orbit in the early 2000s and began serving the autocrat during visits by foreign dignitaries. Prigozhin became a powerful businessman as he received a steady stream of catering contracts from the state. Often referred to in the local press as “Putin’s chef,” he is now seen as a key member of Putin’s inner circle.

These perks come with strings attached, according to Stephen Blank, a Russia expert who has been researching the Wagner Group for the US Army War College. He sees Prigozhin as an example of how Putin has weaponized Russia’s wealthy elites. “They’re subordinate to the state, and they keep their money and their positions on the condition that they serve the state,” he said.

Wagner has been funded at times via outsize state contracts directed to Prigozhin-owned companies, for services such as catering at military bases. At other times, Wagner has funded itself via deals with foreign governments. In the Central African Republic, it is compensated for training the presidential guard and receives a percentage of profits from the gold and diamond mines it guards, the congressional source said. It has a similar arrangement in Syria, where it takes a cut from the operations of oil and natural gas fields. Blank noted that these foreign contracts likely have the Kremlin’s seal of approval. Wagner members have reportedly been flown in and out of Syria on Russian military planes and have trained at a military base in southern Russia, according to Ukrainian authorities and Russian journalists. “This is not some sort of rogue operation,” Blank said. “They’re designed to carry out tasks that the Russian government doesn’t want the military involved in.”

Prigozhin has been sanctioned multiple times by the US Treasury Department. The first time was in 2016, for aiding Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine. (The Wagner Group was also sanctioned for its role in the conflict, and a Prigozhin-owned company, Evro Polis, was sanctioned for its involvement in Syria.) Another round of sanctions targeting Prigozhin came last year, for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. That’s because Prigozhin funds and directs the Internet Research Agency, known in the US media as the “troll farm,” which, according to an indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller, created social media accounts to spread disinformation and promote Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. Weiss, of Carnegie, noted that the IRA was originally established to disparage the Kremlin’s internal enemies but has also been used to trash Prigozhin’s business rivals. He called Prigozhin’s ability to tap both real-world and online private armies on behalf of the Kremlin “an autocrat’s dream.”

“He has developed multiple tools that can be mobilized on behalf of the regime to go after people, and I don’t see much evidence that these capabilities are now being reined in,” he said. “If anything, Prigozhin has continued trying to monetize his notoriety in the form of lucrative state contracts.”

Much of the public record on Prigozhin and the Wagner Group has been written by Russian journalists working in the face of relentless threats. The reporter who shed light on Wagner’s role in the Ukrainian war, Denis Korotkov, said he has changed addresses “to avoid giving someone the pleasure of bashing me over the head in the hallway of my own apartment building.” After he published an exposé alleging that Wagner operatives killed a Russian blogger and tested poison on Syrian soldiers, someone sent caged sheep to the offices of his newspaper, threatening a slaughter. Another reporter died last year in a mysterious fall from a balcony. Three journalists who traveled to the Central African Republic to investigate the company were shot to death.

A former soldier who is close with senior members of the Wagner Group described a culture of paranoia within it. After agreeing to an interview, he then became paranoid himself, dropping out of touch for days. He later called to say he couldn’t go through with it, and that he’d been up through the previous night, worrying. If he talked, he said, he could face retaliation. He said he knew of one Wagner member whom he believed was killed for visiting a Western embassy outside of Russia and others who were attacked for speaking to journalists. Wagner has ramped up internal checks to prevent leaks, he added. His fears came despite the fact that he keeps photos of himself smiling with senior Wagner members on his phone. “You can’t mess around with those guys,” he said.

This code of silence, though, has had mixed results. Prigozhin has filed more than a dozen lawsuits against Yandex, Russia’s main internet search engine, seeking to have news stories about himself removed, in an almost laughable attempt at anonymity. The steady stream of Russian press leaks, Weiss said, suggests that he has powerful enemies within the Russian national security establishment who object to his rise to power — and that he isn’t as skilled as he wants to be at keeping secrets. Recently, he has been embroiled in embarrassing scandals, such as an outbreak of dysentery at schools served by his catering business, which has been the subject of investigations backed by the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. A video showing Prigozhin’s armored BMW being stopped by authorities in St. Petersburg racked up millions of views on YouTube. “There’s no doubt that the release of embarrassing videos and details about Prigozhin’s business activities are aimed at taking him down a peg or two,” Weiss said.

The debate over Prigozhin and Wagner echoes one that has played out over the IRA and over Russian efforts at subverting the US and its allies more generally. It centers on the question of whether these efforts have been as effective as some believe — or whether the hype that surrounds Russian intrigue is the real victory for Putin and his entourage, helping them to sow confusion, and making them seem more powerful than they are.

With Wagner, this question is complicated by the fact that it has been different things in different places at different times.

The first Wagner soldiers who appeared in Ukraine were specialists who worked under the direction of handlers in the Russian defense ministry, according to the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the Security Service of Ukraine.

This was the version of Wagner’s history presented by Gen. Igor Guskov in a private briefing in Kiev. Guskov oversees the Wagner file for the SSU, and he has given similar versions of the briefing to his counterparts from the US and Europe, hoping to make them grasp the threat he sees. He takes his mission personally. “We will follow them until we get vengeance,” he said. “We will follow them all over the world.”

The war may have faded from the international headlines, but in Ukraine it remains an urgent issue, with memorials to those who have died lining the capital’s main square. The conflict began when pro-Western protests in the same square forced the Russia-backed president to flee — prompting a bout of paranoia from Putin, who worried about losing influence in a country where the possibility of NATO and EU encroachment has long been seen by Russian leaders as an existential threat. After bloodlessly seizing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, Russia then helped to instigate the war in eastern Ukraine, leaving the new, pro-Western government in Kiev badly weakened.

Ukrainian authorities often paint the country as a kind of laboratory for Russian destabilization tactics that are then deployed elsewhere. Ukraine also saw early efforts at Russia’s social media–fueled disinformation warfare. Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, worked for the same pro-Russia president who was ousted in the protests — work that has since seen him imprisoned on bank and tax fraud charges stemming from the Mueller investigation. It suits Ukraine to draw as much attention as possible to Wagner, and to tie Kiev's problems with Russia to those of the US.

Guskov has put information about the Wagner Group in the public record, giving press conferences and releasing intelligence. After rebels shot down a Ukrainian army transport plane in 2014, killing 49 people, the SSU released audio recordings that purport to show senior Wagner members taking credit as they communicate with their Russian handlers.

Other information released by the SSU has come through a collaboration with Ukrainian hackers. Together they have identified Wagner members by mining the internet — digging up social media posts from Ukraine, Syria, and beyond — as well as finding ID numbers that Wagner appears to issue to its mercenaries and identifying the state military medals some of them have been awarded.

Russia denied its role in the war in eastern Ukraine from the start. When journalists revealed that there were soldiers from the Russian military on the front lines, Russia claimed, improbably, that they were simply volunteering in Ukraine, while on holiday. Guskov believes that Wagner gave Putin the same sort of deniability for sensitive missions — and that this has been key to its utility in other countries. He regards exposing Wagner as part of combating it.

One man who has been the focus of SSU investigations is Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian special forces officer. It was Utkin who was overheard communicating with his Russian handlers when Wagner shot down the Ukrainian transport plane, according to the SSU, and he is believed to be Wagner’s commander. He is said to be fascinated with Nazis, and the Wagner Group is said to be named after Utkin’s love of the German composer, one of Hitler’s favorites. Utkin has been photographed with Putin, and like other Wagner members has reportedly received state medals.

As the war dragged on, eastern Ukraine became a recruiting ground for Wagner as the group extended its operations to other countries. The rapid expansion saw a rising demand not for specialists like Utkin, but for grunts, whom critical Russian journalists sometimes refer to as “cannon fodder.” These men were often recruited from poor parts of Russia and from among the rebels in eastern Ukraine, where the economy has tanked under the rule of Russia’s proxies.

Guskov noted that it’s not just Ukrainian soldiers that Wagner has recruited from abroad. He said the SSU has tracked about 30 Serbian Wagner members, as well as citizens of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Moldova, and even France.

Guskov believes that Wagner will keep its international focus and could be used to destabilize other vulnerable Eastern European countries one day. “Just look at what happened to us,” he said.

Wagner received its next opportunity after Russia entered the civil war in Syria, in 2015, with the aim of propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

As the Russian air force bombed opposition strongholds and Russian officers worked with local military units and militia, Putin was anxious not to see an increase in casualties among Russian soldiers. He was worried about what the political fallout of this might be at home, and so, like the US has done for its own costly engagements in the Middle East, Putin turned to contractors to fill out the Russian ranks. Here Wagner’s model presented an added bonus — since it funded itself in part via oil and gas deals with the Syrian government, it also helped to pay its own costs.

While more skilled Wagner operatives trained specialized Syrian army and pro-Assad militia units, the so-called cannon fodder filled out the front lines in battles against ISIS and rebel forces. Wagner has reportedly taken regular casualties in these battles.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Syrian businessman who helped to facilitate Wagner’s relationship with the government in Damascus described how Wagner paid two tiers of salaries, with higher-level members that he described as “officers” receiving approximately double the wages of the grunts.

At the same time, the businessman added, Wagner has been intensely focused on profits from oil and gas fields. Much of these resources lay in areas of eastern Syria occupied by US forces and their local allies.

Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military who has advised senior military and government officials on Russia, said that Wagner “is organized into battalion tactical groups, with their own officers and regulars.” He noted that its activities “are supposedly coordinated by military intelligence” but that these types of intelligence links are “a rather murky thing in Russia. This makes Wagner a sort of public-private partnership between financiers like Prigozhin, and military intelligence, which helps arm, transport, and field these people in support of combat operations.”

In the American mercenary model made famous by Blackwater in Iraq, contractors were mainly used to secure facilities, patrol the so-called “green zone” in Baghdad, and protect VIPs, freeing up US troops to focus on combat duties. In Syria, Russia has used its mercenaries the other way around — “leading in combat with Russian forces in support,” said Kofman, who is a senior research scientist at CNA, a defense research center in Virginia. “This allowed Russian commanders to maintain a small footprint for their own ground forces, and displace most of the casualties onto mercenary battalions.”

When Wagner soldiers and their local allies launched their notorious attack in February 2018 against US and Kurdish forces based at the Conoco oil field near the Euphrates river in eastern Syria, some, like Kofman, saw it as an example of the limits of Russia’s mercenary model. “They went raiding in a war zone, looking to make money for their sponsor,” he said, calling the incident “a fiasco for the Russians.”

Others saw it as part of Russian efforts to see how far it can push against the US and its allies — and say that Wagner thought it might be able to score a victory with a surprise attack.

“Russian Wagner mercenaries knowingly crossed a red line when they went across the Euphrates to try to seize the Conoco plant, thinking that [Kurdish] troops and their embedded US partners would be intimidated by the show of force and back down,” said Michael Carpenter, a former National Security Council director for Russia and deputy assistant secretary of defense who is now senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Global Diplomacy and Engagement. “This fits with the Russian military’s tactic of probing and testing an adversary’s resistance. When they find none, they continue. But in this case, the US Air Force called in strikes that decimated the Russian mercenary force.”

The casualties were reportedly treated at Russian defense ministry hospitals. There have been no publicly known Wagner forays against US troops since. The incident provides insight into Russia’s posture abroad and how Wagner fits into it, said Brad Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Utilizing irregular forces provides Putin an asymmetrical capability to potentially accrue similar strategic gains compared to conventional forces, while minimizing the downsides for Moscow if things do not go well. If they go well, they pocket the gain. If they do not go well, they deny involvement,” he said. “Putin uses Wagner in Syria, and Beijing uses fishing vessels in the South China Sea. Both great power rivals are probing the frontiers of American influence for weakness — ready to press their advantage when they find a lack of military capability or political will.”

In Russia, a backlash against Wagner has been brewing. Yevgeny Shabaev, a former Russian military officer, has put himself forward as an advocate for members of the Wagner Group and other private military companies in the country.

Shabaev, who says he is in touch regularly with these mercenaries, and has helped to file a petition with the International Criminal Court on their behalf, said in a phone interview that those recruited as so-called cannon fodder for Wagner tend to be poor, lured by the promise of decent pay they couldn’t find otherwise in Russia’s faltering economy. Syria has been the first mission for many, Shabaev said, and the new troops often arrive to find conditions far worse than their recruiters had advertised. For rank-and-file soldiers, the quarters can be harsh, the food poor, and the combat deadly, Shabaev said, adding that some have chosen to buy better weapons than the shoddy arms they were provided. Anyone who complains, he said, might be told, “if you don’t want to serve, you can walk back to Moscow on your own legs.”

This treatment contrasts with “the officers and people close to the ownership structure,” who receive higher salaries and sometimes even a percentage of profits, Shabaev added.

Shabaev has launched an unlikely lobbying crusade in Russia, pushing to get private military companies legalized. Currently, such groups are officially prohibited, which puts Wagner members in a precarious legal situation. Shabaev also wants soldiers from Wagner and other private military companies to be entitled to some of the same benefits as regular Russian soldiers — including better medical and psychological care. He said that many Wagner members have returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical issues that tend to go unaddressed. “They go to military hospitals [for immediate wounds], but they receive just basic treatment, and they don’t get rehab,” he said.

Shabaev knows his campaign faces difficult odds. Prigozhin and other powerful businessmen behind mercenary companies benefit from keeping things off the books. “They have realized that running private military companies costs them little, because the logistics are provided by the government, and the market is huge,” he said.

He sees the private military model as responsible for many of Wagner’s battlefield losses. “The system is based on personal financial interests, not on military sense,” he said. “There is not any patriotism. There is only financial interest.”

But Sean McFate, a former private military contractor who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that the Wagner Group represents the new normal — not just for Russia but for many world powers, including the US. “War is going underground,” he said. “To me, Wagner is just one more symptom of this.”

The grunts of Wagner often do the work long associated with Western private military companies — personal protection, guarding facilities. Even the more specialized work top-tier Wagner members are believed to have done in Ukraine and Syria, though, has been outsourced to private contractors by the US and its allies. McFate did this kind of contracting himself, working for DynCorp International and other firms in Africa.

“Missions once conducted by special operations forces or the CIA are now outsourced; I know because I did them,” McFate wrote in his recent book, The New Rules of War, listing some of the tasks he performed across the globe, from training local forces to facilitating arms deals. “Plausible deniability is one of the main appeals of contractors. If something bad happened to me, I could be disavowed. If a CIA or special operations team got into trouble, the US government would have to do something: stage a rescue, pay a big ransom, or — worse — go public. But not so with contractors, who are disposable humans.”

In an interview, McFate predicted that the US would only turn more to private contractors, or mercenaries, as it pushes to maintain its expansive overseas presence while at the same time seeking to have fewer official boots on the ground and less accountability. A Pentagon report released last year showed that it was employing more than 5,000 contractors in Iraq and Syria. In a sense, with Wagner, Russia may simply be catching up. “Can the US really criticize Russia for using contractors?” McFate asks. “No. We’ve legitimized it.” ●

Anton Skyba in Kiev, Munzer al-Awad in Berlin, and Jovo Martinovic contributed reporting to this story.

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