What is the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary network that has been all over the news?

The Wagner Group has been dominating the news this weekend. 

Stunning the world, the Russian mercenary network went rogue and attempted to topple Russia’s military leadership in a coup—something that hasn’t happened in the country since the 1990s. 

On Saturday morning, Wagner forces seized the southern Russian city of Rostov. The Russian government tried to quell an armed rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is the head of the Wagner Group private militia.

Media outlets reported on what appeared to be the biggest-ever threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership. 

Prigozhin’s men had crossed from Ukraine into Russia and entered Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia, near the border with Ukraine. The Wagner leader claimed his forces had military facilities in the city under their control, including the airfield, reported Canada’s CBC News. 

“Some Wagner troops drove on further toward Moscow — reportedly reaching Russia’s Lipetsk province, about 360 kilometers south of Moscow.”

But in an equally stunning change of events, by Saturday afternoon, the group swiftly came to a deal with President Vladimir Putin and stopped their march on Moscow. 

Before we delve into why the shocking Russian rebellion happened in this two-part series, it’s important to first understand how the Wagner Group came to be. 

For starters, what is the Wagner Group and how is it different from Russia’s military?

And who is Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the face of the Wagner Group who until recently was referred to as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “Chef?”

Here’s our first breakdown of the breaking news. 

What exactly is the Wagner Group? 

At its core, Wagner is a paramilitary organization.

It is a mercenary army that has morphed and expanded.

“It has weapons, it has fighters, it has trainers, and it has some intelligence capabilities,” London-based Washington Post investigative reporter Greg Miller explained in April on Post Reports (part of The Washington Post newsroom). 

“It [was] basically there to serve Russia’s interests or help Russia’s allies in military situations around the world.”

The group was created circa 2014 to fill a need for Russia. “Vladimir Putin was increasingly antagonistic toward the West. He was interested in grabbing back pieces of what were once part of the Soviet Union territory, and he didn’t always want to use the Russian military to do that,” said Miller. 

Wagner was created to fill that need: to be a private, mercenary army. The group started out small, but it was created to do Russia’s bidding without all of the entanglements of relying on conventional Russian forces.

Miller says there are a lot of tentacles to this and that Wagner is what he calls a “shadowy” organization. “It operates in a lot of places with a lot of different capabilities. It uses shell companies and front companies to move money. It’s not a single monolithic entity.”

Legend has it that the name “Wagner” is in reference to controversial 19th-century German composer Richard Wagner. 

Many people today continue to associate Wagner with Nazism; he also had associations with white nationalists in Russia. Many of Wagner’s operas are believed to portray German nationalism. 

It’s not part of the Russian military, but it isn’t exactly separate from it either 

Until last year, it wasn’t even legal for a paramilitary company—a private military company—to exist in Russia. “That changed after the invasion of Ukraine,” said Miller. 

Wagner has always been private. It’s privately funded. “It’s separate from the Russian military, but [it works] hand-in-glove with it,” explained Miller. 

It works with the Russian military to the extent that satellite imagery has shown that the main training facilities for Wagner are adjacent to the elite special forces training facilities for the Russian military and its military intelligence.

The face of the network is Yevgeniy Prigozhin, once known as “Putin’s Chef” 

Miller says that to understand Russia today, we have to learn about Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who was born in 1961 in St. Petersburg. 

“He is very close to Vladimir Putin, but he didn’t start off that way,” he said. “[Prigozhin] is a former low-level criminal who spent time in Russian prison. [He] then emerged in a strangely criminally-connected way to get his life on track.”

Prigozhin is often referred to as Putin’s “chef” because his first business—“as legend would have it”—was a hot dog stand in St. Petersburg. He turned the hot dog stand into a restaurant and then he turned the restaurant into a catering company that provided food for Russia’s military services. 

“Pretty soon he was doing other favors for the Kremlin and for Putin,” said Miller. “[And then] it just morphed from there. It’s a pretty remarkable story.”

Prigozhin worked in the background for most of his career. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has taken on a much bigger public profile. 

For a long time, there was no acknowledgment of the Wagner Group’s existence, but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin had taken to talking about the group publicly 

Miller said that Prigozhin often—even constantly—touted the group and took to social media to talk about what it was doing, especially in Ukraine. 

In March, Prigozhin appeared in a video posted to social media. He was wearing military-style fatigues and he claimed that his forces had all but surrounded Bakhmut —the part of Ukraine that has been fought over intensely for many months. 

“This tells us a lot about Russia—particularly Putin’s Russia,” emphasized Miller. “It shows that if you can prove yourself useful to people of power and influence in the Kremlin—especially Putin himself who sees himself as a scrapper and a fighter and somebody who isn’t part of the historical elite of the country—you can go quite far. And Prigozhin [did] that.”

Miller said that Prigozhin had found ways to make himself useful to Putin over and over. “He’s a hustler and he [had] grown in influence and importance because Putin [saw] him as someone who could deliver.”

Putin has also drawn up contracts for him that have made Prigozhin a fortune of money. 

How much influence did the Wagner Group have?

blackout in Ukraine 2 What is the Wagner Group, the Russian mercenary network that has been all over the news?

The Wagner Group got its start in Ukraine initially, said Miller. The network was sent in as a private mercenary army to train and equip Russian separatist outfits as part of Putin’s efforts to start peeling off territory of Ukraine and absorbing it into Russia. 

The network started out as a private mercenary military group that could do some fighting and training on Russia’s behalf on a small scale in Ukraine. “[When] Prigozhin [became] involved, he put it on steroids. He [has] access, influence, and money.”

The Wagner network not only began to grow, it proved itself to be very valuable to Russia in Ukraine. 

Miller emphasizes that the Wagner Group solved an important problem for Putin: “He wants Russian to have greater influence. He wants instruments of Russian ambition internationally.” 

In 2014, Putin didn’t want Russian troops showing up in Ukraine and he didn’t want the political ramifications of dead Russian soldiers coming back from Ukraine. “So if you use a private mercenary army, you avoid some of those problems,” explained Miller. 

At the time, the network was small-scale, akin to a “guns for hire” type group.

In the past 1.5 years, the Wagner Group grew into an actual “imitation” army for Russia 

In the past year a half Prigozhin had recruited tens of thousands of soldiers to be sent directly to the front lines of Ukraine. Their aim has been to take cities like Bakhmut.

The way that Prigozhin has recruited soldiers has been to go to Russian prisons to draw recruits from the ranks of convicted criminals.

He also badgered the Russian military to supply his units with ammunition, gear, and equipment. 

It’s not clear if the Wagner Group had any independence to pursue its own agenda

Miller said it’s uncertain what the boundaries are (were). “We don’t know what authority or how much political freedom or operational freedom that Wagner [had]. It’s clear that it has [had] some.”

What was fascinating was how openly Prigozhin was able to criticize the Russian military and its generals.”

Miller related a story The Washington Post did on sources in US and Western intelligence agencies that Prigozhin had gone directly to Putin and confronted him about how poorly-served Putin was by his generals and that he needed to change tactics and direction. 

“It speaks to how Prigozhin’s profile was rising and how perhaps he had rising ambitions beyond running a paramilitary army,” said Miller. 

Although the group has been known about for many years, leaked intelligence documents in the recent past have given clues to how the Wagner group had been growing and evolving 

The Wagner Group has shifted from an organization that has slipped into places where there was a security vacuum or some sort of problem and offer solutions on its terms and the Kremlin’s terms, to an entity—based on how it’s described in the classified files—is more nefarious. 

The Wagner Group had been anchoring a big part of the war in Ukraine and was expanding. 

The leaked classified documents obtained by The Washington Post that were uncovered in March mentioned The Wagner Group considerably, said Miller. 

The documents related that not only had the group been a huge part of the invasion in Ukraine, but it had been moving in other spaces to simultaneously advance Russia’s, Prigozhin and Wagner’s interests—namely Africa.

It was actually trying to destabilize parts of Africa so that it can back Russian-backed candidates in various parts across the continent, said Miller. 

This advanced Russia’s interests and it also made Prigozhin more wealthy and made him secure assets and be in control of African assets such as diamond mines. “This [had been] worrying the US security apparatus more and more.”

“[The network had been] very amorphous and [was] shifting shape all the time.”

 

Read Part Two: How did Russian mercenary outfit Wagner Group become the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s power?

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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