With the likely death of its leader Pete Duncan looks at the mercenary private army doing Putin’s dirty work in Ukraine and Africa
The reported deaths of Evgenii Prigozhin and of several top commanders of his Wagner Group, if they really were on the plane that crashed in August, would confirm that Vladimir Putin does not forgive disloyalty.
The Russian president let them stay alive for two months after their mutiny in June while he tried to decide what to do with the Wagner Group. He has needed its forces for a variety of missions in Ukraine and around the world.
The Wagner Group calls itself a “private military company”. There are other private military companies in Russia, including those owned by the state-controlled energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom. Prigozhin denied for several years that he owned it, before proudly claiming it as his last year. It has had a close relationship with Putin and the Russian state since it was created.
Prigozhin was a violent criminal who was imprisoned in the Soviet era. In the 1990s, his catering business developed in St Petersburg, where Putin was deputy mayor. As is well known, he became known as “Putin’s chef”. Prigozhin is one of the new types of oligarch who Putin allows to become extremely rich in exchange for political services. After Putin became president, his catering business firm supplied Putin himself and acquired state contracts. Prigozhin also started some media outlets, publishing pro-regime propaganda. His “Internet Research Agency” trolled online critics of Putin’s policies, pioneering the political use of bots inside Russia and internationally, most famously in the 2016 US presidential election.
The Wagner Group, apparently named after the nickname of one of its commanders, but not accidentally evoking an image of offensive nationalism, appeared first in Eastern Ukraine after Russia’s military invasion in 2014. After that it fought in Syria, in support of the Asad regime. When an American strike killed 200 of its soldiers, the Russian foreign ministry could claim that no forces of the Russian Federation had perished. Technically correct, this use of a private army abroad allows the Kremlin to avoid internal criticism of putting its own troops at risk.
Internationally, the use of the Wagner Group has allowed some deniability relating to Moscow’s responsibility. This has been the case in Africa. The Wagner Group has been active in Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Burkina Faso, Mali, Mozambique and Sudan. It was involved for some time in Venezuela. Typically, it signs a deal with an unrepresentative government, often after a coup, to offer security against Islamist terrorism. It has gained a reputation for brutality against civilians. Three Russian journalists who were investigating the Wagner Group in the CAR were killed there in 2018.
As it strengthens its control in particular areas, it agrees contracts to permit the exploration and extraction of natural resources, for example oil in Syria, gold and diamonds in the CAR. Presumably, Prigozhin has had to share some of his profits from mineral wealth with figures in the Kremlin, but these deals allow the Wagner Group to prosper and expand. This effectively consolidates Russia’s power and influence on the continent.
Wagner troops were deployed in their thousands to the Donbas last year. Prigozhin was allowed to recruit prisoners from Russian jails, promising them freedom if they fought for six months. Probably thousands of these Wagner troops died in the ultimately successful effort to wrest control of the town of Bakhmut from Ukrainian forces, destroying it in the process.
Prigozhin loudly complained about the failure of the defence ministry to equip his forces with enough munitions. He mutinied in June in what appears to be an attempt to march to Moscow and remove the leaders of the ministry, who were trying to get the Wagner troops to sign contracts with them. The fact that the Wagner forces were able almost to get within a hundred miles of Moscow, and apparently even had support from much of the population, showed the weakness of the Russian state and of Putin’s regime. The president had no choice but to bargain with him to persuade him to take his troops out of Russia.
After Prigozhin withdrew, Putin tried to remove him from the Wagner Group. Wagner’s officers, however, refused to serve under anyone except Prigozhin. Putin still needs Wagner forces, who have been rotated out of Ukraine and into Belarus. President Lukashenka has been obliged to accept them there, where they can threaten Ukraine with a prospective northern front. Putin also needs Wagner to continue its work in Africa. He did, however, confiscate Prigozhin’s media and catering companies.
Since the mutiny, Putin has stabilized the situation in Russia. The repression of opposition is getting even worse than it was. It seems that even if the Ukrainian summer counteroffensive has some success, the Kremlin will not be facing a serious popular political challenge from within. Ukraine needs much more help from people and governments in the West if it is to stop Russian aggression.