Although first becoming active years before Russia’s “special military operation”, Wagner Group, the private military contractor and parastatal arm of the Russian military has become increasingly visible since the invasion of Ukraine. The PMC is a convenient asset for the Kremlin, however recent critical comments made by Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin about top Russian military leadership indicate developing growing pains in the relationship between the Russian government and Wagner Group.
Members of the shadowy PMC first appeared during the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, with Wagner Group mercenaries participating in the operation. Since then, they have been observed acting in various capacities in countries across Africa, Europe, and South America. US and Wagner Group forces met in Syria in 2018 during an attack by pro-government Syrian fighters on Syrian Democratic Forces and American advisors. The attacking pro-governmental force was eliminated, with some Wagner Group “volunteers” present among those killed. This served as a key event in bringing Wagner Group into focus internationally.
Although claiming to be a private entity, Wagner Group maintains close ties to the Russian military. The founder of the paramilitary force, Yevgeny Prigozhin, amassed wealth and influence through lucrative government contracts stemming from his association with Vladimir Putin, particularly in the catering industry, earning him the moniker “Putin’s Chef”. Additionally, Wagner Group benefits from many logistical ties with the Russian military, including utilizing Russian military transport aircraft, military healthcare, and passport services. This relationship is unsurprising, as Prigozhin and his company provide several advantages to the Kremlin, notably plausible deniability, covert foreign operations, and concealment of the true number of losses sustained during combat.
The trail of war crime accusations that followed the PMC across Africa, especially in Mali, and the brutal deaths inflicted on deserters and civilians alike during the Ukrainian invasion contribute to international concerns surrounding Wagner Group. The admission made by Prigozhin of having funded internet troll farms carrying out pro-Russian, anti-NATO disinformation campaigns in countries across Europe, particularly in Estonia, further exacerbates concerns, and supports the image of Wagner Group as primarily a tool used by Putin to further his goals.
Wagner Group forces have been featured prominently in the Ukrainian invasion. Although initially bringing an element of battlefield knowledge to the invasion from their experience as mercenaries across Africa and the Middle East, slow progress and extreme losses have affected them just as heavily as the official Russian military. Wagner forces are often utilized as expendable “human waves” with which to overwhelm Ukrainian defensive positions. The PMC has suffered more than 30,000 casualties since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with recruited convicts making up an estimated 90% of those killed. Soon after the invasion of Ukraine, the ranks of Wagner Group were bolstered by recruits from Russian prisons. Although officially illegal, the practice received either the blessing or the blind eye of the Russian government.
However, a rift appears to be forming between Wagner Group and the Kremlin, specifically with certain prominent military leaders. Since late last year, Prigozhin has made several statements regarding what he perceives as “direct resistance” from the Russian military. His claims include the Russian Ministry of Defense withholding ammunition from his troops, actively attempting to destroy Wagner Group, and accusations of inability and even treason within the Russian military command. Prigozhin also claims that key communication channels between himself and the Kremlin have been cut off. He also frequently and publicly insists that Russian military units and top brass are ineffective compared to his Wagner forces, having singled out Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff and overall commander of the Ukrainian invasion, in his statements.
Because of its involvement in taking control of certain key cities, Wagner Group is threatening to overshadow the conventional Russian military as a more effective force, something likely to have ruffled feathers within the Russian military command. In evidence of this, recent statements released by the Russian Ministry of Defense have downplayed the role Wagner Group has played in advancements surrounding Soledar and Bakhmut. The military has also denied claims of withholding ammunition. Wagner Group’s ability to recruit prisoners was also recently revoked, with the Ministry of Defense now appearing to be recruiting from Russian prisons instead. Reports have additionally surfaced of state media being advised to limit making references to Wagner Group or Prigozhin and of conversations intended to reign in the Wagner chief being held between Kremlin leadership and Prigozhin.
The exact objectives Prigozhin is working towards in the political sphere, if any, remain unclear. Whether the result of logistical issues or more deliberate efforts to hamstring Wagner Group, the reason behind the lack of ammunition resupplies from the Russian Ministry of Defense is also difficult to pin down. Putin’s exact attitude towards Prigozhin is another missing puzzle piece. While symptoms of a worsening relationship between the Wagner chief and military leadership are becoming evident, Putin’s statements directly referencing Prigozhin and Wagner Group have been limited and give little insight into his thinking on the matter.
While his recent foray into the political spotlight does indicate he has been emboldened by the role of Wagner Group in the Ukrainian invasion, his connection to Putin can be severed at any moment and therefore he cannot act with impunity. He is ultimately a private individual benefitting from a relationship with Putin and yet overshadowed by other members of Putin’s inner circle. Any individual within Russia would be hard-pressed to pose a threat to Putin’s grip on power, but maneuvering for a future political appointment could be a goal of Prigozhin’s. He may be attempting to create a narrative with his statements so that, in case of an unfavorable end to the invasion, the established Russian Military leadership will be the scapegoats and not himself. On the other hand, it is also possible that military leaders see an opportunity with Prigozhin to pass the blame to him. Whatever the case, even given his newly found outspoken nature, he is still in a position to be useful to the Kremlin as a military contractor tycoon. Wagner Group provides supply for the demand of troops necessary for the invasion of Ukraine and grey-zone operations around the world. If it came to it and Prigozhin continues to put himself at odds with other power players within the regime, Prigozhin is more likely to disappear than the entirety of Wagner Group as it is too valuable a resource to abandon.
The role of Wagner Group in the invasion of Ukraine has highlighted certain trends concerning to US national security and international stability. It indicates that the continued use of private military contractor groups by the Kremlin anywhere they see a strategic benefit is very likely. This includes active warzones as full participants, hot-beds of unrest as mercenaries, and peaceful countries as organizers of influence operations. The history of war crimes, illegal activity, and human rights abuses perpetrated by Wagner across the globe makes this strategy particularly worrisome. Additionally, should the strained relations between Prigozhin and the Russian military further deteriorate, unexpected and unilateral actions by Wagner Group become a possibility.