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The Wagner Group after Ukraine and its Future in Privatised Violence

03 Aug 2023
By Tom Saxton
Young people laugh against the background of the tank PMCs

The Russian Mutiny in June by the Wagner Group was mitigated at the last minute by Alexander Lukashenko. While the future of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner may yet be uncertain, its survival will guarantee that unnecessary violence and bloodshed will continue. 

The June 2023 Wagner Group conflict with the Russian government has shaken the political foundations of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic regime. While considerable attention has been given to theorising its impacts on the Russian Government, less explored are the effects of the mutiny on the Wagner Group (hereafter referred to as Wagner). The present realities of Wagner reveal an inevitable pivot from state sponsored hybrid warfare to its criminal past, reflecting a return to Wagner’s traditions of privatising terror and violence for profit.

Prigozhin’s Rebellion

The leader of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, holds a bitter rivalry with the Russian Minister of Defence (MoD) Sergei Shoigu. Opposition is to be expected as they both have long held competing political interests in Russian politics; it is further notable that Shoigu is linked to the leadership of Wagner’s direct rival, the Patriot Private Military Company. Deeper fractures began to appear during Wagner’s offensive on the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, following Prigozhin’s public criticism of Shoigu and the MoD for stalling ammunition and supplies to Wagner for the war’s efforts.

Prigozhin affiliated social media channel “Кепка Пригожина” (Prigozhin Hat), initially alleged the rebellion was due to missile attacks on Wagner, “delivered by the military of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defence.” Prigozhin’s later speeches pointed to the theory that the most prominent cause was Shoigu’s ambitions to “Dismantle PMC Wagner.” This leading theory is evidenced through Shoigu’s actions to force individuals that formally served under Wagner to sign contracts that would then integrate them into the MoD command structure.

Prigozhin’s rebellion resulted in the capture of Russia’s 10th largest city by population, Rostov-on-Don, which holds key military assets critical to the Ukraine war. The capture of the Southern Military District headquarters, which is crucially responsible for commanding the southern regions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was most significant. Wagner forces further destroyed expensive Russian air assets, including several communications and electronic warfare aircraft, transport helicopters, and attack helicopters. Within a day, Prigozhin successfully dismantled the strongman caricature of Vladimir Putin and threatened the sovereignty of the state with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

After agreements to settle the dispute were brokered between Alexander Lukashenko, Prigozhin, and Putin, Wagner left Russia, relocating to a military base in Belarus with Lukashenko’s permission. Wagner forces since this agreement have been progressively relocating to the country. Prigozhin has committed PMC to the training of Belarusian armed forces, and a refocus on its previous affairs in Africa.

Wagner’s Footprints

The recent split between Prigozhin and Moscow has interesting implications for Wagner’s future operations, particularly concerning its plans to return to its original base of action, the Middle East and Africa. On 27 June, Putin claimed that from 2022, the Russian State had “fully financed” Wagner under its obligations to the war in Ukraine, but that this had ended. This produced immense speculation about Wagner’s future, and the likelihood of survival for its leader, Prigozhin.

Wagner holds a diverse portfolio of capabilities for a PMC. These include an expertise in disinformation, political interference, suppression of protests, and the holding or capturing of territory among other kinetic capabilities. Operations in Syria have involved disinformation through social media for political influence and intelligence gathering means, but primarily its role has been supporting and reclaiming territories that hold oil fields by force on behalf of the Assad Regime. One form of remuneration for Wagner’s role has been 25 percent of the oil and gas revenues in select territories of Eastern Syria.

Wagner’s operations in Sudan have been responsible for crushing local uprisings against the former dictator Omar al-Bashir and training the Rapid Support Forces group, which has recently been responsible for an attempted coup in the capital of Khartoum. In exchange for Wagner’s services, multiple shell companies connected to Prigozhin have received lucrative gold mining rights in Sudan, which have been linked to the smuggling of tonnes of gold.

Importantly, and perhaps not unsurprisingly, the humanitarian impact of Wagner has often resulted in disproportionate violence. In Ukraine, Wagner is linked to the torture and execution of prisoners of war near Bakhmut. Wagner Forces have been told to not “take any prisoners, and just shoot them on the spot.” In the Central African Republic, the United Nations Human Rights Office has linked Wagner to violations of international humanitarian law, and the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Mali, “MINUSMA,” connected Wagner to the deaths of over 500 civilians in the town of Moura in rural Mali.

In all, Wagner’s ravaging existence has been a bright stain on parts of the world where western opposition has been minimal. It is for this very reason that Prigozhin may be allowed to continue in his role, which has been enterprising in its violence, to say the least. While the proceeds from this commercialisation of death may be difficult to trace, their threads, we must surmise, are likely to reach into the inner sanctums of Putin’s circle, which has so far shielded Prigozhin from certain defenestration.

A Global Response to Wagner

Prigozhin has shown a high level of aptitude in disguising the transactions of payments for Wagner Groups operations, often receiving payment through harder to track commodities funnelled through affiliated shell companies. This will hinder future efforts by the wider international community to restrict payments to Wagner. A united and comprehensive effort by the global community is needed to curb Wagner’s capacity and appetite for destruction.

Prigozhin’s past modus operandi shows that Wagner’s imminent future will be aimed to exploit the land and people, and to bring the worst of humanity to power. Unless actions are undertaken to limit the scope and capabilities of Wagner, Prigozhin will concentrate on continuing to disrupt the security of at-risk states, bringing a new plague of chaos to the world.

Tom Saxton researches Information Warfare at the University of Melbourne. He has particular interests in the utilisation of open-source intelligence tools to gain advantages in direct conventional warfare.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.