Ideological motivations also play a large role in Wagner recruitment. Russian society has become more militarized in recent years, with new government initiatives for youth regiments and indoctrination from a young age. Moscow actively encourages this militant nationalism, under the guise of “patriotic mobilization.” Wagner, with its higher salaries and promises of foreign adventure, is well positioned to take advantage of this trend. One of its commanders recently stated that for their recruits, the feeling is clear: “Even if you are 10,000 kilometers from home, you are still fighting for the motherland.”
Wagner could also come to play a key role in Russia itself—namely, in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya. Following Russia’s brutal reconquest of Chechnya in the early 2000s, it exists within the country as a state within a state, led by Ramzan Kadyrov, who exercises absolute authority with the Kremlin’s blessing. He commands tens of thousands of loyal, highly trained security forces.
For Wagner, Chechens are not just undesirable: They are banned from the organization, according to one commander. Despite this, Wagner fighters have fought alongside Chechens in Syria. While he continues to profess his loyalty as a “foot soldier in Putin’s army,” Kadyrov has grown more brazen in recent years, sometimes directly challenging Kremlin policy. There has been much speculation over whether a third Chechen war is inevitable, and what will happen once Putin’s current term ends in 2024. In the event another conflict does occur, with Kadyrov turning on his erstwhile masters, Moscow may turn to Wagner. As profiles of the fighters killed in Syria suggest, many Wagner recruits are veterans of the Chechen wars. It would seem to be a perfect answer for Russia’s Chechnya problem.
Wagner also offers Putin political insulation. Last year, the Islamic State captured two Wagner fighters in eastern Syria, and paraded them before the camera. Had they been Russian servicemen, the outcry at home would likely have been deafening. Instead, their captivity was brushed aside, with the Kremlin simply saying they were “probably volunteers.”
But this degree of separation is also a liability. Wagner’s forces remain outside the Russian armed forces, following the whims of their master, the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. In February, Wagner mercenaries launched a surprise assault on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, eventually suffering hundreds of casualties in a four-hour firefight that saw heavy American airpower brought to bear on the group. The result: a public-relations catastrophe for the Kremlin, which struggled to explain the nature of these mercenaries who had just assaulted U.S. positions, while covering up dozens of deaths. Judging from the haphazard and repeatedly revised Kremlin explanations of the event, it seems unlikely that Russian officials were apprised of the scale of the assault or its targeting of Americans. But Wagner’s position ultimately depends on the mercurial personal relationships among Prigozhin, Putin, and other top Kremlin officials. An earlier argument between Prigozhin and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu in mid-2016 was followed by a sharp reduction in the quality of military supplies and air support available to Wagner forces in Syria.