Russia’s Favorite Mercenaries

Wagner, the elusive private military company, has made its way to Africa—with plenty of willing young Russian volunteers.

Heavily armed Russian soldiers ride atop an armored tank in Aleppo.
Russian soldiers in Aleppo (Omar Sanadiki / Reuters)

In Russia, journalism is far from the safest profession—even more so when the subject of investigation happens to be a private mercenary army engaged in multiple active conflicts abroad. On July 30, three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) while investigating a particularly dangerous topic: the Russian private military company Wagner, a mercenary outfit highly active in the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts. At least two other Russian journalists have also suffered while researching Wagner, including Maxim Borodin, who suddenly fell to his death from a balcony in Yekaterinburg in April, and Denis Korotkov, a Saint Petersburg journalist forced into hiding after receiving death threats owing to his work on Wagner. There are now indications that Wagner forces may be present with both rebels and government forces in the CAR. A unit of the group, filmed by the recently deceased journalists, was operating in rebel-held territory—contrary to Moscow’s assertions that Russian forces were present only to assist CAR authorities.

While Wagner attempts to suppress investigations into its activities, the information available suggests an outfit that plays an increasingly crucial role for Moscow both abroad and at home. But even as this strategy has allowed Russia to rack up military successes without risking its own ground forces, it has also created an explosive situation: Skilled soldiers of fortune who take their orders from an oligarch—not from the Kremlin—are playing a central, unpredictable role in shaping Russia’s foreign policy.

Though the exact nature of Wagner’s relationship to the Kremlin remains murky, it has demonstrated a growing ability to create headaches for Russian authorities. Its origins date back to 2013, when an earlier iteration of Wagner, known as the Slavonic Corps, engaged in a disastrous mission to Syria at the behest of unknown Damascene businessmen. One of the commanders of the Slavonic Corps, a former Russian military intelligence (GRU) colonel named Dmitry Utkin, reemerged shortly thereafter, in early 2014, fighting in eastern Ukraine at the head of a GRU-linked outfit called PMC Wagner. It played a pivotal role in major battles there, working closely alongside Russian military forces and their separatist proxies over the next year and a half.

After proving its mettle in Donetsk, Wagner joined Moscow’s official intervention in Syria shortly after it began in September 2015, playing a leading role in the capture of Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor. Wagner has functioned as an undeclared branch of the Russian military: Its fighters fly to Syria on Russian military aircraft, receive treatment in Russian military hospitals, work alongside regular Russian forces in operations, and are awarded Russian military medals signed personally by Vladimir Putin. Backed by Russian airpower, Wagner fighters have been instrumental to the Syrian government’s reconquest of much of its territory, spearheading assaults against entrenched Islamic State positions in lieu of ineffective Syrian militias.

While Russia has long histories with Ukraine and (to a lesser extent) Syria, nothing of the sort can be said of central Africa, Wagner’s present area of focus. Following talks between Russia and Sudan on security cooperation late last year, a video emerged showing Russian contractors training local pro-government militia in the country. Then, in March 2018, the Kremlin issued a statement that 170 “civilian advisors” (widely understood to mean Wagner forces) had arrived in the CAR to train government forces. At the end of July, another 500 alleged Wagner fighters appeared on the Sudan-CAR border. There are persistent rumors of their current or future presence in Libya, with one Wagner commander stating in March that his fighters would soon head there. These developments seem to confirm reporting from a Russian journalist who, in March, posed as a Wagner recruit to access its main training base in southern Russia. “Half our guys are preparing for Africa,” he was told.

Sub-Saharan Africa probably isn’t a dream destination for Russian fighters, but a hefty financial incentive smooths that over. While the average Wagner paycheck fell last year by a third from its initial value (240,000 rubles monthly, or roughly $3,550), the current rate of 160,000 rubles still far outpaces the typical wages in provincial Russia. Interviews with families of deceased Wagner fighters, many of them drawn from central Russia’s dilapidated Ural region, have confirmed the group’s monetary allure.

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.

Wagner seems to exist to push the envelope of what Moscow can achieve in new environments. The central African adventure epitomizes this strategy. It allows Russia to enter a foreign, largely hostile environment with minimal risk, and to exploit both political and economic opportunities there. Wagner appears to have tapped this possibility at the highest level, reportedly serving as CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s personal security detail. The withdrawal of hundreds of U.S. soldiers from Africa and widespread antipathy throughout the CAR toward the French, the traditional power brokers in their former colony, have left the CAR as what one United Nations official calls a “free country for the taking.” Russia has spent much of the past decade looking to reassert itself globally; following largely successful forays into the Middle East, Africa marks a natural next step for the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Add in the promise of lucrative gold and diamond resources and it’s easy to see why the country would be an attractive target for Moscow (and a profitable one for Wagner).

Despite these hiccups, the past year has been an eminently successful one for Wagner. One Wagner-focused discussion group on a Russian social-media site has seen a spike of activity the past six months. Many users have expressed their interest in joining, while some heated discussions have emerged. (One commentator, looking to join, was told, “This isn’t a fucking game like you think, to which he responded, “I know what war is, I served in Chechnya.”)

There are also indications that the Wagner model is being replicated. In July, a little-known company called Patriot, reportedly well connected to defense-ministry officials and offering better pay than Wagner, surfaced. Its contractors can reportedly earn up to 1 million rubles a month, an unthinkable sum for anyone living outside Moscow’s Garden Ring. It remains to be seen exactly what role Patriot, Wagner, or any other imitators will play in Africa, Syria, and elsewhere going forward, but it appears as though the private military company as an instrument of Russian foreign and domestic policy is here to stay.