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What is Wagner Group?

Wagner Group has transformed itself in recent years. Traditionally conceived as a company for contracting out the services of Russian mercenaries under the auspices of the Russian state, it has come to stand for imperial conquest on the part of the Russian government and also as a means of bringing foreign soldiers to Russia and in particular to Russian-occupied Ukraine to fight the Ukrainian Armed Forces. We can do little more here than trace this organisation’s extraordinary history.

The organisation’s origins are in the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, when in 2014 the Russian Armed Forces (or local proxy organisations Russian militias had infiltrated) found themselves facing unexpectedly stiff resistance as they sought to organise a series of revolutions in different Oblasts across Ukraine. Russian security and intelligence services arranged uprisings to create “People’s Republics” as far across Ukraine as Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, Mykolaïv and Odessa. Ultimately the only People’s Republics that worked were Donetsk and Luhansk and in Donetsk only about half the territory of the Oblast was seized. In the other regions where this was attempted the Ukrainian security forces, that developed into the modern Ukrainian Armed Forces, put down these Russia-driven movements, often ruthlessly. Moreover the Ukrainian military cranked into action to create a front line in the Donbas and they held the front line.

The Russian Armed Forces proving themselves unable to organise themselves sufficiently effectively at short notice to assist the ailing Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics who were suffering territorial losses, the Wagner Group was formed as an ad hoc military force with plausible deniability by initially recruiting soldiers from Russian prisons with promises of release if they served time, and it established itself as a so-called “private military company” with access to Russian Armed Forces infrastructure even if theoretically not under the control of the Russian government. Its leader was Yevgeny Prigozhin until he died in mysterious circumstances in the summer of 2023, probably murdered on the orders of Vladimir Putin, after he had ostensibly attempted to engineer a coup against the Kremlin and then went to live in Belarus: also unlikely propositions.

Initially conceived as a force of irregulars to maintain the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics against defeat by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, in time the Wagner Group began branching out into various conflict scenarios in Africa, offering themselves as Russian mercenaries to military and dictatorial regimes from Mali to Sudan to Niger to Libya and a number of other places besides. The Russian convicts would many of them stay with the Wagner Group even after the period of service for release from their prison obligations had expired, and they would be paid to train local troops in the conflict zones in question. Also they were deployed in the Syrian civil war to train Syrian troops, who would then join their ranks. The sources of Wagner Group’s funding was a combination of the Russian Federation’s treasury and exorbitant fees charged to various African leaders, most of whom paid in terms of their countries’ natural resources such as in gold (in West Africa) or in oil (as in the case of Libya).

Then things started to become more complicated and confusing. Syrian troops were recruited by Wagner Group to fight in Libya and, in the most recent stage of the conflict in Ukraine, Wagner Group has been recruiting the soldiers it was working with in West Africa to come to fight for the Russian Armed Forces in the occupied territories in Ukraine. Moreover the most recent reports suggest that the Wagner Group is now recruiting Indians and Nepalese workers on false pretences, promising them jobs in Russia but then stealing their passports and other identity documents and forcing them into military training camps against their will. These unwilling soldiers are then sent to occupied Ukraine to die, and they never knew they were taking up military service or that they would be working in a military environment.

So Wagner Group has come full circle, in a way. It began as a way of recruiting irregular soldiers to fight proxy wars in Ukraine from 2014 to maintain official Russian deniability. But those soldiers were in fact Russians, albeit convicts released from prison to fight. Then those same soldiers started achieving Russian imperial ambitions in Africa, using other soldiers they had trained with. Then they brought those soldiers back to Russia to fight in the second Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as hiring all sorts of other people and luring them to Russia on false pretences in order to die on the front line.

This is all nothing short of remarkable, and it tells us that there is little confidence in the competence of the conventional Russian Armed Forces. By contrast Wagner Group troops have a reputation for relative competence, even though they are not drawn from conventional backgrounds. The Russian Army was always shockingly bad, and Russia has resorted to mercenaries from other countries and from her own prisons in order to fight the war in Ukraine because the Russian Armed Forces are barely functional. How long all this can be sustained is a question it is difficult to answer: as Russia makes ever more enemies amidst now the governments of India and Nepal, in respect of mistreatment of those countries’ citizens, a more comprehensive international regime of sanctions against Wagner Group might be put in place to subjugate its international activities.


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