Foreign Policy Essay
Win, Lose, or Draw, the Wagner Group Benefits From the War in Ukraine
Editor’s Note: Russia has long used private military companies like the Wagner Group to fight its wars, and Wagner is playing an important role in the conflict in Ukraine. Christopher Faulkner and Marcel Plichta assess the Wagner Group’s record and argue that it will remain an important security actor for Russia even after the conflict in Ukraine ends.
Between conscription, mobilization, and coercion, Vladimir Putin is putting more men under arms than ever. The Russian government’s partial mobilization may be going poorly, but it will ultimately mean that more Russians will see genuine combat than have for a generation. These men will have need for employment, and some doors will be newly open to them when the guns go silent—particularly those who have acquired a new title, war veteran.
One option for Russia’s next generation of ex-soldiers will be to join a private military company (PMC). Traditionally, PMCs are thought of as (mostly) apolitical for-profit organizations that fulfill a range of military and security functions, from fighting on the frontlines to carrying out specialized missions like training soldiers or protecting VIPs. Unlike traditional PMCs, Russian security firms like the Wagner Group are quasi-state actors, intimately connected to or even developed by the Kremlin as auxiliary forces used to pursue its geopolitical goals. For Russians with combat experience, the better pay (and life insurance) associated with a PMC is enticing, and there will be more demand than ever.
Over the past decade, Russia has leaned heavily on PMCs as a cost-effective foreign policy tool. Though technically illegal in Russia, a point of leverage that keeps them reliant on the state, Russian PMCs are a growing feature of the Kremlin’s military and foreign policy toolkits, especially the Wagner Group. They provide Moscow with plausible deniability, however improbable that seems, and simultaneously give other states the opportunity to ignore this type of Russian interference given the groups’ unofficial connection to the Kremlin. They also enable Russia to grow its geopolitical relationships and extract resources with limited risk. The strategic use of these gray-zone forces has delivered some wins for the Kremlin, like shoring up the Syrian government, pulling the Central African Republic and Mali out of France’s orbit, and smuggling gold and diamonds to partially mitigate the impact of sanctions. Looking beyond the organization’s recent setbacks in Ukraine, the current conflict is setting Wagner up for new success, with an expanded pool of recruits and growing demand for its services, unless governments can effectively limit its operations.
Wagner Group’s Growing Pains
Moscow has used PMCs at the margins of its foreign policy for more than a decade, but their visibility skyrocketed during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The most infamous of these is the Wagner Group. Wagner achieved almost mythical status thanks to its global presence and forceful media campaigns. When abroad, the PMC generally operates as a light and mobile force with armored vehicles, small unmanned aerial vehicles, and helicopters. When necessary, they have been known to operate jets and heavier equipment in small numbers, though this is often in conjunction with the Russian military or local forces.
In addition to smaller missions in Sudan, where the group originally tried to insulate now-deposed dictator Omar al-Bashir, and Mozambique, where it suffered serious losses to the Islamist insurgency operating in the country’s north, the Wagner Group has fought in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s partisans in Libya, along with ongoing campaigns to bolster Russia-friendly governments in the Central African Republic and Mali. Wagner arrived in Syria circa 2014, replacing other Russian PMCs, to train and equip pro-Assad Syrian militias and support Russian forces operating there. By 2016, the organization’s role had shifted to include direct combat operations. One of Wagner’s most infamous incidents occurred in early 2018, when its forces came into direct contact with Kurdish and U.S. Special Operations forces in eastern Syria. Wagner contractors attacked Kurdish and U.S. forces while attempting to retake an oil facility, from which the group stood to benefit directly; the attack led U.S. special operators to call in airstrikes that reportedly resulted in over 200 Wagner casualties.
Even as Putin scrambles to put more men on the frontlines in Ukraine, Wagner continues to maintain more than 1,000 contractors each in the Central African Republic and Mali to provide regime security and train the national militaries—though recent reporting suggests that it has paused recruiting for these theaters. Neither mission has brought an end to the fighting in these countries, although Wagner’s actions in the Central African Republic almost certainly saved the democratically elected government from a rebel takeover and have kept Mali’s junta secure amid France’s military withdrawal and a possible end to the U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Like all Russian PMCs, there is a close relationship between Wagner and the Kremlin, and many of Wagner’s personnel are inseparable from the state. Much of its original leadership came from Russian special forces units and earlier PMCs, like the Slavonic Corps, and Wagner fighters deploy abroad using Russian military aircraft. The company’s leader, Russian oligarch Yevegeny Prigozhin, denied founding Wagner for years and only recently acknowledged it. But his role was no secret to Putin, who awarded him the Hero of Russia medal, the highest honor the Russian government bestows.
Wagner is obviously an extension of the Russian state, but African leaders aren’t tricked into hiring them. In many cases, Wagner arrives after the United Nations or other security partners failed to resolve conflicts for years, as was the case in the Central African Republic and Mali. Detailed investigations into Wagner’s activities in these countries illustrate how the group facilitates democratic backsliding, systematically engages in human rights abuses, and acts in concert with Prigozhin-linked companies to extract resources. But, for all their malfeasance, Wagner offers military and security services at a lower price point than similarly amoral PMCs, and contracting Wagner usually comes with the promise of Russian bilateral support and greater independence from the interests of former colonial powers.
Wagner’s personnel and experience made it a capable force early in the 2022 Ukraine operation, capturing territory that other mercenary groups (and even the army) couldn’t. Like the rest of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, however, Wagner is suffering more setbacks as time goes on. Their offensive in Bakhmut is slow going, despite substantial artillery support. A Wagner base in Popasna was destroyed in August by a Ukrainian HIMARS strike after a reporter accidentally shared the group’s location via a photo posted on Telegram.
Moscow’s reliance on Wagner to fight its war has stretched the PMC thin. The group’s responsibilities have expanded, and it must now continue to support its deployments of thousands of fighters abroad while simultaneously holding a section of the front in Ukraine. These lines of effort, which are dramatically different from Wagner’s past roles in Syria and Africa, have forced Wagner to recruit whomever it can to meet its short-term needs in Ukraine. While overseas operations have many of the former Russian military types that initially staffed Wagner, the company’s soldiers in Ukraine now run the gamut from disgraced generals to prisoners recruited directly from penal colonies.
These increasingly slapdash recruitment practices have important implications for Wagner’s operational effectiveness in Ukraine. Once respected for its warfighting, Wagner is using a new recruiting strategy that has diluted its ranks with inexperienced fighters. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, this has led to high losses for the group in Ukraine. Yet, for Prigozhin, maintaining operational tempo and retaining favor with Putin is more important than the quality or longevity of Wagner contractors. This crucible is providing a training ground for the next group of mercenaries.
While poor performance in Ukraine might make it difficult for Wagner to operate in conflicts close to Russia’s interests, it won’t undermine the group’s usefulness as a foreign policy tool. Wagner has a slightly better record in its other missions than in its recent efforts in Ukraine, so the progress of the conflict there might not affect global demand for its services. In the Central African Republic, some 2,000 Wagner fighters halted a rebel offensive that reached the outskirts of the capital and reversed rebel gains with a lightning counteroffensive in a matter of weeks. Wagner’s reputation is also held up by a strong media presence and propaganda. Wagner-affiliated companies produced films about their exploits in the Central African Republic and Mozambique, and they are reportedly working on another film about the ongoing fighting in Ukraine. In addition to providing light entertainment, the films continue to sell Wagner as a force that protects weak states from Western-backed rebels and extremists.
As the Kremlin is forced to reassess the plausibility of achieving its original territorial ambitions and reconsider its commitment of manpower to the war in Ukraine, the PMC market will benefit from significantly more potential manpower, resources, and a desiccated Russian economy. PMCs like Wagner can use the expanded pool of conflict veterans to strengthen their current deployments and to pitch world leaders fed up with their traditional security partners on the benefits of hiring them. Right now, the war in Ukraine is detracting from Wagner’s primary specialty of expanding Russian influence globally. The effects are felt throughout their deployments: Since the start of the war in Ukraine, they have become bogged down in the Central African Republic, have struggled to stabilize Mali, and are seemingly unable to make good on rumors of a new deployment to Burkina Faso.
Russia will almost certainly keep using Wagner after the conflict ends, regardless of the outcome. Though Russia’s PMCs will need to compete with the regular army as it seeks to rebuild, private contractors are central to Russia’s irregular warfare strategy, which far predates Putin’s tenure as president. Even if the war in Ukraine diminished the allure that PMCs like Wagner had, states looking for alternatives to security force assistance from the United States and its partners will still want to see what Wagner has to offer. There is also the possibility that, due to Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, those states that may have been inclined to pursue more traditional military and security relations with Moscow will opt for something less formal. Wagner or another PMC might provide some cover.
Efforts to counter Wagner are limited, but more governments are starting to recognize the problems posed by the PMC. Both the U.S. Congress and the U.K. Parliament launched inquiries this year into Wagner’s operations and what they can do to counter them. The United States and the European Union have also slapped sanctions on the group, including a series of sanctions directly targeting Prigozhin and his businesses. Such efforts are laudable, but they are clearly not sufficient.
With a new generation of war veterans from which to recruit, it is critical to take proactive steps to contain Wagner and other Russian PMCs before, not after, the war in Ukraine ends. These measures must both degrade Wagner’s ability to supply its services and decrease the demand from world leaders for Russian PMCs. The former can be done with measures that target Wagner’s logistics and ensnare individual fighters in international and municipal legal systems, but the latter will require rethinking military assistance to weak states and working to improve the ability of peacekeeping and training missions to help countries meet their security needs without resorting to private actors. Reconceptualizing security assistance is not easy, but if the international community is unable to meet the acute security needs of weak states when called upon, actors like Wagner will.