Vladimir Putin has now been in charge of the Russian Federation for 20 years, and there is little doubt that during this time the Kremlin’s presence on the international scene has grown considerably. Both friends and foes of Russia are likely to admit that.
Russia’s re-emergence as a global power this century has inevitably resulted in worsening relations with the West, especially the United States. Tensions have risen in eastern Europe and the Caucasus, to mention two areas, as NATO expanded to Russia’s frontiers, while Moscow responds to what it perceives as geostrategic threats in neighboring countries like Georgia and the Ukraine.
Another region where mistrust has sprung up between America and Russia is regarding the Middle East, specifically Syria, which from 2011 developed into a brutal proxy war waged mostly by the world’s major powers. In February 2018, direct combat even broke out between US and Russian armed personnel in Deir Ezzor, Eastern Syria. It was the first time that American and Russian troops had been engaged in a battle against each other since the Vietnam War.
What is the Wagner Group?
On this occasion the Russians, private contractors, belonged to the Wagner Group, which is a Kremlin-linked paramilitary organization reportedly founded in 2014 by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy Russian businessman whose role is discussed further below.
On 7 February 2018, about 600 fighters mostly from the Wagner Group, equipped with Russian tanks and artillery, launched an assault in Deir Ezzor against US-backed Kurdish forces. The Wagner Group’s aim was to destroy the enemy and take an oil refinery positioned nearby. Yet the Wagner Group unit was initially not aware that dozens of American soldiers were embedded among the Kurds in this area. Under attack from Wagner fighters, the Americans quickly called upon Washington to provide wide-scale air support in response.
For the next four hours, the Russian-led personnel were bombarded by the might of the US military, including war planes, artillery and helicopters, while also joining the rout was a US AC-130 aircraft, the world’s largest flying artillery gunship, armed with a variety of powerful cannons and a gatling gun. When it was all over, up to 200 Wagner operatives laid dead on the battlefield, along with many other injured. None of the Americans were harmed.
A year later, US president Barack Obama unexpectedly confirmed his government’s involvement in ousting Yanukovych when he said live on CNN that they had “brokered a deal to transition of power in Ukraine”
The Wagner Group, often claimed to be “mercenaries” in Western media, consisting of recently retired veterans of Russian state security services, aged between 35 and 55 – along with others of a pro-Russian outlook from former Soviet states and also Serbia, a Kremlin ally. By December 2017, there were around 6,000 Wagner Group fighters in service, an increase from a membership of just 1,000 in early 2016.
How much does it pay?
The typical salaries for members of Wagner ranges from $1,200 to $4,000 a month, which in Russian currency is the equivalent of 80,000 to 250,000 rubles. Senior Wagner personnel and those active abroad generally receive higher wages. The Wagner Group’s presence was first noted in the spring of 2014, when its contractors were spotted in the midst of Russian military forces during Moscow’s takeover of the Crimea. In the following weeks, operatives belonging to Wagner were also seen on the ground in eastern Ukraine, as hostilities erupted there from April 2014.
Who does Wagner Group belong to?
Putin’s decision in March 2014 to incorporate the Crimea to Russia, a peninsula which rests on the resource-rich Black Sea, has been heavily criticized in Europe and North America. Yet Russia’s absorption of the Crimea quite likely came as a reaction to the Western-supported overthrow of Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, a couple of weeks before, in February 2014. A year later, US President Barack Obama unexpectedly confirmed his government’s involvement in ousting Yanukovych when he said live on CNN that they had “brokered a deal to transition of power in Ukraine”. Yanukovych was a corrupt and unpopular leader but his removal had lasting consequences.
In February 2018, Prigozhin was indicted by former FBI director Robert Mueller for purported interference in the 2016 US presidential elections
The Wagner Group is said to be supported and funded by the 59-year-old Yevgeny Prigozhin, an influential oligarch who has, unfairly or not, been dubbed “Putin’s Chef”. Like Putin, Prigozhin hails from the Russian city of St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). During the late Soviet period, Prigozhin was sent to jail in 1981 for theft and fraud, spending nine years behind bars.
Prigozhin seems to have left his early troubles with the Russian law behind, and among other things he now owns a large catering firm. In recent months, Prigozhin has been the subject of sanctions from Washington. His personal assets, such as his three private airplanes and a yacht, were targeted for financial penalties by the US Department of the Treasury.
In February 2018, Prigozhin was indicted by former FBI director Robert Mueller for purported interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. Earlier this century Prigozhin personally hosted Putin at his restaurants, including at one food outlet just outside Moscow.
The mass media have reported that Prigozhin ordered the above attack in Eastern Syria, where the American soldiers were located, which resulted in the ensuing bloodshed. Prigozhin is likely to have interests in oil and gas deposits in Syria, which may account for the Wagner Group’s presence in Deir Ezzor, a territory that is rich in oil sources.
The Wagner Group is led in person by the 50-year-old Dmitry Utkin, a lieutenant-colonel of Ukrainian birth whose sympathies are closely aligned to Moscow. Utkin is a former member of Spetsnaz GRU, the foreign military intelligence agency of the Russian Armed Forces, originally established during the Stalin era. Putin himself has awarded Utkin state military honours; Utkin was photographed standing beside Putin at a reception in the Kremlin during early December 2016.
Furthermore, Utkin has a seemingly close business relationship with his Wagner-associated colleague, Prigozhin. Since November 2017 Utkin has held the position of chief executive of the catering company, Concord Management and Consulting, which was founded in 1995 by Prigozhin and is at least half-owned by him. From 2011 Prigozhin’s mother, Violetta Prigozhin, has been listed as the official owner of this company, which is under American government sanctions.
Involvement in the Syrian conflict
During military service in Chechnya, Utkin adopted the assumed name “Wagner”, which is presumably where the Wagner Group derived its title from. Utkin’s activities have not escaped the US government’s attention, and he has been under sanctions since June 2017. After its formulation almost six years ago, the Wagner Group has mainly been active in Syria, following Putin’s decision to implement Russian military engagement there in September 2015. The Kremlin’s involvement in the Syrian civil war had a central role in turning the conflict around for its president Bashar al-Assad.
The Wagner Group first appeared in Syria during October 2015, mere days after Putin ordered an armed intervention to back his Syrian ally Assad. Thereafter, the Wagner Group was immersed in a string of battles across Syrian territory. The Kremlin does not officially recognize covert organizations like Wagner, but it is highly unlikely that such groups would be allowed to operate without Putin’s consent. As is most probable, the Wagner Group is an extension of Russian foreign policy actions.
One of the benefits to Moscow of groups like Wagner is that they operate in a clandestine manner, below the radar and obscured from public awareness
In April 2012 for instance, Putin described private military contractors as “an instrument for the realization of national interests without the direct participation of the state”. Nonetheless, Putin’s personal influence over the Wagner Group is not clear. It is safe to suggest, he would not have wanted them to attack enemy combatants which included American soldiers. Few, if anybody, wishes to see a war unfold between nuclear superpowers America and Russia. The Kremlin’s subsequent response to the US air strikes on Wagner was contradictory and hesitant.
Wagner Group ‘provides security’ discretely
One of the benefits to Moscow of groups like Wagner is that they operate in a clandestine manner, below the radar and obscured from public awareness. When Wagner fighters are killed, and hundreds of them have lost their lives so far, the Russian government is not compelled to acknowledge the death toll. It is hardly popular among Russia’s population when its soldiers are brought home in body bags. Here Moscow can avoid responsibility and distance itself from the Wagner Group when its fighters are killed, or are accused of war crimes.
Wagner personnel have also been operating in far-flung regions such as Africa, where their members have in preceding months been stationed in Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR). These countries are positioned in strategically important places on the map – Libya, for example, contains the biggest oil sources in Africa and lies astride the lucrative Mediterranean Sea.
Since January 2019, the Wagner Group has spread its reach to South America where they assisted in “providing security” for president Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, the country containing the world’s greatest known oil reserves. Rosneft, Russia’s large state-controlled energy company, has significant vested interests in Venezuela’s natural resources. Venezuela as a nation has descended into chaos in recent years. Maduro’s policies have proven harmful and clearly contributed to the crisis and exodus of millions of Venezuelans. However, the Americans have been actively involved too in Venezuela, and the Trump administration has publicly supported opposition groups, along with prominent anti-Maduro figures like Juan Guaido.
A leaked UN report, from May 2020, also highlights how up to 1,000 Wagner personnel are operating in Libya, through supporting General Khalifa Haftar, who has been in opposition to the Tripoli-based regime. It is reported that the Wagner Group have been present in Libya since October 2018, a country which has the largest oil and gas reserves in Africa. Libya has descended into chaos and is split between rival factions following the Western military intervention in 2011, which ousted long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Shane Quinn has contributed on a regular basis to Global Research for almost two years, and have had articles published with the American news outlets People’s World and MintPress News, Morning Star in Britain and Venezuela’s Orinoco Tribune. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.