RUSSIA MASSED around 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s border before it invaded. But there may be other, more shadowy Russian forces fighting there. According to a report in the Times on February 28th, more than 400 mercenaries belonging to Russia’s Wagner Group have been sent to Kyiv to assassinate Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president. American officials say they have seen some indication of Wagner’s involvement in the war. Those reports have not been confirmed, but Wagner’s presence would not be a surprise. For years Ukraine has accused the private military organisation, which appears to have close ties to the Kremlin, of fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk, the disputed parts of eastern Ukraine. The mercenaries, who have also reportedly fought in both northern and sub-Saharan Africa, have been accused of torture, rape and extrajudicial killings. What is the Wagner Group, and how is it linked to the Russian state?
“From a legal perspective, Wagner doesn’t exist,” says Sorcha MacLeod, who heads the UN’s working group on the use of mercenaries. Instead of a single entity, Wagner is a network of companies and groups. According to a European Union regulation last December, implementing sanctions against the group and certain people, it was founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian soldier adorned with Nazi tattoos. It was reportedly named after Hitler’s favourite composer. In December 2016 Mr Utkin was photographed alongside Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, at a Kremlin event, hinting at the group’s powerful ties. Wagner is thought to be funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman who is also alleged to run the Internet Research Agency, Russia’s “troll farm”. The Russian armed forces work closely with the group, reportedly providing it with munitions and transport aircraft. The head of Ukraine’s security services has likened Wagner to “a private army of Putin”.
Since emerging in Ukraine in 2014, Wagner-linked operatives have surfaced in many places where Russia has an interest. They were active in Syria and Libya, and more recently have been seen in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. “Russia is engaging in a proxy war with plausible deniability,” Ms MacLeod says. Using mercenaries instead of its own troops allows Russia to downplay its casualties. It also removes a layer of accountability: unlike soldiers, mercenaries are very hard to identify. It is “almost impossible to hold them to account”, says Ms MacLeod. Wagner mercenaries have been accused of human-rights abuses, and journalists investigating Wagner have been killed. For Mr Prigozhin, the work may be lucrative. Firms linked to him and Wagner have taken control of oil fields in Syria and diamond mines in CAR.
Russia is not the only country to use mercenaries. Turkish groups, for example, are thought to operate in Libya. And some think Wagner’s scale and political ties may be greatly exaggerated: the notion of a powerful, shadowy Russian organisation helps Mr Putin to instil fear. Indeed, Wagner’s mercenaries have often been unsuccessful. They pulled out of Mozambique in 2019 after jihadists started beheading them. And they fought on the losing side in Libya’s civil war.
Some people in the countries Wagner operates are grateful for the support. In Mali, where the ruling junta is thought to pay Wagner $10m a month, people hope they will be more helpful at achieving stability than French troops were. But if Wagner’s men are in Ukraine, where Ms MacLeod and her team are “monitoring the situation”, few people will be glad of their presence.
Our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis can be found here.