Inside the brutal private army run by Putin’s friend Yevgeny Prigozhin
Dictators love their paramilitaries. They act as independent centers of power, curbing the risk of military coups by keeping army leadership on their toes. They can be deployed on missions that require plausible deniability. They help obfuscate casualty rates in protracted conflicts that do not go according to plan, such as Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine.
Prime example: the “Wagner Group,” led by Vladimir Putin’s personal caterer and confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin. He started his career as a petty criminal in Putin’s home city of Saint Petersburg and even served a prison sentence for robbery and theft during Soviet times, before moving on to the hospitality industry, cooking for state dignitaries and milking government contracts.
The Wagner Group — named after the anti-Semitic German composer — is not exactly a formal paramilitary organization or a “private army.” Rather, it is a sprawling network of mercenaries recruiting veterans as well as Russian convicts with Prigozhin at the top. It can grow larger or smaller on an as-needed basis, while coordinating with the Russian state through loose (and deniable) connections to its security apparatus.
Opaquely funded, the Wagner Group has been actively helping the Assad regime in Syria, where it continued to run into forces of the US-led coalition. Its fighters have been deployed in the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Libya. In Mali, Wagner Group contractors filled the void left by the departure of French-led forces conducting counterterrorist operations.
As my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute Michael Rubin notes, based on his first-hand experience from sub-Saharan Africa, the Wagner Group is a paper tiger, “good at public relations and taking on forces less disciplined than themselves” but not at fighting well-organized insurgencies. In the Central African Republic, an intervention by the Rwandan military — a far more professional fighting force — was necessary to protect the capital and the country’s critical infrastructure against Islamists.
In Ukraine, too, where the overall number of Wagner contractors may be close to 50,000, the group’s performance has been lackluster. Ostensibly, the Wagner Group has been leading the offensive against Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, launched in the fall of last year. Those efforts have now stalled and, in his media appearances, Prigozhin is trying to shift the blame on the lack of supplies and support from Russia’s military.
Wagner-style militias long enabled Moscow to claim that Russia had nothing to do with “insurgencies” in the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” The Minsk agreements, negotiated in 2014 and 2015, rested on this fiction and treated Russia not as a belligerent but as a mediator.
In the current war against Ukraine, Russia’s reliance on private military contractors provided Putin with additional manpower without the need to mobilize the wider population.
Mass recruiting has been going on across Russia’s prisons and penal colonies, where the vast majority of Wagner fighters in Ukraine originate. The offer consists of a commuted sentence and cash for a six-month deployment in Ukraine.
Escape attempts and desertion are not unheard of — and neither are shockingly brutal punishments aimed at dissuading such behavior. A Yevgeny Nuzhin, ex-Wagner defector to Ukraine, was returned to Russia as part of a prisoners’ exchange. Later a video of his execution by a sledgehammer was circulated on social media.
The cruelty is not new. Prigozhin’s operations in Africa, Syria and in Ukraine itself have gone hand in hand with atrocities which would have likely been too much for regular soldiers to stomach, including mass executions, arbitrary arrests, and torture of civilians.
In December, the Russian parliament adopted a law that grants broad immunity from prosecution to Russian nationals in Ukraine acting “in the interests of the Russian Federation” — essentially signaling to the world that the regime is perfectly comfortable with war crimes and human rights abuses that have characterized the invasion.
Together with its founder who is deeply rooted — just like Putin — in Saint Petersburg’s criminal underground, the Wagner Group epitomizes the thuggish nature of the Russian regime. Nobody should expect it to make a big difference on the battlefield in Ukraine; yet, one should be prepared for a scenario in which Prigozhin and his gangsters become one of the main factions competing for power in the Kremlin in the case of Putin’s demise or his defeat in Ukraine.
All of which is to say that the “Russia problem” that the world is facing extends far beyond the figure of the autocrat in the Kremlin and is bound to outlive him.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.