Russia’s Newest Weapon in Ukraine May Be Mercenaries Linked to Putin

There is limited evidence that mercenaries from Russia's Wagner Group are in Ukraine -- but that may be about to change.

Photo: SBU

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, news reports have warned that the hostilities would soon include mercenaries working for a private paramilitary force with close ties to the Kremlin. Some of those reports noted that the Wagner Group — as the mercenary network is known, even though it does not exist as a single corporate entity under that name — has been actively recruiting combatants from other countries where it operates, including Syria. In recent days, Western officials escalated the warnings, predicting that more than 1,000 mercenaries, including the group’s top commanders, might pull out of other countries where they have been deployed in order to boost Russia’s faltering invasion.

Despite those reports, it is not known how many Wagner mercenaries, Russian or not, are currently in Ukraine, though European intelligence officials believe that about 300 entered the country in the weeks leading up to the invasion. This week, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said that about 1,000 Wagner mercenaries, including Syrians, are currently in eastern Ukraine — though so far there has been no evidence of that. Still, these reports have drawn a spotlight to the Wagner network, which has been connected to war crimes and is widely understood to operate at the behest of Russian intelligence, even as the Kremlin has always denied affiliation to it.

Fighting for hire is one of the world’s most ancient professions, and a number of countries, including the United States, have long relied on private military contractors in conflict zones — a trend that human rights observers warn is only growing. U.S. mercenaries have committed a series of human rights abuses, including the massacre of civilians, in a number of countries. 

Private military companies are technically illegal in Russia, a provision that has granted officials there a measure of plausible deniability when Wagner fighters have died abroad, including during a fierce battle against U.S. forces in Syria in 2018 that killed some 300 Wagner mercenaries. Still, researchers, journalists, and officials who have closely monitored Wagner-affiliated entities over the years have connected their operations to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessperson and close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin; Prigozhin has denied being linked to Wagner. He also allegedly finances the Internet Research Agency, the “troll farm” behind a series of online disinformation campaigns, including an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

Several individuals affiliated with Wagner, including Prigozhin, are under U.S. sanctions, and the European Union last year issued additional travel bans and asset freezes against some of the group’s operational leaders, whom it accused in its official journal of “serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique.” Among them is Dmitriy Utkin, a former lieutenant colonel in Russia’s military intelligence service and veteran of both Chechen wars credited with founding the Wagner Group after an earlier private military outfit known as the Slavonic Corps. Utkin is often reported to have named Wagner after Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner. Other sources trace the group’s name to the commander’s former call sign, Vagner, but reports of the group’s Nazi sympathies abound, including photos of Utkin seemingly sporting Nazi tattoos on his skin — a stark contradiction of Putin’s claim that he is leading a military campaign to “denazify” Ukraine.

With up to 190,000 Russian troops already deployed in and around Ukraine, it’s not yet clear what particular role mercenaries specialized in shadow warfare will be playing, although some observers predict that they might take on a more prominent role should a conflict in the eastern parts of Ukraine drag on. But Wagner’s combat services are only a part of its contribution to Russia’s foreign policy game.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 11: The Chef of Vladimir Putin and head of the holding company Concord, Yevgeny Prigozhin (rear) attends the meeting of The Commonwealth of Independent States' (CIS) leaders in Sochi, Russia on October 11, 2017. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, rear, attends the meeting of The Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS) leaders in Sochi, Russia on October 11, 2017.

Photo: Getty Images

“They are a multipurpose Swiss Army knife for irregular warfare and psychological warfare operations,” Candace Rondeaux, director of the Future Frontlines program at New America, which has closely tracked the group, told The Intercept. While Wagner fighters play a significant tactical role in other conflict zones — fighting and training partner forces in conflicts from Libya to Sudan — Rondeaux added that “the secondary purpose of a lot of their kind of posturing and online presence and campaigning is to create the impression that Russia can project itself militarily anywhere in the world.”

“They are a multipurpose Swiss Army knife for irregular warfare and psychological warfare operations.”

The narrative around foreign mercenaries’ presence in Ukraine appears to be at least in part a response to the Ukrainian government’s call for a foreign legion of volunteers to fight alongside its forces — a call that has had mixed results at best. Putin has said that some 16,000 “volunteers from the Middle East were ready to join Russia’s efforts in Ukraine. Forces loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Putin leader of the Chechen Republic, have also traveled to Ukraine, where some have participated in the siege of Mariupol. But so far their success on the field has been questionable, and their deployment — like reports of mercenaries flocking to fight in Ukraine — appears to have served a battle over narratives more than it has had a substantial impact on the hostilities.

Jack Margolin, program director at C4ADS, a data-driven conflict analysis group that closely tracks Russian mercenaries, noted that while reports of Wagner fighters moving to Ukraine from other countries are credible, there is no evidence yet that it has happened at a large scale. “The Wagner group guys, anybody that’s within that network, want to continue to emphasize their importance, and by connecting themselves to the war in Ukraine, they can do that,” Margolin told The Intercept. “It really helps them in communications with their superiors, particularly in the Russian government, who want to see the Wagner Group as being an effective instrument in frightening the West.”

Pulling out a significant number of mercenaries from nations like the Central African Republic, he warned, would have significant consequences in those countries. And foreign recruits joining the war in Ukraine are unlikely to tip the balance of the conflict, Margolin added. “I think it would provide some utility, having some dispensable forces that can be used for very specific, constrained operations,” he said. “But it’s not going to be battle-changing.”

Wagner’s Playbook

That much about Wagner’s work remains so opaque has contributed to the group attaining a near-mythical status in the public’s imagination — itself a useful instrument in Russia’s foreign policy toolbox.

Reports about Wagner’s deployment to Ukraine have raised alarm. European and U.S. intelligence officials have indicated that paid fighters were tasked with assassinating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, while others said that mercenaries were expected to focus on aiding Russian efforts in eastern Ukraine, where they had already fought alongside separatist groups during the 2014 conflict.

Earlier this month, Ukrainian officials published images of dog tags found on the bodies of fighters killed in combat that indicated they might have come from Syria, where Wagner has operated since 2015. U.S. officials warned that the group was recruiting Syrians skilled in urban combat to fight in Ukraine. A video also emerged seemingly showing troops in the Central African Republic, where Wagner forces have been fighting a rebel insurgency alongside government forces, declaring their readiness to fight in Ukraine.

There are some indications that Wagner’s recruitment efforts, particularly in Syria, might be ramping up as the Ukraine war continues, but whether its mercenaries will play a significant role remains to be seen. Instead, there is plenty of evidence demonstrating how the mercenaries’ involvement in other conflicts has resulted in widespread abuses and a lack of accountability. Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher who has been monitoring Wagner’s actions in Syria, told The Intercept that most of those responding to the call are motivated by financial incentives, including promises of salaries between $800 and $1,500, far more than what Syrian soldiers make. “It’s a money thing,” al-Ghazi said, adding that Russian estimates that as many as 16,000 Syrians might fight in Ukraine seem largely inflated. 

“[Wagner] kind of allows Russia to walk and chew gum at the same time, because they are semi-outsourcing … their activities in places that are, frankly, lower priority for Russia.”

In addition to Syria — where Wagner has been fighting alongside Russian troops, Syrian government forces, and armed groups loyal to President Bashar al-Assad — Wagner mercenaries, including hundreds recruited in Syria, have been dispatched to Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, where they de facto acted as a proxy for Russia’s global ambitions without formally involving the Russian government in the hostilities. “That’s actually the utility of Wagner,” said Margolin. “It kind of allows Russia to walk and chew gum at the same time, because they are semi-outsourcing or at least devolving their activities in places that are, frankly, lower priority for Russia, so that their actual military intelligence can focus on higher-priority issues, like Ukraine.”

In African countries in particular, Wagner appears to have followed a similar playbook, noted Raphael Parens, an independent researcher who recently published a report about the group’s activities in Mali. Seizing on some African governments’ frustration with what they perceive as insufficient cooperation and security assistance from Western nations, a host of Wagner-affiliated entities have stepped in to conduct disinformation campaigns favoring those governments, secured contracts with local extractive industries, and partnered with local militaries on training, anti-insurgency efforts, and regime security. In Mali, where French troops engaged in a counterterrorism campaign for nearly a decade, the government’s involvement with Wagner was one of the reasons cited by French President Emmanuel Macron when he announced his country’s withdrawal. On that occasion, Macron accused Wagner of “predatory intentions” and the Malian government of considering the group “the best partners they can find to protect their power, not to fight against terrorism.”

What happened in Mali “does make the rest of Africa look more open, especially the Sahel, for Wagner to get involved in,” Parens told The Intercept, pointing to Burkina Faso as another country the group might target. “When there is an insurgency that has been going on for a long time that is causing unrest, someone wants that problem solved the quickest, and [Wagner] potentially offers the most efficient way.”

In fact, the humanitarian cost has often been high. In Syria, Wagner’s first significant deployment, Russian mercenaries have committed abuses that sometimes mirrored those of the Islamic State fighters they fought there, including the kidnapping, torture, and execution of Hamdi Bouta, a Syrian army deserter. Videos shot by Bouta’s capturers show four Russian-speaking fighters beating him with a sledgehammer, cutting off his hands and head with a shovel, and setting his body on fire, while other images show the fighters posing for pictures with the man’s severed head and hanging it from a fence. Evidence of the grisly execution formed the basis for what is believed to be the first attempt to hold Russian mercenaries accountable for their conduct, as human rights attorneys representing Bouta’s family have filed a criminal case in Russian courts.

New imagery further proves Russia's involvement by showing Wagner utility trucks and Russian mine-resistant, ambush­-protected armored vehicles are present in Libya. (Approved for release)

Surveillance imagery taken on on July 13, 2020 and distributed by AFRICOM shows Russian mercenary “Wagner group” utility trucks and Russian mine-resistant, ambush­-protected armored vehicles in Libya.

Photo: U.S. Africa Command

The Future of War

A lack of accountability remains a defining feature in the use of mercenaries. Just as the contractual agreements behind their deployments are often difficult to trace, so are mercenaries’ operations on the ground. “You’ve got armed groups that don’t have clear chains of command; they’re not necessarily wearing uniforms, they’re not necessarily wearing insignia,” said Sorcha MacLeod, who chairs the United Nations’ working group on the use of mercenaries. “It’s difficult enough to hold people to account for human rights abuses and war crimes in a situation of armed conflict. When you’re dealing with the regular armed forces it’s difficult, but at least there are mechanisms in place. But as soon as you’ve got these kinds of actors involved in the conflict, it makes it very, very difficult to actually find them, identify them.”

The U.N. group, which has investigated allegations of abuses by mercenaries in a number of countries, warned earlier this month of an “ever-increasing presence of mercenaries and mercenary-related actors in contemporary armed conflicts.” The presence of mercenaries has directly resulted in an escalation of violence in multiple conflicts, MacLeod noted. “As you add these kinds of actors in an armed conflict, the risk of human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law go through the roof,” she said.

“As you add these kinds of actors in an armed conflict, the risk of human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law go through the roof.”

In the Central African Republic, for instance, Wagner mercenaries have been credibly accused of widespread violations, including massacres, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention, as well as torture, gender-based violence, looting, and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. Wagner mercenaries are also believed to have been behind the 2018 assassination of three Russian journalists who were in the Central African Republic to investigate the group. In Syria, in addition to other abuses, U.N. officials have accused Wagner of “predatory recruiting,” including enlisting poor men with the promise of jobs guarding oil installations in Libya only to hand them weapons and force them into combat once they arrived there.

Mercenary fighters’ involvement in conflicts such as these, where scrutiny of human rights abuses is low and where local authorities are often enabling the abuses, is likely to shape future conflicts, said Sean McFate, a security analyst and author of a book about mercenaries. While national militaries directly facing off, as is the case in Ukraine, is reminiscent of the last century’s conflicts, the current war is more an exception than the norm. “Putin has been a master of this sort of shadow warfare and he chose a World War II-style invasion, and he’s paying a price for it,” McFate told The Intercept.

Instead, one might turn to scenarios like Syria and the Central African Republic for a prediction of what conflicts will look like in the future and the outsize role mercenary groups may play in them. “We live in a globalized era that has globalized warfare,” McFate added, pointing to the growing number of conflicts drawing ideologically motivated volunteers, including in Ukraine, as another element of the same phenomenon. “This is not just a fringe element of modern war. It’s becoming a feature of it.”

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