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How the War in Ukraine has changed the Wagner Group

For nearly a year, the Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner Group has played a crucial role in the war in Ukraine. Wagner, founded in 2014 by former GRU Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Utkin, is by far Russia’s most active PMC, doing the Kremlin’s bidding around the world. Unlike Western PMCs, which typically operate as private auxiliary forces that train allied security forces and provide the site or personnel security, Wagner is firmly in the pocket of the Kremlin and has performed roles along the entire spectrum of warfare ranging from influence operations to combat operations.

However, since the outbreak of the 2022 war in Ukraine, the character of Wagner and its operations have changed. Previously, Wagner was manned by moderately well-trained soldiers who operated under a degree of deniability that allowed the Kremlin to advance its foreign policy agenda without triggering retaliation.

As Russia struggles to find sufficient manpower to conduct its “special military operation in Ukraine, however, Wagner has taken on a more public role and has considerably lowered its standards, accepting even prisoners into its ranks and recruiting foreigners from Syria, Afghanistan, Serbia, Mali, and the Central African Republic., Wagner has also recently made forays into the technology sector, suggesting that it is likely attempting to develop new technologies and capabilities to give Russia an edge on the battlefield.

This essay analyzes changes made to Wagner’s mode of operating in Ukraine since the 2022 war broke out. It discusses Wagner’s background and early operations and contrasts them against the roles the PMC performed during Russia’s full-scale invasion. It then describes how Wagner has shifted from being a semi-deniable, specialized force used by the Kremlin to somewhat covertly advance its foreign policy agenda into an overt shock troop force since Russia’s invasion.

Next, it discusses Wagner’s forays into the technological space, which are likely a mitigating measure against Western sanctions and the brain drain ensuing from a mass exodus of tech elites which together have posed a massive blow to the Russian tech and defense sectors. Finally, the essay argues that policymakers in the U.S. that in light of Wagner’s atrocities and to counter it more effectively, the U.S. should label the PMC as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). 

Wagner emerged from the ashes of the Slavonic Corps; another Russian PMC created to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War. While demonstrating that PMCs could act as proxy forces on behalf of the Kremlin in foreign conflicts and thus provide Russia with a degree of deniability, the Slavonic Corps’ performance was undermined by poor equipment and weaponry, poor communication with its partners in the Syrian Armed Forces, and unclear objectives. Consequently, in 2014, the Slavonic Corps was reassembled and renamed “Wagner” by Utkin, who led the new PMC alongside Alexander Kuznetsov and Andrey Troshev, two other former Russian military officers.

Wagner does not technically exist on paper; rather, it is an assemblage of entities connected to the Russian military and Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin. The group shares a base with the GRU in Molkino, further demonstrating its ties to the state. Wagner’s international footprint has grown considerably since its founding in 2014. While in 2016, it operated in just four countries, it operates in 28 today, including Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, and Mali.

Wagner’s first operations occurred at the beginning of the War in Donbas in 2014. At that time, Wagner personnel performed tasks along the entire spectrum of warfare, including stirring up separatism, training separatist groups, gathering intelligence, conducting psychological and information operations, purging separatist groups and leaders viewed as problematic by the Kremlin, as well serving as shock troops like it does today in the full-scale war in Ukraine. According to the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), Wagner was deployed by the Kremlin to Luhansk Oblast as a destabilizing force, facilitating the degeneration of the conflict from “political confrontation to a phase of direct violence.”

The Wagner personnel sent to Donbas from 2014-2015 were well-trained, with competencies typically between that of a regular Russian contract soldier and that of a Russian special operations forces soldier. Indeed, at the end of 2014, Wagner personnel were regarded to have the best tactical training relative to other PMCs like the E.N.O.T. Corps or MAR and were sometimes embedded into regular Russian battalion tactical groups to conduct attacks against Ukrainian forces.

However, as the War in Donbas escalated and the number of Wagner personnel deployed there rose, the quality of the average Wagner mercenary and his equipment declined. Wagner personnel’s competencies have further degenerated since the full-scale invasion in 2022.6 One of the most noticeable changes to the character of Wagner between the War in Donbas and the current war in Ukraine is the quality and quantity of its personnel.

It is estimated that there were 2,500-5,000 Russian PMC personnel operating in Donbas during the peak of combat in 2015, far fewer than the estimated 50,000 Wagner personnel alone currently participating in combat operations in Ukraine. Up to 40,000 of those 50,000 were estimated by the National Security Council in December 2022 as prisoners who were offered freedom in exchange for six months of service in Ukraine.6  As the number of Wagner personnel operating in Ukraine grows, so does the weight of its responsibilities. Wagner has been assigned to hold entire cities–Bakhmut, for instance–during the current war in Ukraine.

Wagner has also done a heavy share of the dying for Russia in Ukraine. Many have referred to Wagner personnel as “cannon fodder” as two of their main roles throughout the conflict have been launching “human wave” assaults against enemy positions and as intentional targets who draw fire and thus allow Russian forces to determine the enemy’s location. As Russia struggles to mobilize enough manpower to fight in Ukraine, Wagner personnel provide the Kremlin with a valuable source of manpower.

Furthermore, because Wagner personnel do not belong to the Russian military, the Kremlin is not obligated to report Wagner casualties to the public, allowing it to mask the high cost the war has exacted in terms of Russian lives, thereby protecting Putin from domestic political pressure to de-escalate. In sum, while Wagner personnel were well-trained and performed a multitude of tasks during the War in Donbas, during the current full-scale war, Wagner is used first and foremost as a shock troop force whose men are deployed as cannon fodder.

   Another key change that the Wagner Group has recently undergone is its shift from a semi-deniable serving at the Kremlin’s behest into a completely overt organization whose leadership frequently clashes with Moscow. Prior to September 2022, Wagner did not officially exist, and it operated as a semi-deniable force. Without official ties to the Kremlin, Wagner’s utility came from its ability to be deployed to areas where Russia was unwilling to maintain a conventional presence for fear of triggering international or domestic retaliation.

Wagner and other PMCs were essentially forces that Moscow could deploy to advance its foreign policy agenda on the cheap. While Wagner still allows the Kremlin to operate in theaters such as sub-Saharan Africa without deploying conventional troops and declaring its presence, the PMC’s existence, unlike before, is acknowledged by Prizogzhin, who previously denied any involvement with the PMC.

In September 2022, Prigozhin acknowledged his affiliation with Wagner for the first time since it was founded eight years earlier and described the role he played in its formation. Shortly thereafter, Wagner opened an official headquarters in St. Petersburg, seen by some as a move by Prigozhin to advertise his military credentials and to take on a more public role in shaping Russian defense policy. Wagner’s increasingly assertive and overt role in Ukraine has, at times, triggered spats between its leadership and the Kremlin. Prigozhin, for instance, accused the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of withholding ammunition from Wagner, a ploy, he claimed, to “destroy Wagner PMC.” Prigozhin’s criticisms of the Kremlin are risky as any statement found to discredit the armed forces is a criminal offense in Russia.

Some have speculated that Prigozhin’s increasingly assertive rhetoric stems from his political ambitions. While he has never criticized President Putin, he has ruthlessly criticized Russian generals, politicians, and other elites, branding himself as a populist, anti-elite Putinist. It is possible that Putin’s decision to replace Gennady Zhidko with Sergey Surovikin as commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine was driven in part by Prigozhin’s sharp criticisms of Zhidko, reflecting how hardliners like Prigozhin have wielded increasingly strong influence over Putin.

Guardian foreign correspondent Shaun Walker suggests that Prigozhin’s outspokenness against the Russian establishment could make him the target of assassination attempts as Russia has often liquidated the leadership of troublesome proxy forces historically. However, as the Russian military establishment’s failures in the ‘special military operation’ become evident, the views of hardliners like Prigozhin may find support among an increasingly hawkish domestic audience dissatisfied with Russia’s performance. 

Next, Wagner has recently developed a new focus on developing technological capabilities, opening a “defense tech center” in November at its new headquarters in St. Petersburg. While Wagner has historically shared ties with organizations that conduct online psychological and influence operations–Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency, for instance, infamously interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election–the establishment of the tech center suggests that Wager is committed to developing in-house technological and cyber capabilities. According to Anastasia Vasilevskaya, the center’s press secretary, Wagner welcomes collaboration from startups and individuals with new ideas relevant to the defense. The center is working to develop technologies that have become hard to access as a result of Western sanctions.

The decision to create the tech center, according to Senior Research Fellow at the Soufan Center Jason Blazakis, was likely taken in response to the post-invasion brain drain which has seriously damaged the innovative capacity of Russia’s tech sector. As of August 2022, an estimated 150,000-300,000 Russians had left the country, many of whom belonged to Russia’s “intellectual elite.” Their departure has presented a serious blow to the Russian white-collar labor force and, when coupled with sanctions, specifically to the tech and defense sectors. In this context, it is possible that the defense tech center in St. Petersburg was established to mitigate the effects of the brain drain by cultivating new Russian tech talent.

Wagner’s new focus on tech also suggests that it may soon pose a cyber threat to its adversaries. According to a report by the Atlantic Council, PMCs like Wagner may partner with private companies or state organizations working as proxies for the Russian military or intelligence apparatus to develop offensive cyber competencies. Wagner’s newfound focus on tech signals that it is attempting to develop new capabilities to bolster its appeal to the Kremlin by helping Moscow gain back talent it lost in the exodus of elite Russians. Western policymakers should take heed of Wagner’s recent forays into tech and develop strategies to handle new threats posed by the PMC accordingly. 

The Wagner Group has undergone significant changes since its founding in 2014. Consequently, policymakers in the U.S. need to develop new strategies for countering the PMC. While the U.S. unleashed fresh sanctions against Wagner in January and designated it a transnational criminal organization, it should go further by labeling it an FTO. Labeling it an FTO would force those who deal with Wagner to reconsider the cost of doing business with it and eliminate one of the Kremlin’s key sources of revenue. By securing mining and other licenses for natural resource collection in Africa, Wagner provides the Kremlin with substantial revenues that have become increasingly valuable as sanctions devastate the Russian economy.

Designating Wagner as an FTO could dissuade African states from partnering with it and sever Russian access to valuable natural resources. While some may not perceive PMCs like Wagner as terrorist organizations, the U.S. has labeled other paramilitary organizations as FTOs in the past. In 2001, for instance, Washington designated the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) as an FTO. Like Wagner, the AUC had many links to the Colombian government and was guilty of atrocities. Labeling AUC as an FTO made it difficult for the Colombian state to maintain a relationship with it.11 Furthermore, according to Blazakis, Wagner satisfies the three legal criteria defining what constitutes an FTO. First, it is a foreign-based organization. Second, it engages in terrorist activity.

One need not look any further than the atrocities Wagner committed in Bucha or the execution of its own personnel who have surrendered for evidence that Wagner engages in terrorist activities. Third, Wagner’s operations threaten U.S. national security. By providing the Kremlin with a valuable source of revenue and manpower, Wagner is a crucial element in allowing Russia to continue its war in Ukraine which threatens the American-led liberal international order. It is thus imperative that the U.S. take an aggressive stance against Wagner to uphold the national interest.

About the Author 

Matthew Egger is a rising fourth-year undergraduate student at Durham University. He studies International Relations and Chinese Language and interns at the School of Government and International Affairs and the Lobo Institute. He can be found on Twitter @EggerMatthew

The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute.