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    The Wagner Group: The World’s Most Infamous PMC

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    1.0 Introduction

    The Wagner Group is simultaneously shrouded in infamy and mystery. Whilst producing some of Russia’s most assault-capable forces, Wagner has also been its most powerful and unstable foreign policy asset. Its brutal methods, vast resources and highly-visible leadership make it a profoundly unique semi-state security formation.

    2.0 Motto, Symbols And Patches

    Not many organisations deployed in combat have been as successful as Wagner in turning itself into a brand. A significant factor in this has been the distinctive mottos, symbols used by the organisation and the unique patches of its combatants.

    2.1 Motto 

    A range of mottos have been used by the Wagner Group. One of these mottos is “Our business is death and business is going well” which is written on certain patches worn by the personnel of the Wagner Group.  

    Another motto that Wagner has adopted more recently has been “Blood, Honor, Justice, Homeland and Courage”. Mottos used by the Wagner Group represent a broader trend of symbology invoked by the Wagner Group. (Source) (Source)

    2.2 Symbols 

    Wagner utilises a range of imagery which is designed to make observers associate it with death, ‘mercenarism’ and Russian patriotism. It frequently employs symbols such as skulls and sledgehammers to capture the intentional brutality and the death that it is involved in as an organisation. 

    As an organisation, Wagner has been open about its use of sledgehammers to execute those deemed traitors within its ranks and during torture. What’s more, is that it has also used symbols associated with death to pay homage to their losses and the inevitability of death in war.  (Source) (Source) (Source

    The organisational logo of the Wagner Group (virtually identical to the patches Wagner personnel have). As can be seen, Wagner personnel use a range of skull-related images for aesthetic purposes. (Source

    It is also not uncommon to see the Wagner Group utilise symbology associated with orchestras. Wagner often refers to its personnel as ‘musicians’ and itself collectively as the ‘orchestra’. That is why many pictures of its personnel involve them holding musical instruments, most commonly violins. 

    This musical symbolism can be seen as an extension of Wagner’s identity as an organisation. It is likely Wagner got its name due to its commander and co-founder Dmitry Utkin’s favourite musician Richard Wagner. Therefore, the utilisation of orchestra-related symbols by Wagner can be seen as a continuation of this musically associated symbolism within its organisational culture. (Source) (Source) (Source

    2.3 Patches

    One element that has made Wagner’s personnel stand out on the battlefield has been their distinctive patches. Appearing at first glance to be designed to inspire fear in their enemy, they have a broader story behind them.

    2.3.1 Notorious Wagner Skull

    Wagner personnel sport an array of patches. The most widely attributed one of these patches is a skull with a crosshair in the centre of it and the words “PMC Wagner Group, Группа Вагнера” or in some cases “Most Loved Musical Collective” on the outer layer. It is prudent to note that the popularity of Wagner within military and semi-state security formations means that non-Wagner personnel also wear these patches. (Source) (Source)

    2.3.2 Soldier With Violin

    A range of other less common patches associated with Wagner can be found on their personnel’s uniforms. One of these patches is of a shadowy soldier holding a violin, two W letters and the words “Musicians that the whole world knows” on its outer layer. 

    2.3.3 Cargo 200 

    Furthermore, the patch with the words “Cargo 200 we are together” is also commonly seen on Wagner personnel. The term ‘Cargo 200’ (Груз 200) is military slang for KIA and the patch is supposedly used by the fighters to display their association with both the dead and the living personnel of the Wagner Group. 

    2.3.4 Baklanov’s Banner

    Another patch found on many ‘Wagnerites’ includes a skull in front of crossed bones with the words “I take joy in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. Amen”. This patch is likely an adaption of General Yakov Baklanov’s banner. (Source) (Source) (Source

    3.0 Organisation

    3.1 Place Within The Russian Military Nexus

    Wagner’s placement within the Russian military nexus can best be explained through the term informal semi-state security formation. Coined by expert Dr Kimberely Marten, it helps emphasise how the Wagner Group is not entirely a conventional PMC nor a conventional force. (Source)

    Notably, Wagner is distinct from a regular PMC in that it sustains itself through both informal and formal relationships with various Russian institutions and elites. This makes Wagner neither fully autonomous from the Russian state nor completely controlled by it.

    When it comes to the way its role is shaped, the Wagner Group aims to balance the attainment of the financial interests of its key leaders and the strategic objectives of the Russian state. 

    There have been instances where Wagner’s actions have demonstrated a direct conflict between those goals. This includes the securement of contracts without the authorisation of the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD). (Source

    Wagner has a complex bureaucracy despite its ties to various Russian institutions. This is because it has:

    • A Command and Control (C2) structure that has significant autonomy from the Russian MoD (Source)
    • Its own administrative structure managed through its front companies such as Evro Polis Ltd (Source)
    • A complex network of companies used to manage resource extraction and illicit financing operations. (Source)

    “It is worth noting that Wagner IS not just a direct arm of the Russian state nor an ENTIRELY autonomous private actor”

    Wagner Group Analyst Marcel Plichta 

    3.2 Financing 

    Wagner is neither a completely privatised entity nor entirely controlled by the Russian state. It is also supported through a distinctive combination of state resources, private resources and illicit financing. 

    3.2.1 Support From The Russian State

    Wagner is likely supported by a range of state resources, potentially through Russia’s state budget. A former Wagner commander has stated that a significant amount of Wagner financing comes directly from the Russian state budget. He uses the claim that Wagner’s numerous bases abroad would be too expensive for its so-called owner Evgeniy Prigozhin to sustain on his own as evidence. (Source) (Source)

    Furthermore, it is widely acknowledged that Wagner gets access to Ministry of Defence bases and inventory to sustain its operations. One of its main military bases within Russia is located in the village of Molkhino in Kransador Krai, where it trains many of its personnel. This particular base is adjacent to where the main base of the 10th Special Mission Brigade of the GRU Spetsnaz is also located. (Source)

    As mentioned, Wagner gets direct access to an array of weapons and equipment that belong to the Ministry of Defence’s stockpile. This mean Wagner gets direct access to equipment and heavy weaponry belonging to MoD stockpiles that contain Russia’s most sophisticated weapons systems. This includes thermobaric rocket launchers, Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), heavy artillery and even fighter jets. (Source) (Source) (Source)

    Alternatively, Wagner may be sustaining itself through intentionally over-priced contracts with Russian government institutions. Wagner’s self-described owner Evgeniy Prigozhin could be using overvalued contracts signed with his catering firm ‘Concord’ – for food services to the Russian MoD and other state organisation clients – to cover its operational costs.

    3.2.2 Contracts And Resource Extraction Rights

    The focus should not just be placed on the support Wagner gets from the Russian government but also on the services it provides to Russian allies. Wagner is often directly paid for any participation in various sorts of operations in the form of contracts with its shell companies or the securement of certain resource extraction rights.

    One notable instance of such extraction rights was when a Syrian resource extraction firm gave a 25% cut of revenues for each oil field Wagner captured from ISIS. Another is when Wagner received payment for counter-insurgency operations in the form of access to the extraction of gold in the Central African Republic (CAR). (Source)

    3.2.2 Illicit Financing

    Illicit financing also provides a significant amount of Wagner’s revenue and covers much of its operational costs. It has been noted as involved in the following forms of illicit financing:

    • The illegal timber trade (Source)
    • The illicit diamond trade (Source
    • Potentially money laundering (Source)
    • Extortion

    3.3 Structure

    Whilst the Wagner Group is a widely covered organisation, it remains opaque in many senses. The various elements that constitute Wagner Group as an organisation are no exception in that regard. That said, existing information does provide certain insights into its structure.

    3.3.1 Wagner’s Special Department  ‘OSO’ 

    Almost no detail has remained more elusive on Wagner than those regarding its intelligence elements. Fortunately, an analysis of leaks by the Dossier Centre reveals key details on Wagner’s internal security service known as the ‘Special Department’ or ‘OsO’. (Source)

    The role of OsO is highly diverse with it having the following responsibilities:

    • Preventing the escape of information on Wagner personnel
    • Identifying and preventing breaches in operational security
    • Maintaining Wagner’s Information security
    • Monitoring how money is spent by personnel
    • Prevent intentional leaks by any of its personnel
    • Monitoring the social media use of its personnel to prevent them from providing any sensitive information (such as operational location)

    The head of OsO is believed to be Ruslan Allohverdievich Akhmedov, a former officer within the Department of Internal Security and the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for St. Petersburg.

    The total number of people within OsO is believed to be around 20, with little known about how roles within the organisation are delegated and what hierarchy looks like within the organisation. 

    3.3.2 Organisational Structure

    Wagner’s structure remains somewhat secretive and elusive, despite the increased spotlight on the organisation. Fortunately, some openly available sources shed some insight into understanding the key features of its structure.

    3.3.2.1 SBU’s Assessment Of 2016 Structure

    According to publicly released information by Ukrainian intelligence services, Wagner’s structure changed notably from 2016 to 2017. In 2016, the SBU claimed that Wagner’s structure managed 15 ‘Advanced Tactical Groups’ (ATGs) consisting of 1452 personnel.  (Source)

    It is unclear how such ATGs would be structured exactly. However, the overall personnel count of these 15 ATGs suggests they may be a smaller version of Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs). (Source)

    3.3.2.2 SBU’s Assessment Of 2017 Structure

    The same source also stipulates that in 2017 Wagner’s structure became more diversified. At its top, this structure has an Executive Director and Commander. It is then split into three structures:

    • Administrative elements
    • Combat elements
    • Management elements

    The SBU estimated that in total this structure’s total personnel size was 2738 in 2017. Whilst not completely clear, it does appear that their analysis was only focused on Wagner’s operations in Eastern Ukraine.

    3.3.2.3 Wagner’s Structure in Syria

    Reporting by Russian investigative journalists also provides some details into the key features of Wagner’s structure in Syria during 2017. An analysis of documents by them also found a similar split in administrative, combat and management structures as the SBU did for Wagner operations in Eastern Ukraine. (Source)

    Additionally, they estimated that Wagner’s personnel count in Syria totalled 2349 individuals. The biggest allocations of personnel were found in its trainer company (249 personnel), artillery division (240 personnel) and assault reconnaissance detachment (299 personnel).

    Notably, the structure also included a significant amount of individuals engaged in non-combat roles. They included the following:

    • Headhunters (Looking to recruit new personnel)
    • Communications teams
    • Finance group
    • Maintenance teams for military equipment
    • Delivery teams
    3.3.2.4 Assessment Of Syria And Eastern Ukraine Structures

    Wagner’s structures in Syria and Eastern Ukraine tell us a few things about how it may be organised presently. It seems Wagner has a clear centralised leadership structure alongside regional structures. The regional structures appear to be shaped for particular operations Wagner is deployed in, but they remain accountable to much of the same leadership. 

    What’s more, it appears that many of these regional structures are tailored to specific operational needs. This would explain why the number of personnel in Syria differs from the amount deployed in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, it would clarify why there is a variance in how many personnel are proportionally allocated to different roles.

    Crucially, such information underscores how Wagner performs multiple roles when deployed abroad. There is noticeably broad scope in the roles of its personnel within Syria and Eastern Ukraine in 2016-2017. A range of combat and non-combat functions seem to be taken on by Wagner rather than just a few specialisms. 

    3.3.2.5 Limitation Of Assessment

    The regional structures of Wagner likely continue to share these core features. However, the presence and scale of resources for the organisation have grown since 2016-2017. There is also an absence of more up-to-date information concerning Wagner centralised and regional structures.

    3.3.3 Liaisons between Wagner and MoD

    An under-reported detail concerning Wagner’s structure is the presence of liaisons who act as a bridge of communication between it and the Russian MoD. Reporting by Bellingcat has identified one of these possible liaison figures as Konstantin Pikalov. Pikalov was a former GRU officer who is now the commander of PMC Convoy. (Source)

    An analysis of Pikalov’s involvement with Wagner operations in Africa provides some clarity into what the role of such liaison figures is. These roles seem to include overseeing the activities of the Wagner done on behalf of the MoD and giving authorisation operations. (Source)

    3.4 Key Figures

    3.4.1 Evgeniy Prigozhin

    The Wagner Group’s owner Evgeniy Prigozhin is its most visible and well-known figure. Prigozhin’s ascension to power began when he and his father opened a series of hot dog stalls shortly after his release from prison in 1981. (Source) (Source)

    Eventually, success in the catering industry led to him founding his catering firm Concord in 1996. Concord went on to provide services to various Russian authorities and the MoD. 

    3.4.1.1 Prigozhin’s Relationship With Putin

    Prigozhin’s securement of the leading role in the Wagner Group is commonly attributed to his close relationship with Vladimir Putin. Whilst many sources have suggested the relationship between Putin and Prigozhin grew after he became head of catering at the Kremlin, their former connections to organised crime in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) may have also played a key role.  (Source)

    Some sources of information claim to indicate Prigozhin’s involvement within Wagner started as soon as it was created in 2014. Prigozhin has claimed to have personally started equipping and arming Wagner personnel to fight in Eastern Ukraine since 2014. However, it is highly unlikely that this would have occurred without the proactive support of the Russian MoD or Putin at the time. (Source) (Source)

    3.4.1.2 Political ambitions

    Whilst special attention has been given to Prigozhin’s clear political ambitions during Wagner’s involvement in the Russian widened invasion of Ukraine, it is debatable whether they are new.

    Arguably, they were first displayed during his attempt to take credit for Wagner’s participation in the recapture of Palmyra in 2016 to the detriment of the Russian MoD. Such behaviour showed Priogozhin’s desire to exploit the combat effectiveness of the Wagner Group to make himself a more indispensable figure to Putin. (Source)

    Therefore, Prigozhin’s present attempts to bolster his reputation as an ultra-nationalist populist pro-war figure can be seen as an extension of existing political ambitions rather than a new pattern of behaviour.

    3.4.1.3 Conflict with the Russian MoD

    Present media attention on Prigozhin has partially been the product of his public conflict with the Russian MoD during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The goals of Prigozhin’s conflict with the MoD are multi-faceted, but the main one is the exploitation of the Russian army’s failure in the invasion of Ukraine for his own gain.

    There is also a potential range of goals that Prigozhin could be trying to achieve with this conflict. Initially, he may have been working with General Surovikin and Ramzan Kadyrov towards securing a role alongside them in key military positions. However, Wagner’s reliance on MoD resources, Survokin’s demotion and his falling out with Kadyrov have made this difficult to attain. (Source) (Source)

    Alternatively, Prigozhin may now be aiming to exploit Wagner’s combat effectiveness and reputation to enable a future career. Some indications of this appear to be his numerous public feuds with various Russian governors, alongside public requests for Wagner to be reassigned to the defence Belgorod region against cross-border raids. (Source)

    3.4.2 Dmitry Utkin (Callsign ‘Wagner’)

    Another infamous figure within the formation is Dmitry Uktin, Wagner’s highest-ranking commander. His callsign, Wagner, is probably where the idea for the organisation’s name came from. Unlike Prigozhin, he avoids appearing in the spotlight and his role within present operations remains relatively opaque. However, existing sources do help shed light on Utkin and his role. 

    3.4.2.1 Before Becoming Wagner

    Before serving in what might be called Wagner’s predecessor organisation, the Slavonic Corps, Utkin was the commander of a Spetsnaz unit with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After retiring and serving within the Moran Security Group, he went on to become a core figure of the Slavonic Corps operations in Syria in 2013. (Source)

    Notably, Utkin’s role in the Slavonic Corps was short-lived as the organisation became defunct after less than a year. Furthermore, he was arrested by the FSB alongside other Slavonic Corps personnel when he returned home. (Source)

    3.4.2.2 Founding Wagner

    Conflict accounts exist concerning Utkin’s involvement in the founding of Wagner. Some have suggested he has played a direct role in its founding whilst others have disputed. Despite this, a consensus does exist around him becoming one of its highest-ranking figures and commanding Wagner forces within Eastern Ukraine. 

    Some potential evidence of what the SBU claim is an audio file of Dmitry Utkin reporting to the Russian GRU Commander Oleg Ivannikov whilst deployed in Eastern Ukraine. The files may indicate he had an important role, but not as the highest-ranking commander of Wagner. Alternatively, it could indicate Ivannikov was a liaison between the MoD and Wagner, explaining why Utkin reported to him. (Source) (Source

    3.4.2.3 Present Role In Ukraine

    No clear visual proof of Utkin being in Ukraine exists. However, evidence points to the fact that he plays an active role in commanding Wagner during Russia’s ongoing invasion of it. 

    The content of a video posted on a Wagner-affiliated Telegram account could be one indicator of this. The video shows Yevgeniy Prigozhin and former Russian General Mikhail Mizintsev together, shortly after he was fired by the MoD. In the video,  Prigozhin states that Mizintsev would be given the second-highest role in Wagner, being below Dmitry Utkin in rank. (Source)

    Another piece of evidence indicating Utkin’s presence in Ukraine was a potential statement made by him as part of a feud between Prigozhin and Kadyrov. In response to criticisms made towards Prigozhin by Kadyrov’s ally Magomed Daudov, Utkin allegedly posted a statement on a Wagner-connected Telegram channel.  

    Significantly, this statement seemed to indicate his potential involvement in commanding Wagner forces within Ukraine. It also appeared to confirm his prior service in the Russian army during the Second Invasion of Chechnya. (Source) (Source

    3.5 Recruitment 

    Wagner employs a diverse and sophisticated strategy for recruiting inexperienced and experienced personnel to fill various needs. It has been distinctive in how it translates public attention and reputation into aiding its recruitment drive. It was also the first to instrumentalise the strategy of recruiting convicts that the MoD went on to replicate.

    3.5.1 Methods Of Recruiting

    Unsurprisingly, Wagner instrumentalises a diverse toolkit of media in its drive to attract recruits for its operations in Ukraine and Africa. Like many other combat elements, Wagner utilises social media such as Vkontakte, Telegram, WhatsApp and its website to attract recruits. It also uses posting advertisements in Russian cities. (Source) (Source) (Source)

    It has also been proactive in its utilisation of schools and sports centres as recruitment hubs. According to the British MoD, Wagner established a recruitment presence in sports centres across 40 regions as of March 2023. It is suggested that the rationale for this was to make up for the loss of convicts as a recruitment pool. (Source)

    A screenshot of the Wagner Group’s website (Source)

    3.5.1.2 Recruitment Through Brand

    Notably, Wagner has invested significant amounts of resources in buildings its brand image. It has invested in the creation of merchandise, movies and even sponsored Russian video game streamers. Moreover, Prigozhin’s deepening involvement in political disputes has seen the organisation attempt at cementing its image as a nationalistic and pro-war element. (Source) (Source)

    For Wagner, this has had a significant benefit in creating a public image that aids its recruitment efforts. By boosting its reputation publicly through these methods, Wagner creates awareness and a reputation that is more likely to attract prospective recruits. Furthermore, it can use them to further capitalise on its perceived efficacy relative to the MoD.

    3.5.1.3 Recruitment of Convicts

    As was widely reported, Wagner has used the recruitment of convicts to generate manpower. This became first known in the earlier half of September 2022, when videos of Prigozhin recruiting convicts in penal colonies first emerged. However, after a series of punitive other measures taken against Wagner, the organisation likely lost access to recruiting convicts near February 2022. (Source) (Source)

    It is suspected that initial support for Wagner’s recruitment of convicts came directly from Vladimir Putin. This would explain the ability of Wagner to pardon convicts who served within its ranks. Additionally, direct support from the President would explain why Wagner recruiters were able to get direct access to penal colonies and prisons as well. (Source)

    3.5.2 Requirements And Terms Of Contracts 

    A significant amount of reporting exists when it comes to the terms of contracts with Wagner. Notably,  there is a discrepancy in the features of contracts for convicts relative to volunteers. Additionally, there appears to be a notable difference in the recruitment and terms of service for operations in Ukraine and Africa.

    3.5.1.4 Requirements For Joining as a Volunteer

    Open sources shed an array of insight into what the requirements for joining Wagner as a volunteer are. Based on various recruitment calls on social media, Wagner seems to have the following requirements for prospective recruits:

    • Being a Russian National or one of a non-NATO, non-EU country. Citizens from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Moldova are accepted
    • Being a healthy male individual who is between 22-60 years old, with exceptions made for 21-year-olds who’ve already served in the army
    • Inexperienced and experienced personnel can both join
    • Absence of terror-related, sexual crime and ‘banditry’ related charges
    • Absence of severe diseases
    • Passing a medical evaluation 
    • Completing blood tests
    • Completing drug tests
    • Completing an interview
    • Obtaining specific military gear
    • Training in a specialist role
    • Passing a polygraph test

    It is worth underscoring that whilst Wagner claims to have these standards for recruitment, there’s evidence to suggest it does not adhere to them. Journalists posing as prospective recruits were able to evidence how Wagner recruiters lowered the standards of recruitment when speaking to prospective recruits. (Source)

    Interestingly, Wagner may be making recruits take polygraph tests to avoid recruiting foreign agents. Some reports suggest that Wagner is screening recruits to prevent the infiltration of FSB personnel into its organisation. This is likely to keep organisational less accountable to Russian intelligence. (Source) (Source)

    What is also notable is that Wagner seems particularly interested in recruiting specialists for the following roles both in Ukraine and across Africa:

    • Assault infantry
    • Machine gunners and assistants for them
    • UAV operators and technicians
    • Anti-tank weapon users and assistants for them  
    • Combat medics
    • Snipers
    • Communications specialists and technicians 
    • Pilots For helicopters And fighter jets

    3.5.1.5 Terms Of Contracts For Volunteers

    According to information by Wagner affiliated social media accounts and other open source information, the terms of contracts are the following:

    • 240,000 rubles per month (roughly £2300) for those fighting in and outside of Ukraine
    • Bonus payments for the successful completion of certain tasks when deployed in Ukraine. This can bonus can go up to 800,000 rubles in one month (roughly £7750) (Source)
    • 9-14 month contracts for personnel deployed in Africa
    • 6-month contracts for personnel deployed in Ukraine
    • Most equipment is provided
    • Training in a specialism is provided for those with no experience
    • Those who are more experienced or served longer with Wagner can be paid far more than the standard 240,000 rubles
    • 500,000 rubles payouts for severe combat injuries (Roughly £4850)
    • Payouts for loss of limbs from 1-2 million rubles. Monthly payments of 60,000 rubles until recovery and coverage for the costs of prosthetics
    • 1-5 million rubles payouts to relatives or spouses in case of death (roughly £9690 – £48500) (Source)
    3.5.1.6 Joining As A Convict

    Unsurprisingly, the terms of service within Wagner for convicts are significantly different to regular volunteers. Uniquely, they are only recruited for operations in Ukraine since the demand for manpower is higher for it compared to other operations. Additionally, the intensity of combat and tactics used are significantly different in Ukraine relative to other Wagner deployments. (Source) (Source)

    The difference between joining Wagner as a regular volunteer relative to a convict is reflected in differing contracts. These differences include the following:

    • Convicts are only paid 100,000-140,000 rubles per month relative to the 240,000 volunteers who receive 
    • Bonuses provided for the completion of operations successfully are notably lower than those of volunteers by 10,000s rubles
    • Convicts are given pardons as compensation for their service in Wagner. This arguably is exploited through lower pay being provided to them relative to regular volunteers
    • Standards for joining as a convict are noticeably lower. Regular volunteers are held to a higher standard during the recruitment process 
    • Volunteers can secure contracts to operate in areas outside of Ukraine if they have the right skills. Convicts do not appear to have such an opportunity.

    There are possibly a range of explanations for this. The pay offered to convicts is likely lower since they are used in a more disposable manner within Ukraine. Additionally, pay that is too high for convicts can hamper Wagner’s ability to provide larger payments to specialists it wishes to recruit.  

    3.5.3 Foreign Recruits: Fact Or Fiction?

    Numerous claims by Wagner have been made when it comes to the recruitment of foreign personnel. Whilst some do seem credible and evidenced by sources, others seem less plausible. This has made assessing the extent to which Wagner recruited non-Russian nationalists rather challenging.

    3.5.1.1 Unlikely Instances Of Foreign Recruitment 

    Generally speaking, Wagner’s claims that it has recruited members from rival states seem to be without merit. For instance, Prigozhin has claimed to have recruited Finnish, British and American citizens. Additionally, he has claimed British battalion under Wagner’s command is led by a former Marine Corps General. (Source

    There are a few reasons why claims such as these are likely inaccurate. For one, Wagner’s website seems to imply that members from rival states are not welcome into its ranks. Furthermore, the aim of these claims could be to exaggerate Wagner’s organisational reach and recruitment capabilities for informational warfare purposes. 

    3.5.1.2 Credible Claims Of Foreign Recruitment

    Nevertheless, there have been more credible claims of Wagner’s recruitment of non-Russian nationals. The organisation has likely recruited individuals for its various operations from the following states:

    • Central African Republic (Source)

    4.0 Equipment 

    Generally, Wagner is recognised to be one of Russia’s most combat capable semi-state security forces. To achieve this, Wagner has had to procure a sophisticated range of weaponry, vehicles and gear. Based on existing sources, these include the following:

    4.1 Weapons 

    • Various AK74 variants. Often attached with suppressors and various optics.
    • AK-12s. Customised with various attachments.
    • AK-105s. Many customised.
    • RPG-26 ‘Aglen’ disposable rocket launcher.
    • RPG-7V/2 rocket launchers
    • RPO-A ‘Shmel’ thermobaric rocket launchers
    • PKM General-Purpose Machine Gun
    • 9M133 ‘Kornet’ ATGMs.
    • M1943 (D-1) howitzers
    • 2S5 Giatsint-S self-propelled howitzers
    • P163-series launcher
    • MTs-566 rifles
    • ORSIS T-5000 sniper rifles
    • OSV-96 anti-materiel rifles 
    • 9K38 Igla Man-portable air-defence systems
    • S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems

    4.2 Vehicles

    • SA-22 air defence combat vehicles
    • Chekan MRAPs
    • T-90 and T-90M Main Battle Tanks (MBTs)
    • T-80 MBTs
    • T-72 MBTs
    • 9A53-G Tornado MLRS
    • BTR-82AS Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs)
    • AMN-590951 armoured vehicles
    • Sukhoi Su-25 attack jets
    • Sukhoi Su-24 tactical bombers

    4.3 Armor And Kit

    • Ear defenders
    • Headsets
    • Plate carriers 
    • Helmets, many mounted with cameras
    • Balaclavas
    • Ballistic Eyewear
    • Unencrypted and encrypted radios
    • Night vision goggles 
    • Spider laser early warning detection system (Source)

    4.3 Other Notable Equipment

    • Orlan-10 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
    • DJI Mavic UAVs. Often equipped with thermal and modified to drop munitions
    • Lancet 3 loitering munition drones
    • FPV loitering munitions drones
    • Electronic Warfare systems (EW)
    • Anti-Drone jamming devices

    Wagner T-90M tank deployed in Rostov, Russia (Source)

    5.0 Tactical-Operational Information

    Extensive attention has been paid to the combat-effectiveness and operational scope of the Wagner Group. The expeditionary span of the organisation and the diversity of roles it has undertaken since its formation are vast. 

    5.1 Operations 

    Markedly, Wagner operates in an array of states carrying out various activities. This includes present and past involvement in the following areas of the world:

    • Broader Ukraine since February 2022 – Wagner has been one of Russia’s most assault-capable forces in Ukraine. It has employed a range of infantry, artillery, armoured and aerial assets as part of its operations. (Source)
    • Eastern Ukraine since 2014 –  Wagner was involved in plausibly deniable operations as part of Russia’s low-intensity war against Ukraine. This may have included operations to eliminate ‘rogue’ senior separatist commanders and figures (Source)
    • Libya – Since 2019, Wagner has been one of many actors backing General Haftar and his Libyan National Army against the Government of National Accord (GNA). It has been involved in training, combat operations and providing various combat and non-combat support to the LNA. (Source)
    • Central African Republic – Wagner has had various roles in the Central African Republic. As John Lechner, an expert on the region noted, Wagner’s task set in the area has never remained static. Instead, it has changed based on the number of resources allocated to the area and the dynamics between government and opposition forces. (Source)
    • Sudan – Whilst Wagner has had involvement with both the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese government, its role in the present conflict has remained limited. Wagner has potentially provided MANPADs to the RSF but has mainly focused on smuggling gold from the region (Source)
    • Venezuela – There’s limited information on the extent of Wagner’s involvement in Venezuela. What is known is that in 2019, Wagner was likely involved in providing regime security for the Maduro government whilst it was trying to stabilise the country. (Source)
    • Burkina Faso – The President of Ghana has alleged that Burkina Faso has hired Wagner to aid its role against insurgent groups. The presence of the group in the region is potentially confirmed by US leaks. However, the extent of its role remains difficult to assess (Source) (Source)
    • Syria – Since Russia’s broadened involvement in the support of the Assad government in 2014, the Wagner Group has carried out a number of key roles. This has included providing executive security for key Syrian officials; engaging in site security for resource extraction facilities; carrying out combat operations against ISIS; and training Syrian government soldiers. (Source)
    • Mali – Notably, Wagner has been involved in providing security to the Malian government and training its forces since roughly 2021. Furthermore, it has also been involved in securing areas to enable the formation of resource extraction operations. (Source)
    • Madagascar – Wagner’s involvement in Madagascar has mainly been in the form of political influence. This was most evident when it came to its attempt to influence the 2018 presidential election in the country. (Source)
    • Mozambique – In 2019, Wagner deployed to Mozambique to engage in counter-insurgency operations against the Islamic State in the northern Cabo Delgado province. This campaign ended shortly after due to the significant losses inflicted on Wagner, and it eventually withdrew. (Source)

    It is worth stating that there may be other areas of operations that Wagner has been involved in that are not public knowledge yet.

    Wagner’s task set in the area has never remained static. Instead, it has changed based on the number of resources allocated to the area and the dynamics between government and opposition forces

    Wagner Expert John Lechner on the role of Wagner in the Central African Republic

    5.2 Core Roles

    Unlike many Russian semi-state security formations, Wagner has been broad in the roles it has performed. Initially, Wagner was designed to be a somewhat plausibly deniable force that could be used by the Russian state to conduct politically sensitive operations abroad. Their first major roles were operations in Eastern Ukraine and Syria in 2014. 

    Equally though, Wagner has also been used as a force multiplier for operations that the Russian Armed Forces are involved in. This is notable in its ongoing involvement in the widened invasion of Ukraine and involvement in Syria. In both of these conflicts, Wagner acted as a highly assault-capable force, often acting within a semi-autonomous C2 structure.

    It is worth underscoring that many of Wagner’s undertaken tasks have included non-combat functions. For instance, Wagner has been involved in numerous conflict zone in site security, training, executive protection and logistical capacity. Moreover, it has also been involved in the gathering of intelligence and political influence campaigns.

    5.3 Tactics

    As mentioned, Wagner engages in differing operations with various objectives. Therefore, this makes the overall use of its tactics challenging. However, analysis of its involvement in certain operations gives some insight into what many of these tactics are and draw on some common themes.

    5.3.1 The Use Of Convicts In Ukraine

    As is widely reported, Wagner has made extensive use of convicts during offensive operations in Ukraine. Whilst characterised as senseless human-wave attacks, the way convicts have been used by Wagner has been both brutal and effective. 

    According to a confidential source, Wagner has used convicts to soften up Ukrainian military positions and identify their vulnerabilities. By monitoring 5-10 man convict teams as they attack positions with UAVs, Wagner personnel gather key information. Thereafter, more experienced and better-equipped personnel conduct attacks on these positions using that information. (Source)

    It is worth underscoring that in order to get these convicts to attack positions, Wagner has often resorted to violence against them. This has included threats of execution and the carrying out of them to coerce convicts into carrying out orders. It is equally plausible that retreating personnel are also shot by Wagner forces. (Source)

    However, this does not mean that all Wagner convicts are carrying out such attacks under duress. It is likely that some of them are voluntarily carrying out orders without being coerced at all.  

    5.3.2 Other Notable Tactics In Ukraine

    Unsurprisingly, Wagner has also utilised other notable tactics during its involvement in the widened Russian invasion of Ukraine. One widely adopted tactic has been the use of civilian and military-grade drones to correct artillery strikes. This has enabled Wagner to identify and eliminate Ukrainian military targets more effectively.

    Additionally, Wagner’s units have conducted various deep reconnaissance and infiltration operations. Typically undertaken by its more well-equipped elite elements, Wagner has conducted such operations during daytime and nighttime. The purpose of them is often to eliminate vulnerable backline troops or gather key information on Ukrainian military positions.

    5.3.3 Forward Advance Force In Other Conflicts.

    An underappreciated yet important aspect of Wagner’s operations has been its involvement in non-Ukrainian operations. Based on its involvement in Syria, it appears that Wagner has acted as a forward advance force in offensive operations, receiving support from other combat elements. This was especially evident in its involvement in the 2016 Palmyra Offensive. (Source)

    Wagner’s utilisation as an assault infantry element is a common theme in its involvement within non-Ukrainian operations. Wagner was involved in offensives launched by General Haftar against the Government of National Accord. Interestingly, the eventual failure of that offensive highlighted Wagner’s vulnerability against an enemy with sufficient aerial strike capabilities. (Source)

    Regretfully, the assessments that can be made of Wagner’s tactics in conflicts outside of Ukraine are limited. This is mainly due to the more secretive role of Wagner in such conflicts and an absence of coverage of its tactics in them. This can also be explained by a focus on other aspects of Wagner’s involvement in conflicts, such as human rights violations.

    5.4 Personnel Size

    Various open-source information has provided details on Wagner’s personnel count in the following areas of operations:

    • The Central African Republic – Between 1000 to 2000 personnel
    • Mail – Between 1000 to 1500 personnel
    • Libya – Roughly 2000 personnel, though this has likely declined since Wagner’s involvement in the invasion of Ukraine (Source)
    • Sudan – 100 men in 2018. It is unclear how much this number has changed since 2018 (Source)
    • Ukraine – According to estimates made by the US at the end of 2022, Wagner had about 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine. 10,000 were estimated to be contractors and 40,000 were convicts.  It is unclear how high the number is since then. (Source)

    It is unclear whether estimates for Mali, CAR and Libya include or exclude Wagner personnel involved in non-combat roles or not. 

    6.0 The Future For Wagner

    Undoubtedly, Wagner’s future looks unclear given its seemingly unsuccessful hostile operation within Russia against the MoD and possibly the government. Whilst a broadened conflict between Russian combat units and Wagner was averted, the exact details of its resolution remain unclear. (Source) (Source)

    There is a possibility of recalibration of leadership within the organisation. Although Prigozhin and his present commanders may continue playing an important role, the MoD could establish greater control over Wagner. This could potentially curb the existing issues of disunity command amongst Russian forces in Ukraine and grant it less operational autonomy from the MoD. 

    Outside of Ukraine, it is hard to assess if Wagner’s operations will be drastically affected. Unlike in Ukraine, its interests in other areas of the world do not appear to drastically diverge from those of the Russian state or the MoD. It may very well be that existing operations in Africa and the Middle East will remain unaffected as a result. 

    7.0 Conclusion

    Evidently, Wagner is a highly expedient yet volatile tool of the Russian state. Its utility within numerous conflicts is evident and the result of its significant resources and capabilities. Despite having such interest from external observers, Wagner still retains a level of secrecy in its tactical-operational practices and organisational structure.

    Whilst there are consequences to Wagner’s hostile actions within Russia, the future of the organisation remains unclear. Whether Wagner will maintain continuity in its existing structure remains uncertain, as does its relationship with the Russian state and its institutions. Nonetheless, Wagner will likely continue to being a key tool of Russia’s foreign policy.

    Weapons IDing support by @WarNoir 

    Alec Bertina
    Alec Bertina
    Alec is a researcher on Russian non-traditional security actors, with a focus on Russian PMCs. He has also done analysis on the Russian invasion of Ukraine since 2022. Alec has a BA Politics & International Relations and an MA in International Security from the University of East Anglia.

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