The history of the Wagner Group

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By SCOTT RITTER*

Prigozhin's betrayal caused Wagner to be tainted by his owner's greed and naked ambition.

The dust has settled after the abortive insurrection of the last weekend in June staged by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the private military company known as the Wagner Group, alongside the 8.000 fighters he employed to affront (or intimidate) Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since then, a clearer picture has emerged as to what exactly happened during that coup and why these events occurred as they did. It also gave time to illuminate the Wagner Group, revealing it as something more than the invincible band of heroic patriots celebrated by Russian society at large.

Instead, a less flattering image emerges of the Wagner group, which portrays it as merely a commercial enterprise run by a corrupt narcissist who used Russian state funds to build a personality cult that mesmerized the Russian population, to make them naive. believe that Wagner would be the only resource of salvation for Russia, in the face of the threat posed by the war with Ukraine.

As a military analyst with a good deal of experience covering armed conflicts, I am not very likely to be impressed in the presence of men who, through their experience, have earned a reputation as warriors of formidable stature. I myself was a United States Marine, a member of a fraternity of sea warriors proud both of their history and of their military skills, considered by some to be second to none. I served in dangerous situations with special agents from elite US military units and worked closely with equally qualified professionals from other nations. I suspect I know well what constitutes military competence, and I have no hesitation in giving it the credit it deserves.

As someone who closely follows events in the Middle East, I have followed the Wagner Group's activities in Syria since their initial deployment in 2015. Their reputation as skilled fighters was earned on the blood of dozens of their comrades who lost their lives fighting terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. So, when in 2022 rumors began to circulate about the presence of Wagner Group fighters operating alongside the Russian army in the Donbass region, I was alert.

Reliable sources of information were difficult to find, and the Wagner Group was reticent about anyone providing information about its activities. Finally, however, I came to understand the role played by Wagner in Donbass, along with the impact the group had on the war. My comments sought to reflect the high regard I had for this military organization, as a combat formation in which the heroism and skill of the soldiers that constituted it were deposited.

Prior to my recent visit to Russia, my host informed me that the Wagner forces involved in the fierce struggle over Bakhmut praised the reviews I had given and that they could be counted among my biggest fans. In fact, during my visit, I was introduced to a number of Wagner veterans, as well as some of the staff still in service there, all of whom wanted to shake my hand and many of whom presented me with gifts expressing their deep appreciation for my work. Whether it was a combat knife, a chrome-plated sledgehammer (an unofficial symbol of the Wagner Group) or various Wagner combat badges (including one embroidered with my name), I was amazed at the genuine and heartfelt affection these fighters – known for their tenacity under fire — demonstrated to me.

When the events of June 23-24 unfolded before me, I was taken aback. An organization I held in the highest esteem was engaged in an act of self-destruction before my very eyes, bent on a course of action – an armed insurrection against a constitutionally elected government – ​​that any military professional imbued with respect for the chain of command and the nation would which it serves would find reprehensible (at least those that can be recognized as respectable – the rest, evidently, are not). Like many others, I was compelled to re-examine my understanding of the Wagner Group, the people it employed and its history of service to Russia.

Relatively little is known about the formation of the Wagner Group. What little information is available comes from Yevgeny Prigozhin himself and, as such, must be seen in the context of his penchant for self-promotion. Yevgeny Prigozhin has long denied any involvement with the Group and has even taken legal action against journalists (including the website websites Dutch pro-Western Bellingcat) who reported their involvement. This changed in September 2022, when Yevgeny Prigozhin openly discussed his role in the Wagner Group in a post published on his Telegram page.

Wagner's origins date back to February 2014, following the violent overthrow of Ukraine's constitutionally elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, by Ukrainian neo-Nazis backed by the United States and the European Union. At that time, Crimea was part of Ukraine. Soon after the Maidan coup toppled Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian neo-Nazis tried to take control of Crimea, which has always had an ethnic Russian majority population whose loyalties leaned decidedly towards Moscow. The neo-Nazis were confronted by so-called “self-defense units” formed by local pro-Russian citizens.

But there were other actors on the ground as well. Concerned that the new Ukrainian government would call in its army to intervene, the Russian government mobilized a force of several hundred "little green men," made up of elite Russian special forces who, due to constitutional limitations on deploying regular Russian army forces, to act in a foreign nation, acted covertly under false front ("sheep dipped”: a tactic created by US espionage, which was consecrated during the CIA's secret war in Laos, in the 1960s and 70s, where US Air Force officers were transferred to the company “AirAmerica” – whose real owner was the CIA – to carry out operations inside that country).

The man in charge of these covert special operators ("sheep dipped”) was Dmitry Utkin, a recently retired lieutenant colonel, who had previously commanded a Russian special forces unit (Spetznaz) affiliated with Military Intelligence (or GRU – from its name in Russian). Utkin and his “little green men” played an important role in the Russian retake of Crimea on February 26, 2014, four days after Viktor Yanukovych had to flee Ukraine. Following Russia's re-annexation of Crimea by popular referendum in March 2014, Utkin's "little green men" were sent to Lugansk, where they were tasked with providing training and assistance to the autonomist popular militias that took up arms against the Ukrainian neo-Nazis who seized power in Kiev.

As the struggle expanded, so did the role of the "little green men", and by April of that year it seems to have become clear to the Russian government that it would need to create a more formal organization that would serve as a conduit for military assistance to the Russians. ethnic Russians fighting in Donbass. On May 1, 2014, a new entity known as the “Wagner Group” (named after the call sign “Wagner” used by Utkin) was created, and awarded a contract with the Ministry of Defense to serve in that role. While Utkin served as the military commander of this new organization, the Wagner Group was managed by a pool of civilian businessmen led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who by that time had established himself as a successful restaurant manager whose clients included Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner was heavily involved in the fighting that took place in Donbass from May 2014 to February 2015, when a ceasefire came into effect following the signing of the Minsk 2 accords. Utkin's previous role as an agent in Syria. The possibility of deploying a professional military unit capable of operating on foreign soil, where regular Russian forces were prohibited from operating, became attractive to the Russian Ministry of Defense, which hired Wagner to provide military assistance to the Syrian government of President Bashar al -Assad.

Wagner's success in Syria led to the execution of additional “support contracts” (outsourced services) for operations in several African countries. In addition to being paid by the government of Russia, the Wagner Group was able to organize its own economic relationships with its African clients, which led to several profitable ventures designed to enrich its owners, including Prigozhin.

On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to initiate what has come to be called a “Special Military Operation” (SMO) against Ukraine. The Russian military began to position itself in the terrain of the People's Republics of Lugansk and Donietsk (both recognized by Russia as independent states days before the start of the SMO), where they began to fight alongside the people's militias. The Wagner Group continued to operate in Donbass territory in reduced capacity from 2015 until the start of the SMO.

After US and British interests collapsed the April 1, 2022 peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, which had taken place in Istanbul, Turkey, the Russian military was instructed to launch full-scale offensive operations aimed at to liberate the territory of Donbass still occupied by Ukraine. On May 1, 2022, a new contract was signed between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group for around 86 billion rubles (or 940 million USD), to expand the scope and scale of its Ukrainian operation of simple advice and assistance to the direct action of a division-sized combat unit capable of actively fighting regular Ukrainian forces. To sweeten the deal, the Russian Ministry of Defense signed a separate deal worth 80 billion rubles (about 900 million dollars) for the supply of food to the Russian army, through the catering by Yevgeny Prigozhin. By all indications, war has become an extremely profitable business for him.

Wagner played a major role in many of the battles fought in the spring and summer of 2022 that collectively became known as the Battle of Donbass. Wagner was initially organized as a battalion-sized unit with several hundred highly trained military veterans. As the fighting dragged on, Wagner's forces began to expand in size and capability, soon acquiring their own armor and artillery assets, as well as a unit of dedicated fighter aircraft.

By the time the city of Sievierodonietsk in Lugansk fell to Russian forces on June 25, 2022, Wagner Group was already a division-sized unit that had earned a reputation for urban combat expertise, taking the lead in cleaning up of Ukrainian troops entrenched in the ruins of that city. With the fall of the nearby city of Lysychansk on July 3, 2022, the Wagner Group has become synonymous with operational excellence.

The fighting at Sievierodonietsk and Lysychansk, as successful as it was for the Russians and the Wagner Group, proved extremely costly from a casualty point of view. It became evident both to Wagner's military command, built around a group of seasoned military veterans known as the "council of commanders," and to the Group's corporate owners, headed by Prigozhin, that Wagner would suffer just as much in terms of of military efficiency and profitability if it had to recruit and upgrade veterans to replace those who had fallen in battle. During the house-to-house fighting that defined the battles of Sievierodonietsk and Lysychansk, Wagner's small unit commanders developed tactics that combined firepower (indirect artillery and direct fire support from tanks) with aggressive infantry attacks that overwhelmed the Ukrainian defenders.

So, rather than wasting experienced fighters on this style of fighting, Prigozhin began recruiting new fighters from Russian prisons, promising them the elimination of their criminal record in exchange for a six-month contract to fight on the front lines. Wagner's commanders trained these own recruits over a 21-day program that focused on the rudimentary combat skills needed to execute the urban warfare tactics the group employed, before organizing them into shock units. These units, while effective, suffered up to 60% casualties. Among the 30 to 50 detainees recruited by Wagner, around 10 to 15 would have been killed in the subsequent fighting over the cities of Soledar and Bakhmut.

The battles for these two twin cities began on August 1, 2022. The Wagner Group and its shock units made up of former inmates played a central role in the intense fighting that followed. At that point, the world was already beginning to notice the action of the fighters of this private military company. Labeled by Western media and governments as a mercenary, and as patriotic heroes by the ethnic Russians of Donbass, whose homes, towns and cities were being liberated, Wagner began to emerge from the shadows. While previously the Russian government and media were reticent to even acknowledge its existence, at the end of September 2022 Prigozhin assumed that he was the owner of the Group, in a post on his Telegram channel in which he admitted it.

While many observers took Prigozhin's unexpected step into the spotlight as a sign of Wagner's growing public profile, the reality behind the businessman's decision was not much more than a simple business deal. From 25 to 27 September 2022, citizens of Donbass held a referendum on whether they want to be incorporated into the Russian Federation. Already at the end of the first day of the plebiscite, it was clear that the result would be an overwhelming “yes”.

Prigozhin went public with his role as owner of the Wagner Group on September 26, 2022. This was the first salvo in what would become a major public relations campaign designed to create the impression that Wagner was an essential part of the Russian war effort , whose fighters were uniquely capable of defeating the Ukrainians. Prigozhin's public relations campaign was reinforced by the fact that the Russian public was shocked by the withdrawal of meager Russian army forces during the Ukrainian Kharkov offensive, which began on September 6, 2022. While the regular army was in retreat , Wagner's forces continued to advance along the Soledar-Bakhmut front, providing the Russian people with the only example of battlefield success during these dark days.

For Prigozhin, it became essential to separate Wagner from the Russian army in the eyes of the Russian people. The reason was simple: with Donbass now part of the Russian Federation, the Wagner Group found itself in technical violation of Russian laws that prohibited private military contractors from operating on domestic soil. There was already talk about the need to change the contractual status of Wagner's relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense once Wagner's contract expired on May 1, 2023.

But Prigozhin had his own scheme for making money, especially when it came to using Russian prison inmates. The businessman could pay them less than a regular Wagner soldier, and the cost of their training was minimal compared to that of more specialized fighters. The money saved in this process was estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars, which lined the pockets of Prigozhin and his fellow owners and investors. Desperate to keep this venture intact, Prigozhin went on the offensive, publicly condemning Russian generals and officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

In November, Wagner opened a brand-new center in St. Petersburg, designed to propel the company into the psyche of the Russian public as a major player in Russia's national security affairs. Meanwhile, Wagner's fighters advanced in their attacks on Soledar and Bakhmut, spurred on by Prigozhin's desire to be seen as the most effective fighting force in the fight against the Ukrainians. And, increasingly, the units leading the charge were former Russian detainees.

Prigozhin, however, faced a problem. He was forced to stop recruiting in prisons simply because he did not have contractual support to pay inmates after May 1, 2023, which meant that the last prisoner recruitment was carried out by Wagner on December 1, 2022. Prisoners could still volunteer as frontline fighters, but from then on they would have to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense. Since inmates' contracts were tied to specific periods of service that had to be completed before their records could be expunged, Wagner could not commit prisoners to anything less than six full months of enlistment. Wagner could only recruit non-convicts, as there would be no legal problems with them if Wagner did not renew his contract with the Ministry of Defense.

As Prigozhin's public relations campaign became a tremendous success – Wagner even released a feature film, best in hell (“The best in hell”), in February 2023, which brought to the screen the horrors of urban warfare, as well as the individual heroism of its combatants –, he was unable, on the other hand, to win over the Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and First Deputy Minister of Defense Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin then turned what was once a professional disagreement over legalities into a personal matter, on which he brought allegations of corruption and incompetence by military chiefs. Prigozhin also began accusing the Russian Ministry of Defense of deliberately delaying the supply of ammunition to Wagner's forces, a phenomenon he described as "artillery famine", which coincidentally found itself accompanied by a disproportionately high number of casualties.

Prigozhin began to behave erratically. It was becoming increasingly clear that Wagner's contract would not be renewed, which meant that Wagner's forces would have to be incorporated into the Russian Ministry of Defense itself, as well as its leadership. It was also becoming clear that Prigozhin's lucrative supply contract with the Ministry of Defense would not be renewed either, a decision likely linked to Prigozhin's attacks on the Ministry of Defense's two most senior officials, Shoigu and Gerasimov.

It was at this time that Prigozhin first discussed the question of what would happen to Wagner's 50-strong force if the Russian Ministry of Defense continued to insist on its formal incorporation. In a February 2023 interview with Semyon Pegov (or “War Gonzo”), a pro-Russian combat correspondent and blogger, the topic of a possible attack by Wagner on Moscow was raised in the context of the Ministry’s ammunition “restrictions”. from Defense to the Group. Although Prigozhin noted that the idea did not originate with him, he hinted that it sounded interesting to him. That's something no one wants to hear from someone who has a large, well-equipped, combat-hardened private army.

It was also in February 2023 that, according to US intelligence, Prigozhin and the Ukrainian intelligence service began to communicate directly. Perhaps sensing Prigozhin's frustration and paranoia, Ukrainian intelligence notified the owner of the Wagner of a conspiracy involving former employees of the group to orchestrate a coup in Moldova. Prigozhin and Wagner would therefore be conducting secret talks with Ukrainian intelligence at this time. Considering the fact that Russian intelligence became aware of these contacts, Ukraine raised in the media the possibility of Prigozhin's arrest and his subsequent stigmatization as a traitor.

The impact of Prigozhin losing nearly $2 billion in contacts, combined with an increasing level of paranoia on his part at having become embroiled in a life-or-death struggle with Shoigu and Gerasimov, has the Wagner owner doubling down on his histrionics. against the Russian military leadership, in order to thereby create the impression that he and Wagner alone could secure Russia's military victory over Ukraine. These attacks reached their culmination in the final fights for Bakhmut, which ended on 20 May 2023, when Prigozhin announced that his fighters had captured the city. Prigozhin mentioned the “meat grinder” dimension of this battle and how Wagner, with great sacrifice, “broke the backbone” of the Ukrainian army, killing between 55 and 70 thousand enemy soldiers and losing between 20 and 30 thousand of his fighters.

As Russia celebrated Wagner's achievements in Bakhmut – further elevating the almost mythological status that Wagner and his fighters enjoyed in the eyes of an ecstatic Russian public – Prigozhin had more pressing matters to deal with. His contract with the Ministry of Defense had expired. He had been given a two-month extension (until July 1, 2023) due to the fact that Wagner was heavily engaged in the fighting in Bakhmut.

After that time, however, the Group's forces operating in Donbass would have to enter into a contractual relationship with the Ministry of Defence, or else they would be disbanded. Prigozhin withdrew his fighters from Bakhmut to camps in eastern Lugansk, where he pressured his battle-hardened commanders to reject the Defense Ministry's terms, and instead join him in creating a common front of opposition to the leadership of the Russian army.

Prigozhin's opposition to Shoigu and Gerasimov, and his plot to supplant them, did not escape the eyes of the Russian government, as well as its greatest enemies, the United States and Great Britain. Vladimir Putin, in a speech given to Russian security officials on June 27, indicated that Russian officials were in constant contact with Wagner's commanders to warn them not to help Prigozhin use Wagner for his own personal ambition. Days before Prigozhin sent Wagner's forces to Rostov and Moscow, the CIA informed the US Congress and President Biden of the existence of Prigozhin's conspiracy. The British MI-6 followed suit, informing the British Prime Minister and Ukrainian President Zelensky.

According to Ukrainian sources, the British also pressured the Ukrainians to halt offensive operations during the period when Prigozhin was expected to advance on Moscow, in the hope that civil war would break out, which would cause Russia to withdraw troops from Ukraine. front-line combat, a situation that would offer the Ukrainian army greater opportunities for success. MI-6 also mobilized its connections with Ukrainian intelligence services, in coordination with Russian oligarchs based in London and controlled by MI-6, to reinforce Prigozhin's belief that he had the backing of the military, politicians and business elite. Russia, leading Prigozhin to believe they would join him once Wagner started marching on Moscow.

The failure of Prigozhin's play is already historically enshrined. However, there remains a component in Russian society which, having been influenced by Prigozhin's intense public relations campaign, continues to believe that Prigozhin's grievances against Shoigu and Gerasimov were legitimate and, as such, so too would his march on Russia. Moscow. The facts, however, do not support it. At the time of Prigozhin's rash move on Moscow, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov were overseeing the Russian military campaign that had been eviscerating the NATO-trained Ukrainian army, inflicting 10-to-1 casualties.

During the first three weeks of the current Ukrainian counteroffensive, over 13.000 Ukrainian troops were killed, along with the destruction of hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles (many of which had recently been supplied to Ukraine). The Russian military is well equipped, well trained and well led. Morale is high. Any idea that Shoigu and Gerasimov are professionally incompetent is belied by the facts.

Prigozhin boasted of the superiority of Wagner's forces when compared to the Russian army. But the real reason Wagner's forces stopped their march on Moscow and returned to their barracks was that they encountered the Russian military at Serpukhov, south of Moscow. There, about 2.500 Russian special forces, backed by air power, were waiting for them. At the same time, about 10.000 Chechen special forces "Akhmat" were approaching Rostov-on-Don, where Prigozhin had taken the headquarters, and were preparing to attack the city, with the intention of destroying the Wagner forces stationed there, together with with your leader. Wagner's combat experience did not compensate for the fact that they were not prepared to carry out sustained ground action against regular Russian forces.

Prigozhin was not only confronted with the reality of his imminent death and the men accompanying him, but, contrary to the expectations created by British and Ukrainian intelligence services before the mutiny, with the fact that not a single military unit, not a single politician , not a single businessman, absolutely no one, joined his cause. Russia sided with its president. While Prigozhin's extensive public relations campaign managed to win the hearts and minds of the Russian people, it failed to convince people that they should betray their president.

In the interest of avoiding bloodshed between Russians, Prigozhin accepted a compromise, brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, that saw him, Dmitry Utkin (the only senior Wagner commander to join him) and the 8.000 Wagner fighters who participated after the failed coup to return to their camps in eastern Lugansk. There they disarmed and handed over their heavy equipment to the Russian military, before being sent into exile in Belarus.

For Wagner's fighters – about 17.000 – who refused to participate in Prigozhin's act of betrayal, like their commanders, were given the option of signing contracts with the Ministry of Defense or going home. Prigozhin's contracts were canceled and Wagner disbanded. Furthermore, there were no changes in the Russian Defense Ministry. Shoigu and Gerasimov remained in their respective posts.

Even if Prigozhin had not betrayed Russia, the Wagner Group would have ceased to exist as his private army. In that case, the honor of the Group would have remained intact. Prigozhin's betrayal caused Wagner to be tainted by the greed and naked ambition of his owner, a man who sought to exploit the goodwill of the Russian public - goodwill that Wagner's fighters earned with their blood and sacrifice on the battlefields of Donbass. , Syria and Africa – all in a misguided effort to usurp the constitutional mandate of a government that the people themselves put and maintain in power.

*Scott Ritter, a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer, he was UN Chief Weapons Inspector in Iraq from 1991-98.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published in Substack/ Scott Ritter Extra.


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