SECURITY 17 August, 2020 9:00 am   

Marszałkowski: an army without a tag, or a few words on Russia’s Wagner Group

The KGB operation before the rigged election in Belarus could have been a setup aimed at revealing the impact of external forces against which Alexander Lukashenko is fighting. These events involved the Wagner Group, about which Mariusz Marszałkowski, editor at, writes.

Belarusian fingerprints on Russian mercenaries?

Using mercenaries has a long history in world conflicts. Since time immemorial there have been daredevils who only cared about the pouch they were paid from, not the flag they fought under. Today the character of a mercenary army remained the same, apart from the fact that its economic aspect grew in importance. For years Russian entities have been present in this business sector. However, some of those have features that are not typical of standard companies that offer mercenary services.

A private military company (PMC, Rus. Chastnaya Voennaya Kompaniya – ChVK) is a term that in recent years has become very popular in Russia and elsewhere. It hides something that does not exist from the point of view of the law. It does not exist, because according to the Russian law there is no legal basis for the existence of mercenary companies on the territory of the Russian Federation. However, that, which does not exist from the point of view of the law, in reality does exist and each year gains more importance to Russia’s entire security system.

Last week a PMC returned to the front pages because of the widely reported-on arrest at a clinic in Zhdanovichi just outside Minsk. At night Belarus’s KGB kidnapped 33 mercenaries who, according to intelligence agencies, were employed by the Wagner Group, a PMC. Belarusians claim the detainees were preparing operations to destabilize the country during and after the elections. The KGB insists that Russia planted over 200 mercenaries from that group in Belarus.

However, right after the arrests, it has been alleged that they were a setup conducted at Lukashenko’s order, as he wanted to show “the impact of external forces” on Belarusian election. It is hard to believe that Lukashenko did not know Wagner’s mercenaries were stationed a few kilometers outside of Belarus’s capital. Especially that, according to the detainees, they were only passing through the country. Some of the mercenaries had Sudanese money, whereas all of them stated that that they were to continue their journeys to various parts of the world. Some testified they were going to Istanbul, while others talked about South America. Whatever their final destination, detaining over a dozen Russians had to be perceived by Moscow as an exceptionally hostile move.

The fact that 14 out of the 33 detainees were citizens of Ukraine made this situation all the more interesting. They reportedly fought side by side with pro-Russian separatists in Donbass. According to Kiev, they committed terrorist acts there and broke the international humanitarian law. Ukraine almost instantly announced that it expected the suspects who had been involved in military activities in Eastern Ukraine to be extradited.

After a few days of relative silence, Russians came up with an alternative version. They used the government-run media to announce that the presence of Wagner’s mercenaries in Belarus was a special operation conducted by Ukrainian intelligence. According to the “investigation” conducted by the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily, the mercenaries were originally contracted to provide security to oil fields in Syria as part of a security company Mar.

The company was established in 2013 as a Private Military Company Mar, but Russians claim that in reality it was a security, not a military company. It was present in Donbass between 2014 and 2016, where it allegedly protected humanitarian transports and evacuated civilians from combat areas. The company was shut down in 2018, which has been confirmed by its owner Aleksiey Maruschchenko in an interview for the Kommersant.

After some time, the mercenaries changed their destination to Venezuela, where they were to protect the facilities of the oil concern Rosneft. According to the newspaper, they were to reach Caracas after stopping in Minsk, Istanbul and Havana. After they reached Minsk, their flights were cancelled and they got stuck in Belarus. Russians claim that the entire operation was prepared by Ukrainian intelligence, which hoped to destroy “the good neighborly relations between Belarus and Russia”.

At this point it needs to be asked which “private military company” this is actually about?

Security vs. military companies?

It has become popular in Poland, but also elsewhere, to label every Russian military company as “Wagnerers”. Allegedly the Wagner Group operates in Syria, Donbass, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Venezuela, Libya… Of course that may be the case. However, not every Russian mercenary (actually it’s not just Russians, but more on that later) is a “Wagnerer”.

First, it needs to be pointed out that private organizations involved with the widely-understood security sector can be split into two categories – private security companies and private military companies. It is often difficult to pinpoint what exactly is the difference between the two. Both formations dress in uniform, are armed and deal with security, protection and training. Both types are used for external operations. The differences between them lie in the way they operate, how they are assigned to tasks, what equipment they use and whether they have any “political” goals.

Security companies can work in the country and abroad. Mostly their job is to protect facilities, e.g. power plants. In Russia there are about 23 thousand security companies that employ over 700 thousand people. They protect facilities, crucial installations or persons. However, those groups also include “elite” companies, which specialize in the most difficult tasks, such as protecting ships in areas affected by piracy (Somalia, the Strait of Malacca), or securing facilities owned by Russian energy companies such as Lukoil and Rosneft (Kurdistan, Syria, Africa). Security companies do not engage directly in combat missions, they are not tasked with exerting influence or other forms of underlining their presence.

Their basic goal is to secure the property and interests of companies. RSB, which has been operating since 2003, is an example of a Russian security company. It provides body guarding services to politicians, company owners or other “mighty” people who feel threatened and who can afford it. RSB employees also protect ships, provide training, landmining- and pyrotechnic-related services.

Private military companies

Contrary to security companies, private military companies in Russia are shrouded in secrecy, because they cannot formally exist. Neither their names, nor their financing, structure or command are known.

In 2012 the State Duma considered a bill to legalize PMCs in Russia. Its authors wanted to monetize the potential of Russian companies, which could compete with their American, British or French counterparts. They estimated that the mercenary market was worth USD 100 bn a year, and insisted Russia should participate in it. However, the idea to legalize PMCs in Russia was abandoned. After eight years it is possible to list a few basic reasons behind this. The first one is that Russia’s Ministry of Defence was concerned about multiplying entities, which could compete with the armed forces in the financial and organizational aspect, which could cause a redistribution of subsidies for infrastructure or equipment.

The second reason is the turnover of volunteers, who would rather choose the better-paid job at private companies than be sent off to a garrison in the Urals or the Far East. The third is that Russian opponents of FSB had concerns about the bill. According to the plans, that intelligence service would manage the private formations. High-ranking officials of the Interior Ministry, the Investigative Committee and the intelligence community did not want the already almighty FSB to acquire it own “private” army. In the end, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Kremlin opposed the legalization of the PMCs as well. Why? According to Russian decision makers, the disapproval stems from the specificity of the jobs done by such formations, especially after the annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine in Donbass.

Private, informal, military companies that don’t have an official legal status in Russia are a convenient go-to resource for the country’s military in places where it can’t, or doesn’t want to be. The long conflict in Donbass revealed that the core of pro-Russian separatists was constituted by volunteers from private military companies from Russia.

They had a virtually unlimited access to the resources of the so called Voentorg, a company that trades and distributes military equipment. PMCs could receive small arms, uniforms, optoelectronics, drones as well as armored vehicles and tanks. Their job was not only to fight against the Ukrainian army, but most of all manage the separatists’ resources, provide training, prepare tactical plans and logistics, and operate the equipment and arms that were the most technically advanced. On 14 of June 2014 they shot down a Ukrainian transport plane Il-76 near Luhansk. That event is a good example of what their engagement in Ukraine was about. According to Ukraine’s SBU this was done by mercenaries from the Wagner Group.

The military contractors could also be found in Syria where they handled similar tasks. Even before the Russian military officially intervened in Syria in September 2015, various “voluntary” formations operated in the Syrian Arab Republic, where they fought against the Islamic State, opposition forces and the Kurds, supporting the government’s army. After Russia’s official entry into Syria, the presence of military companies increased significantly. While the Russian army operated mostly in the air, on the ground the core of the army was constituted by, among others, divisions from the Wagner group. According to estimates, in 2017 in Syria the Wagner Group alone had four infantry battalions, artillery companies, electronic warfare companies, a reconnaissance company and a logistics company. Apart from their own formations, Russian mercenaries were also present in other elite Syrian units, for instance in the 5th. Corps., which was almost entirely formed thanks to Russian support.

Why illegally?

Why did Russians choose this solution? First, they knew the war in Syria would cause losses. Many opponents of this intervention, also in Russia, believed the conflict in Syria was analogous to what happened in Afghanistan in the final years of the Soviet Union. To avoid tarnishing their image and eliminate human losses, the Wagner Group, as well as other similar organizations, were made responsible for the main combat operations on the ground. On the surface this ruse paid off. Officially during the five-year military operation in Syria 116 soldiers died, out of which the majority lost their lives in catastrophes and air accidents. Only on one day – the 6th of March 2018, 39 Russian military men died when An-26, a transport aircraft, crashed.

It is difficult to estimate the number of killed mercenaries. Their names were not registered on any official lists, there are no lists of damages or anything like that. According to the calculations by, by the end of 2018 at least two hundred mercenaries died in Syria. However, these numbers could be a lot higher because they have not been updated since. Apart from the casualties, many mercenaries sustained wounds of varying degree. They are recovering in secrecy in hospitals owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Wagner’s veterans themselves claim that the tactics used by the group were archaic. Hence, the relatively high ratio of losses in various subdivisions. The most well-known battle waged by the “Wagnerers” was their attempt at recapturing the Connoco gas fields from the Kurds. When the mercenaries, together with governmental units started a run on the Kurds, they called Americans for help. Americans sent helicopters and planes that decimated the attackers. According to various sources, the Russians lost between thirty and two hundred men. Many were also wounded. The scale of the losses was so big that Russians sent two hospital airplanes Il-76 MD Scalpel, which took off with the most severely wounded fighters from the Hmeimim Air Base and flew to hospitals in Moscow.

The mercenaries are also present in Libya. They fight hand in hand with the Libyan National Army led by general Khalifa Haftar, which has not been recognized by the international community. During the last few months, the presence of, most probably, the Wagner Group increased. Satellite pictures of the purported military base occupied by the mercenaries show that they not only own armored vehicles and artillery, but also anti-aircraft systems, including Pancir and Mig-29 fighter jets.

An additional reason why Russians “do not want to have anything to do with the mercenaries” is the fact that they commit atrocities on prisoners and civilians. Both in Ukraine and in Syria many occurrences were documented that can be described as war atrocities. The mercenaries will never answer for the murders, tortures, kidnappings for ransom and rapes committed “on the front lines”. The way things are allows Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary of the Russian President, and Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to claim: “We know nothing about this. This definitely has nothing to do with Russia’s armed forces.”

Who is Wagner?

Today the most well-known organization that formally doesn’t exist is Wagner Group. However, it is not the first formation that has become famous for being a mercenary operation in recent memory. Its precursor was the so-called Slavonic Corps, which was registered in Hongkong in 2013. It fought in Syria, but its existence was short. After an unsuccessful operation in Syria and a return to Moscow in October 2013, the members of the company and their founders were arrested. The two founders Vadim Gusev and Yevgeniy Sidorov were sentenced to three years in prison for setting up a mercenary organization. This is where the Wagner Group originated. Its name comes from the pseudonym of its purported commander Dmitriy Utkin, who led the the 700th Independent Spetsnaz Detachment of the 2nd Independent Brigade of GRU until 2013.

After retiring he started working for the Slavonic Corps. As of 2014 that group fought in Ukraine. In 2016 Utkin was invited to the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland organized on the Kremlin. His picture with Vladimir Putin was taken during that event. Many mercenaries of the Group were rewarded with military decorations. According to some sources, Utkin is just a cover and the Group’s big person is Yevgeny Prigozhin. He owns Cocncorde, a company that has a chain of sophisticated restaurants whose clients include, among others, Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is jokingly called “Putin’s chef”. Thanks to such close relations with the most important person in Russia, he could count on numerous contracts. His company provides food to schools and the military. The Wagner Group is managed by a web of dummy corporations and is probably just another project of this influential businessman.

The Group trains on the Molkino polygon in the Krasnodar Krai in southern Russia. Its pool of candidates mainly includes retired soldiers and officers of the security services. Due to the large population of “young” retirees in Russia, who are often younger than 40 years old, the interest in this type of work is quite large. The salary offered by the Group contributes to it. It is estimated that, depending on the rank and experience, the pay is between RUB 80 and 220 thousand a month. To compare, the average pay in Russia is RUB 35 thousand (EUR 490).

The candidates are obliged to maintain confidentiality. They cannot take any electronic devices that can be used for recording or communicating with the outside world on exercises or missions. Passports and other identification documents are also taken away from them. They are probably trained by officers of the regular military forces.

Who are the mercenaries? In general they are former soldiers, policemen and all “silovniks”. Russia has hundreds of thousands of young retirees with extensive military experience. After the Soviet war in Afghanistan, many veterans found their place in the new reality by joining the ranks of various criminal groups. Today this ‘career’ is less popular, but a country such as Russia knows it is important to find a job for these people. And if one can benefit from this, then why not?

According to the group called Conflict Intelligence Team, which supported their findings with the data from the SBU, 90 percent of Wagner’s mercenaries who fought in Donbass were from Russia. Ukrainians were second and Serbs came in third. The latter were allowed to create their own, national team as part of the Wagner Group. There are also other nationals including Belarusians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and others, mainly from post-Soviet states.

Combat trial of the Wagner’s mercenaries

Ukrainian sources claim that the Wagner Group was placed in Ukraine in mid-May in 2014. About 300 mercenaries helped with logistics, taking over the facilities of the Ukrainian administration and leading reconnaissance missions and intelligence operations. They also attempted sabotage and provided personal protection to the most important commanders of the separatists. They also took part in taking over military units and depots. At the beginning of 2015, the Group took part in the Battle of Debaltseve. It has been reported that a few mercenaries died during the fight. Once the active engagement ended, the “Wagnerers” took to introducing discipline among pro-Russian separatists and Cossacks troops. According to Ukraine, the Wagner Group was responsible for murdering high-profile field commanders, including Motorola, Batman and Givi.

At the end of 2015, the Group left eastern Ukraine for Syria, where it cooperated very closely with the Russian Ministry of Defence. They gave advice on the front line, they coordinated air strikes on Syrian rebels and the Islamic State, and they operated technically advanced equipment and managed logistics. During the Palmyra offensive and the battle for Deir ez-Zor, the Wagner Group, equipped with tanks, artillery and armed vehicles fought on the front line. It sustained the highest losses in history and its relations with the Defence Ministry went downhill rapidly.

In October 2016, a few months after the first capture of Palmyra in March that same year, ISIS fighters conducted a swift counterstrike. Russian soldiers claimed that “private contractors” were to blame, because they escaped the battlefield instead of fighting to keep the city. On the other hand, according to leaks from Russian sources, when the city was recaptured Vladimir Putin was informed about the success by non other than… Dmitriy Utkin. This festival of “kindness”, which was more or less visible, caused the Ministry of Defence to stop supplying equipment to the “Wagnerers” and the Minister himself became even more certain that PMCs should not be legalized.

Apart from Syria, the “Wagnerers” were also seen in Libya, Sudan, Madagascar and Mozambique. Always present in locations where natural resources play an important role. The Wagner Group and Prigozhin’s companies work in a kind of symbiosis. The pattern is pretty simple. To all paces where the Kremlin cannot really officially intervene, or where it does not have enough forces, it can send its “businessman” – Prigozhin – who will give an offer of cooperation to some African leader, who would otherwise be in trouble. The trouble may involve internal conflicts, opposition, Islamic militias, a coup or some new external threat, such as western sanctions.

If that country has raw materials, especially ones that are worth a lot, such as diamonds, the offer of help is more specific. If a deal is made, the resources of this country will be exploited by that Russian company, which will split the profits with the hosts at a certain percent. At the same time, Wagner’s mercenaries arrive in government planes to help. Officially, the come to provide security to the company that extracts the resources, but often the range of its responsibilities is a lot wider and more complicated. This mechanism was used in Syria, where a portion of profits from oil fields recaptured by the Group went to Prigozhin’s daughter company called Europolis. This practice is profitable mostly for Russian oligarchs, but the government earns as well.

An army without a tag

At the end of the day, for Russia the pros of having mercenaries outweigh the cons. This state of affairs satisfies the appetites of oligarchs that are close to the Kremlin, allows Russia to manage “difficult” retirees in uniform and to exert impact on its neighbors. It is worth remembering that the contractors can be used as an element of subversive actions in times of a crisis, which many eagerly call a hybrid war. This is the point in time, which often makes or breaks an operation.

The annexation of Crimea is a good example. So, is it worth to officially register and tax mercenaries in Russia? Of course, not. Not for the few who manage the entire business and guarantee discretion. Every now and again Russia’s intelligence agencies arrest groups, often led by far-right extremists, that want to build something similar to a private army. But the Kremlin doesn’t need such “patriots”. Perhaps because they would finally notice that everything that they are spoon-fed with serves the interests of a small group of men, who are most trusted by the ones at the top of the hierarchy.

It is also worth pointing out that attempts at cracking what the Wagner Group really is, often end up with the ones who are asking questions dead. That is what happened to a group of journalists who started an investigation into the Wagner Group’s presence in the Central African Republic. The “Wagnerers”, apart from being motivated by money, are also driven by “commandments”. The first one says that they have respect towards Russia, its military powers and president. I guess this says it all on who really pulls the strings in this organization.