PMC Wagner – Russia's pocket army

Commanded by Dmitry Utkin and funded by oligarchs such as Yevgeny Prigozhin, it is headed by the General Staff of the Russian Army in the interests of Moscow's geopolitical interests

09:00 | 19 ноември 2021
Снимка: Bloomberg L.P.
Снимка: Bloomberg L.P.

Dr. Plamen Dimitrov,

Bulgarian Geopolitical Society

St. Petersburg, June 2010. As part of the traditional economic forum in the city on the Neva, a delegation from the General Staff of the Russian Army listened to a private lecture by the famous Eеben Barlow - a South African reserve general and founder of the world's first legal private army Executive Outcomes. His fighters became notorious by participating in various conflicts in Africa, coups and counter-coups, guarding particularly valuable cargo and people. Barlow introduced his interlocutors to the model of creating a private military company and found a response - a similar idea had been discussed in the corridors of the Russian Ministry of Defense for about a year.

While listening to Eеben Barlow's advice, Russian generals realized that such a military campaign for action abroad should not be linked to the Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin. In addition, it will not operate on a purely commercial basis, because it will support the realization of Moscow's geopolitical interests. This means that someone has to finance it without a guarantee that they will get their money back. But in Russia, this is not a problem - a sufficient number of oligarchs are spinning around the Kremlin, who owe their wealth to lucrative contracts with the state and the personal favor of Vladimir Putin.

The most suitable person for this job turned out to be Yevgeny Prigozhin - a cunning and pushy businessman who started from hot dog stands in St. Petersburg to reach a chain of luxury restaurants and chains of catering companies. By 2012-2013 Prigozhin already supplied food to the largest government agencies - schools, hospitals, the police. The military knows him because he managed to sign lucrative contracts with the Ministry of Defense - not only for delivery of food, but also for cleaning, heating, construction and repair work. In addition, Prigozhin is a personal friend of the Russian president, not coincidentally called "Putin's cook."

According to the credible Moscow edition The Bell, the recruitment of fighters for the Russian private military company (PMC) began in 2013. Evgeny Gulyaev, Prigozhin's security chief, was involved in this activity. Experienced people were preferred - reserve officers and those who fought in various hot spots around the world. Here we should note that in front of journalists Prigozhin himself categorically denies having anything to do with the private military campaign, the evidence of his involvement in this endeavor is indirect.

Mercenaries from the private military campaign are believed to have taken action for the first time when Crimea seceded from Ukraine in February-March 2014. However, their role in these events is insignificant - with a large military base on the peninsula, Russia has no problem occupying it with its regular army. Two or three months later, the fighters from the emerging private military company entered real battles in Donbass for the first time. In the summer of 2014, they were already in a camp at the base of the Russian General Intelligence Agency (GRU) in southern Russia. Their training was led by Lieutenant Colonel from the reserve Dmitry Utkin. Until 2013, he used to be a detachment commander in a special brigade from the Headquarters of the Russian General Staff, and then switched to the security business. Utkin became part of the Hong Kong-registered private military company Slavic Corps and took part in its mission in Syria in 2013. He is an ardent Germanophile and used the pseudonym Wagner, hence the name of the company he runs.

The Russian media first mentioned the name of the Wagner PMC in 2015. In the autumn of the same year, the company's fighters were transferred to Syria. Russia's military mission in the Arab country began at the same time, but Moscow initially claimed to have sent only aircraft and was not involved in land operations. However, the truth is different. According to eyewitnesses, in many places in Syria, the Wagner PMC fighters are active first and then the regular Russian land forces, and finally the Syrians themselves from the government army.

The biggest success of the Wagner PMC in Syria was the capture of the ancient city of Palmyra and its return under the control of President Bashar Assad in March 2016. On 9 December this year, Utkin and several other fighters from his private military company were at a reception in the Kremlin on the occasion of the Heroes of Fatherland Day, and were shown in a report on the state television and even took a photo with Putin.

Meanwhile, the Wagners continue to fight to Syria, according to some reports, the group numbered 2,000 in 2018. On 7 February this year however, their luck betrayed them near the city of Khasham, Deir ez-Zor province. There, Syrian government forces decided to attack the US-funded rebel group Syrian Democratic Forces and seize an oil field controlled by it. The Wagner PMC fighters were also supporting the attackers. The rebels wanted help from the Americans, and they in turn contacted the "hot line" with representatives of the Russian Ministry of Defense, which assured them that it did not conduct any operations in the area and did not have its own forces. This was followed by a three-hour bombing and shelling by planes, drones and helicopters. Government forces and Russian mercenaries supporting them were completely defeated. Estimates of the losses of the Wagner PMC in this battle are contradictory - from 11 to 100 people. A week later, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov for the first time admitted the possibility of "a certain number of Russian citizens who are not officers in the Russian army" to be present in Syria.

In the last 4-5 years, Wagner's PMC has been active mainly in Africa. With its numerous dictatorial regimes and military conflicts, the Black Continent is an excellent terrain for exercising Russian influence. Moscow has military and economic cooperation agreements with a number of African countries, it has also involved in supporting presidents and rebel groups, and the Wagner PMC is one of the tools for pursuing this policy.

Dmitry Utkin's fighters are certainly involved in the Libyan civil war on the side of Marshal Khalifa Haftar. In Sudan, they support former President Omar Bashir, and in Mozambique they help fighting against local Islamists.

Wagner became notorious in the Central African Republic (CAR) as well. As of 2018, there were officially 175 Russian "military advisers" there, but in reality they are Wagners, who are much more, according to some Western sources, their number may be 2,300. A company linked to Prigozhin has received two concessions to develop gold and diamond deposits. In a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Russians in the CAR were accused of systematic serious human rights violations, illegal detention, torture, rape and collective executions.

In the last few weeks, there was intense comment on the possibility of the Wagner PMC moving to another African country, Mali, one of the countries with the lowest income in the world. It experienced military coups in 2012, 2020 and 2021, and separatist groups operated in its northern parts. The country's forces are armed mainly with Russian weapons, and several key figures in the interim government in Bamako, including the "transitional" president, have undergone military training in the USSR.

In September this year, news broke that the authorities in Mali signed a contract with the Wagner PMC, and in early October, not very clear photos appeared, showing the arrival of the Russian military at the airport in Bamako. So far, however, there is no definite confirmation that Russian mercenaries have already set foot in the country, and the new rulers deny having an agreement with Wagner. Mali and the CAR are former French colonies, Paris has retained considerable influence there and is therefore deeply concerned about the Russian invasion.

It can be concluded considering the available fragmentary and uncertain information about the Wagner PMC, that the activities of this company are directed by the General Staff of the Russian Army in the interest of Moscow's geopolitical interests. However, the operational management is mostly in the hands of Dmitry Utkin. Financing comes from both the state and oligarchs like Yevgeny Prigozhin. The fighters receive their salaries in cash and enjoy some social benefits such as free treatment in case of injury, but cannot rely on a military pension.

The problem is that the Wagner PMC simply does not exist in  the legal system. It is not registered in Russia. Moreover, Russian laws prohibit mercenaries to participate in warfare abroad and the country's Penal Code provides for up to 7 years in prison. So Wagner remains Russia's semi-state secret army.

BOTTOMLINE Mercenaries from the private military campaign are believed to have taken action for the first time when Crimea seceded from Ukraine in February-March 2014