by Caleb M. Larson. He covers U.S.-American security and foreign policy as well as European defense with a focus on Eastern Europe and Russia. He holds a Bachelor of Art in History from UCLA and a Master of Public Policy from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.
The Russian private military company Wagner has a complex and convoluted history. Founded in 2013, Wagner has gone through several iterations. An early precursor of Wagner called the Slavonic Corps was sent on a short-lived mission in Syria and was quickly disbanded upon return to Russia. Some of Wagner’s leadership was also arrested, initially indicating little to no coordination with the Russian military or intelligence services. Later missions, particularly in Crimea, Central African Republic (CAR) and Sudan, indicate closer ties to Russian military and intelligence services.
To date, Wagner has conducted operations in Syria and is presumed to be part of a Russian force in the CAR and Sudan. There is also speculation that Wagner has a presence in Libya, although hard documentation is difficult to come by. Wagner’s interests in the countries are purported to operate in vary from economic gain to advancing Russian foreign policy objectives.
Wagner compared to other Private Military Contractors
American Private Military Contractors (PMCs) such as Academi (formerly Blackwater USA), Triple Canopy, and DynCorp typically work under contract in support of larger military missions and have served in logistics, escort, personal protection, or in a training and advisory role, rather than exclusively on the front lines of conflict. These are support missions that are fundamentally different from Wagner’s role. Wagner partners with the Russian military for issues of transportation and logistics, similarly to their western counterparts. However, in both Ukraine and Syria members of Wagner served at times to augment Russian and/or local forces or have served as an “elite infantry“, in direct-action operations, not merely as advisors or trainers. Wagner is also reported to suffer unusually high numbers of casualties for a PMC, which suggests that in some theaters Wagner serves in primarily a combat role, rather than less hazardous non-combat tasks like training and advising.
In CAR and perhaps in Libya, Wagner’s primary mission appears to be the extraction of mineral wealth, securing arms deals, and training local specialist forces, rather than pursuing discernable foreign policy objectives in line with those of their country of origin. This differentiation is important when considering the role of the aforementioned western PMCs, who typically do not operate as independently as Wagner seems to, but are more closely bound to national objectives.
Early iteration: the Slavonic Corps
An early foray by Wagner into Syria began in September 2013, when several hundred (perhaps put to 2,000) Russian volunteers were contracted by the St. Petersburg-based Moran Security Group. These volunteers formed the short-lived Slavonic Corps, a Wagner precursor. According to their corporate website, Moran is a “an international group of companies offering premiere security, transportation, medical, rescue, and consulting services” and operates offices in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Guangzhou, China, and has conducted operations in various Middle Eastern and African countries, as well as maritime operations in the Indian Ocean. To date, Moran Security Group has an explicit association with the Slavonic Corps.
The volunteers were contracted rather hastily, some signing contracts on a train station platform and told to be ready to ship out on short notice. During recruiting, volunteers were under the impression that they would be operating in some capacity with the Syrian government and/or the FSB and were promised substantial sums of money within days. The reality was quite different. While there was a Syrian partner, this partner was ostensibly not the Syrian government, but rather a local strongman. At the behest of their Syrian employer, the Slavonic Corps was involved in a single skirmish that ended in near-encirclement and retreat. An opportune sandstorm allowed the Slavonic Corp to slip away and saved their annihilation, resulting in relatively light casualties (“The Last Battle of the ‘Slavonic Corps’“, The Interpreter, November 16, 2013)
The Slavonic Corps spent only about two months in Syria which is much shorter than the contracts stipulated for five months. After returning to their airfield base, the volunteers were transported to Moscow by plane. Upon arrival in Russia, their belongings and social media were searched for information related to their time in Syria. Those of higher rank were reportedly detained while those of lower rank were sent home—without pay.
In 2014, an iteration of Wagner was involved in the annexation of Crimea along with volunteers, Ukrainian military defectors, and other Russian units. Although operating under the Wagner name, those operating in Crimea were likely not the same individuals who had been to Syria in 2013, although it is possible that some command elements were retained.
Wagner’s actions in Crimea indicated a relatively high level of capability. Although unproven, Wagner is credited by some sources with several assassinations, namely the Luhansk People’s Republic’s Minister of Defense, Oleg Anashchenko, and leaders of several other armed factions, indicating a level of expertise significantly higher than that of inexperienced volunteers. Anashchenko was one of several high-level participants in an unsuccessful coup in 2014 in the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). These killings could demonstrate an instance in which Wagner and Russia coordinate to achieve Russian foreign policy objectives, as a lack of order in the LPR. Infighting among LPR leadership does not stabilize the LPR into frozen conflict and are not in Russia’s interest.
Involvement in Ukraine seemingly allowed Wagner to rebound from their debacle in Syria. Demonstrating high-end capabilities and greatly improved C2 illustrated that Wagner could carry out relatively complex missions in urban areas while avoiding civilian casualties and successfully achieving mission objectives. Their success, particularly in Crimea, was a strong indicator of renewed confidence in the organization.
Syria: second attempt
Wagner’s success in Ukraine at least partially contributed to additional responsibilities and a return to Syria. One event worthy of note was Wagner’s involvement in retaking of Palmyra, a historically important city in central Syria and formerly an ISIL bastion. Wagner was part of a combined Syrian Army/pro-government militia force that appears to have fought in association with Russian air power and suffered several casualties there.
Although Wagner was part of the successful assault on Palmyra, the mission’s success was not due entirely to Wagner’s battlefield prowess. The assembled force was allegedly around 6,000 strong, and Wagner only made up a small part of this group. Russian and Syrian airpower greatly aided the attack, as did superior numbers. Still, success at least by association seemed to have contributed to Wagner’s rehabilitated image as a capable fighting force.
Video showing US airstrikes on Russian (Wagner)/regime forces that attacked SDF/US positions. Tank and artillery positions destroyed. Welcome to 2018. pic.twitter.com/NkIhlYvCDI
— Neil Hauer (@NeilPHauer) 13. Februar 2018
Wagner’s recent involvement in Syria has been relatively well-publicized after the February 2018 debacle near Deir al-Zour in which a mixed Russian-Syrian pro-government force moved on a US commando team in the area. While exact figures are difficult to confirm concretely, casualty estimates range from a couple of dozens to over two hundred (Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “How a 4-Hour Battle Between Russian Mercenaries and U.S. Commandos Unfolded in Syria“, The New York Times, May 24, 2018). Interestingly, Russian military officials denied responsibility for the force massing against US positions. This could indicate that PMCs like Wagner serve as politically expendable cannon fodder for probing the battlefield in place for regular Russian military personnel.
CAR & Sudan Expansion
With the consent of the UN Security Council Committee created pursuant to UNSC Resolution 2127, an allocation of small arms and ammunition from the stocks of Russia’s Defence Ministry was made available to the Central African Army in late January – early February. Five military [sic] and 170 civilian instructors from Russia were sent to train CAR service personnel with the knowledge of this committee. — Artyom Kozhin, “Deputy Director of the Information and Press Department Artyom Kozhin’s answer to a media question on cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Central African Republic“, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, March 22, 2018.
The CAR contains relatively large mineral deposits, namely diamonds, gold—and uranium. All three are commercially viable, and a Wagner presence in mineral-rich areas could pay large dividends for a company that is not exclusively bound by geopolitical decisions and allowed to gain financially. The Russian contingent there is reportedly operating in or near the regions where these minerals can be exploited, and long-running political instability in CAR due to competing militia groups could help facilitate this mineral exploitation (Ruslan Leviev, “Russian Presence in the Central African Republic“, Conflict Intelligence Team, April 23, 2018). Wagner’s current mission appears to be training the presidential guard of Faustin-Archange Touadéra, perhaps to curry favor for future political or mineral deals.
In November 2017, al-Bashir voiced the possibility of Sudan hosting a Russian naval base on the Red Sea, which would allow Russia to further project power into much of the Middle East, Africa, and parts of the Mediterranean. It could complement the role that Syria has played as a proving ground of sorts for newer Russian equipment, and by providing combat experience, especially to pilots.
Будни российской ЧВК в Судане (голос за кадром). Не Южном, как анонсировалось ранее, а просто в Судане. На фиг нужен Южный, у него и выхода к морю нет. pic.twitter.com/qoSQ9I3ben
— Александр Коц (@sashakots) 12. Dezember 2017
Translation: Russian PMCs in Sudan (voiceover)
Perhaps most speculative is Wagner’s presence in Libya. An article in March 2017 detailed Russia’s involvement in Libya in support of General Khalifa Haftar. Recently, a similar claim was corroborated by a Russian source, which elaborated on possible motivations for a Russian presence in Libya—ranging from recovering money from a Gaddafi-era arms deal, completing a planned Tripoli-Benghazi rail link by Russian Railways, capitalizing on Libya’s oil reserves, being able to control refugee flows into Europe, or perhaps a combination of these issues (Dmitry Kartsev, “Russia Is Suspected of Deploying Troops to Libya, but What’s Moscow’s Play in This Muddy Conflict?“, Meduza, October 11, 2018). At this point in time, these theories are speculative, although a Wagner presence in Libya could give Russia leverage in other areas to advance Russian foreign policy objectives and is perhaps an example of the Wagner-Kremlin axis.
“Patriot”: a new iteration?
Another PMC, Patriot, is reported to be operating in Syria and CAR as well. Patriot seems to be structured in much the same way as Wagner, their recruit pool is ex-military, and Patriot works in tandem with Russian security services, but apparently pay better than Wagner and are more focused on security, training, and personal protection, depending on the theater in question.
PMCs in Russia serve a fundamentally different role than their western counterparts. Typically, operating more like highly trained shock troops rather than pulling guard duty or logistics, Wagner, in particular has served two primary functions—enrichment for the Wagner group itself via operations in minerally lucrative areas, or as an easily-deniable instrument of the Russian Ministry of Defense that fights to advance Russian foreign policy objectives.
Although questions of legality abound, the Wagner model is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Dead Russian soldiers can cause public opinion to sour, while dead and deniable volunteers do not. For that reason, future operations involving Wagner and other PMCs are unlikely to dissipate. Russian PMCs are here to stay.
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