The Wagner Group, a PMC owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, first appeared in eastern Ukraine in 2014 where it fought alongside pro-Russia separatists. Since then, Wagner has fought in Syria, Libya, and across Africa just as Moscow began a new approach on the continent.
This post is the second part of a series about the Russian PMCs. For our first post, we outlined the connections between Russia’s security services and private military companies (PMC) using reKnowledge. In this chapter, we will once again use the Digital Investigative Board to highlight the nexus between the Wagner Group’s known deployments and Russia’s foreign policy objectives. In the third post of the series we dive deeper into the connections between Prigozhin's interest and Wagner deployments. And in our final installment we connect the hidden influence groups to Russia's allies in Africa.
Wagner’s activities across the globe are no secret thanks to the work of the global investigative community. Much of this has been done using open-source intelligence (OSINT) combined with traditional journalistic and investigative methods. Using reKnowledge, we can put this information together to show how Wagner’s operations tie in to Russia’s global objectives.
Wagner’s Donbas vacation
Wagner made its debut on the world stage after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. While not part of the Kremlin’s so-called little green men that seized the peninsula, Wagner’s mercenaries fought in the Donbas alongside pro-Russia rebels and notably during the battle for Debaltseve against the Ukrainian military.
Russia consistently denies their military forces' serving in Ukraine beyond Putin’s cheeky remarks about soldiers going to the Donbas “on a vacation”. Like any vacationer, however, Wagner mercenaries actively posted photos and videos on their social media accounts while in Ukraine.
Thanks to shoddy operational security (OPSEC), OSINT researchers like the team at InformNapalm in Ukraine were able to identify several Wagner mercenaries who fought in the Donbas. They based this off of geotagged photos posted to Instagram as well as Russian social networks like VKontakte, dealing a serious blow to any plausible deniability for Moscow.
This fact was an embarrassment for the Kremlin and directly contributed to new laws that prohibited military personnel from using geolocation services or posting pictures online during deployments.
Wagner’s Syria Comeback
Using PMCs for deniable military operations abroad has become an attractive option for Russia to achieve its goals. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the Middle East, particularly in Syria where Russian jets intervened on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in September 2015.
It is in Syria where the Wagner Group was born as the Slavonic Corps, a firm registered in Hong Kong in 2012 by employees of another Russian PMC, Moran Security Group. The Corps deployed to Syria in 2013, but after a disastrous defeat against Syrian rebels in the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor, it retreated home. Its leaders were then arrested for serving as mercenaries.
We can see several direct connections between the Slavonic Corps and the Wagner Group that run through Syria. An important one is Dmitriy Utkin, a Slavonic Corps and former GRU officer who became Wagner’s first commander. Like their predecessor, Wagner made its presence felt in eastern Syria, notably when clearing the ancient ruins of Palmyra of militants tied to the Islamic State (IS) in 2016.
We are also able to show a level of continuity in the Slavonic Corps’ oil field defense operations and later Wagner actions. Following a deal signed between the Russian and Syrian energy ministries, Evro Polis, a Prigozhin owned entity included in the agreement, used Wagner to capture occupied Syrian fields. However, in another ironic twist, Wagner mercenaries were decimated again when U.S fighter jets struck their positions after they attempted to advance on oilfields in Deir Ezzor.
Leading Russia’s return to Africa
President Putin made headlines in 2018 in Sochi when he hosted a summit with leaders from across Africa. Many observers interpreted this event as a signal that Russia was ready to invest new resources in rebuilding its presence in the continent following the Soviet Union’s collapse. In step with the Kremlin’s goals, Wagner began to make its way to Africa.
A Wagner contingent serves as the personal security force of the President of the Central African Republic (CAR) Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Further afield, Wagner provided training to Sudanese forces prior to the fall of former President Omar al-Bashir. They have also deployed to Mozambique for counterinsurgency operations.
A fact we highlight using our dashboard is that these deployments paralleled deals struck between the above countries and either Russia or a Prigozhin-connected entity.
Wagner’s largest theater of operation in Africa remains war-torn Libya where it supports the renegade general Khalifa Haftar. After deploying for combat operations against the UN-recognized Government of National Accords in Tripoli, Wagner was credited with restoring momentum to Haftar’s stalled offensive. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even used Wagner’s involvement as a justification for Turkey’s intervention in January 2020.
Like in the above cases, we see a connection with Prigozhin. The oligarch was spotted in photos and a video of a meeting between Haftar and Russian generals in late 2018, coinciding with media reports of transfers of military equipment to Haftar’s power base in eastern Libya and new energy deals for Russian companies.
On our map, we show how this arrangement fits into a pattern of Russian agreements with African leaders, a connection to Prigozhin, and a deployment of Wagner mercenaries to their nations.
From these connections, we can infer that there is a connection between the Wagner Group and Russian overseas objectives. More importantly, through mapping this series of connections, we can visualize the thinness of any plausible deniability claimed by Russia when Wagner mercenaries are acting in areas of interest to it.
Wagner’s foreign activities show the level of seriousness placed by the Kremlin on its success in places where it sees room for strategic gains. That said, it does also highlight the ambitions of Prigozhin and the relatively free rein Russian leaders allow him once his activities translate to advantages for Russia.
In our final segment, we will detail how Prigozhin’s commercial interests play a role in the Wagner Group’s foreign operations and how those relate to Russian foreign policy.