Russian President Vladimir Putin has been working diligently to restore what he sees as his country’s rightful place among the global powers after decades of absence on the world stage due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. An important component of this strategy has been Russia’s use of private military companies (PMC) to push its interests abroad.
This post is the first part of a series about the Russian PMCs. It maps out the main agents involved and the connections between them and features a video of the process. The second blog post illustrates the nexus between one particular Russian PMC - The Wagner group, and the foreign policy objectives of Russia. The third article focuses on Wagner's leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his behind the scenes operations. And the final installment reveals the connections between Russia's African allies and the hidden influence groups of Prigozhin.
Even with information about some of their activities remaining elusive, journalists and analysts have done impressive work recording their whereabouts and goings-on. Still, none have been as well-documented as the infamous Wagner Group run by the Putin-connected oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The amount of investigation devoted to Wagner alone is large and the information available matches it in size. Using reKnowledge’s mapping software, we are able to highlight important findings, not just about Wagner but other Russian PMCs, that are based entirely on accessible open-source intelligence.
Who makes up the Russian PMC universe
Like their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom, Russian PMCs draw their personnel from across the country’s security and military services.
Special forces veterans and reservists of Russia’s elite units make up many of the PMCs’ contractors. These formations include the Federal Security Service (FSB)’s Vympel unit, military Spetsnaz troops, and former Russian law enforcement. Many PMCs are similarly led by veterans of Russia’s sprawling security apparatus; four separate PMC companies - RSB Group, Moran, ENOT Corps, and Anti-Terror Orel alone were founded by or are led by FSB veterans for instance.
We found several interesting trends and connections that do well to highlight not just the nexus linking the Russian security services and various PMCs, but also the effect of these affiliations on their missions.
In this video, you can see how we consolidated and mapped out all available information to reach our conclusions:
Lubyanka and The Aquarium
As mentioned above, veteran soldiers and intelligence officers make up the majority of Russian PMCs’ ranks. Beyond leading and fighting for them, these compositions, when mapped out, show indications of how these contractors are being used.
Those with more connections to the FSB do veer toward largely typical private security work that parallels their counterparts in the West. For instance, Moran Security Group is listed as a member of several international industry associations and other PMCs have been contracted by Russian companies to protect personnel in hotspots such as Iraq.
The FSB is the official regulator of private security work in Russia, even as private military companies remain prohibited by law. However, connections to the FSB may play a part in obtaining licensing for private security work for these firms.
Wagner was not founded by FSB veterans, though. Instead, it was the brainchild of the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), allegedly drawing inspiration from Eeben Barlow’s famed PMC Executive Outcomes. Its owner, known as “Putin’s Chef”, is Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is associated with the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). And one of Wagner’s leaders is Dmitriy Utkin, a veteran of the GRU Spetsnaz and a commander with Wagner’s predecessor, the Slavonic Corps.
Those connections to the GRU has been important for Wagner to operate effectively. Thanks to the amount of openly available information from reporting by Russian and Western outlets, including Bellingcat, we can portray overlaps between the GRU and the quasi-legal Wagner.
Located near the southern Russian locality of Molkino, journalists and researchers identified a base for the Wagner Group through leaked documents, interviews with fighters, and social media posts. Wagner’s neighbor at Molkino? The 10th Special Purpose Brigade of the GRU.
Bellingcat identified another connection through passport records of Wagner fighters that were issued by Central Migration Office Unit 770001. They previously revealed that this was the same office that issued the passports for two of the GRU officers involved in the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal in March 2018 in London.
The St. Petersburg Connection
In our mapping of Wagner’s connections with the GRU and Prigozhin, we identified an interesting series of connections that run through St. Petersburg.
President Putin was born in the city, and he also served as a deputy mayor during the 1990s there. It is known that his cadre from those years remained a part of his inner circle. Prigozhin, too, came from St. Petersburg where he met Putin. What's more, several of his enterprises are located there, including Concord Management and Catering as well as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).
The connections between Wagner, Prigozhin, and St. Petersburg do not end here. Reuters reported in January that the Sogaz International Medical Centre was treating wounded Wagner fighters, including a commander named Andrey Troshev. This particular hospital is owned by Vladislav Baranov, who has a business relationship with Maria Vorontsova, President Putin’s eldest daughter.
St Petersburg also serves as a transit point for the Wagner Group. Several fighters with passports issued by Unit 770001 at the Central Migration Office traveled from or through St. Petersburg en route to Pashkovsky Airport, Krasnodar Krai’s main airport, which is also a short drive away from the Wagner base at Molkino.
There is plenty that remains unknown about the Wagner Group and other Russian contractors, but there is enough available to put together inferences explaining how they function.
The investigative community in the West and Russia that has made all of this information available deserves recognition. Thanks to them, we can actively portray the overlapping connections between Russian elites, PMCs, and security services to better understand their activities today.
In the next post of the series, we will explore how those companies finance their operations and the network of individuals and other institutions involved in it.