Putin’s Not-So-Secret Mercenaries: Patronage, Geopolitics, and the Wagner Group

The excellent American think tank “the Carnegie Endowment” has published a valuable analysis of the secret Wagner Group. It shows how Russia is taking an increasingly heavy-handed approach to geopolitics and conducts its operations stealthily. The author, urges governments to be transparent and let the public know about the atrocities committed by the Private Military Company (PMC). By doing so, governments will fight human right abuses effectively and at low costs.

Nathaniel Reynolds – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – July 8, 2019

Original Publication

Secret action

The publication shows that the infamous group is the product of covert operations. The Russian military needed a secret tool and started using the Wagner Group as a consequence of a trial-and-error process. It is surprising for those accustomed to conventional PMCs to understand that this company is the result of an improvisation by the Russian military,. Still, many commentators still misunderstand Wagner and keep referring to Western counterparts such as Academi, or DynCorp International, which fundamentally differ in their relation to public authorities.

The first occurrence of future Wagner Group was an operation in Ukraine back in 2014, conducted by “little green men”. These irregular troops were former members of the Russian intelligence service. They were led by Dmitry Utkin, a former member of the Russian special forces related to the GRU, the Russian military intelligence. When Russia needed a covert operation in Syria, the Wagner Group came in quite handy. Based on secret services, Russia developed a private company serving as a subsidiary of the state, without it being possible to attribute its actions to Russian public institutions.

A crucial point to understand the secrecy of the group around Yevgeniy Prigozhin is its financial and legal structure. Putin can be seen as leading two different kinds of political entities: One fits into the conventional definition of statehood, while the other is opaque, with no clear legal structure and hidden finances. The way it recruits its troops, it trains them and pays them is unknown.

Looking at Wagner’s presence in Africa, the author explains that the company has again transformed spontaneously, displaying the Russian ability to change quickly. The company intervened for the first time in areas in which no war was waged. The leitmotiv is to be able to deny Russian presence while acting as soon as a power vacuum emerges.

Despite the secret, Wagner fails at making significant strategic gains for Russia. The group’s operation are cheap, but far from being as efficient as conventional peace-keeping.

The article gives some recommendations for governments. It highlights the risks Wagner poses for western democracy. It could launch a stealth war against governments and try to destabilize societies. Therefore, it is crucial for western states to fight the secretive nature of Wagner’s operations. Only by shedding light on the human right violations and endeavors to manipulate foreign countries can we stop the savagery and brutality.

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