The role of the Wagner mercenary group in the war in Ukraine has put an end to its former secrecy. Today, its founder, Prigozhin, is positioning himself as the de facto leader of the faction that opposes the military ‘establishment’. And many Russians even see him as a possible successor to Putin.
Before leaving on the African tour that took him to Gabon, Angola, Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Emmanuel Macron said that France would never again be a “scapegoat” for anyone. Almost everyone interpreted his words as an allusion to the withdrawal over the last year of French troops deployed in Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic in the midst of an intense anti-French campaign orchestrated, almost always, by the Kremlin. The Malian military junta – which received Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Bamako in January – expelled the French ambassador, while the Burkinabe junta stressed that “colonial times” had passed, demanding the dismantling of the French military base in Kamboinsé.
The UN stabilization mission in Mali has accused the security forces of systematic abuses against human rights, with the advice of “foreign security personnel”. It is a clear allusion to the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private army, whose operations in Africa have become an extension of Moscow’s foreign policy. Russia masters like few others the dark arts of political intrigue and the sale of arms to exchange them for lucrative contracts for the exploitation of natural resources: gold, diamonds, oil, wood, uranium… According to SIPRI, between 2010 and 2021 Russian arms exports to Africa tripled those of China, its second largest supplier.
Before leaving for Gabon, Macron said Wagner’s goal in Africa is to protect coup leaders and authoritarian regimes in exchange for a green light for their predatory operations in extractive sectors. According to Bloomberg, since its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has tripled its gold reserves, much of it coming from Sudan, where Meroe Gold, Wagner’s mining subsidiary, operates. His mercenaries helped the Omar al Bashir regime to suppress the 2019 protests that claimed a hundred lives of protesters in Khartoum.
end of secrecy
Wagner’s role in the war in Ukraine has put an end to his former secrecy. In February 2022, a report by The New York Times He pointed to Wagner as responsible for sending 400 mercenaries to kyiv to assassinate Volodimir Zelenski. Prigozhin no longer needs to hide. In the midst of the Battle of Bakhmut, he first admitted to being the founder of Wagner.
Financial Times he estimates that his foreign empire generated an income of $250 million in the four years before the war. According to Sorcha MacLeod, a researcher advising the UN on mercenary issues, Wagner provides the Kremlin with a plausible alibi for denying his involvement in clandestine operations abroad.
Wagner’s co-founder, Dmitry Utkin, named the organization after a favorite German composer at the top of the Third Reich. Utkin’s body is covered in tattoos of Nazi symbols. Indeed, some analysts compare Wagner to the SA, the first Nazi militarized group to create its own titles and ranks for its 4.5 million brownshirts.
The SA played a crucial role in Hitler’s rise to power, who got rid of them in the Night of the Long Knives murders between June 30 and July 1, 1934. Their boss, Ernst Röhm, recruited , like Progozhin, to members of the SA in gallows environments.
Prigozhin himself served nine years in prison for assault and robbery before taking control of a luxury restaurant chain in Saint Petersburg that caught the eye of Vladimir Putin, who awarded him contracts to provide catering services to the army, hospitals and schools.
Today Prigozhin criticizes Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine, for denying him ammunition. In an unusual public response, the Russian Defense Ministry has denied the allegations, criticizing Prigozhin for “aiding the enemy” by harming the unity of Russian forces.
Wagner would not have been able to recruit prisoners – including murderers and rapists – in Russian prisons without the express authorization of Putin, the only one who, according to the Constitution, can grant pardons and amnesties. Dmitri Kiznets, Russian digital media analyst jellyfishbelieves that Prigozhin is positioning himself as a leader de facto of the faction that opposes the establishment military. Mikhail Zygar points out in The New York Times that many Russians see Prigozhin as a possible successor to Putin, who, in turn, is using him to counterbalance the power of the military.
the price of freedom
The fate of Prigozhin will depend on the outcome of the battle of Bakhmut, which has become a Stalingrad in Donbas due to the determination of both sides to sacrifice troops for a town of limited strategic value, but of great symbolic value. Zelensky has said that he will continue to send reinforcements to Bakhmut.
The British Ministry of Defense estimates that Wagner has 50,000 mercenaries deployed in Ukraine, most of them ex-convicts who, after two weeks of military training, are sent by their commanders in waves of suicide attacks against Ukrainian positions.
Prigozhin has described these missions as “meat grinders”, which are claiming triple-digit daily casualties, an affordable cost, he says, because their objective is not territorial, but to decimate units that could be fighting in other sectors of the front. In a video circulating online, Prigozhin is seen in a Russian penal colony telling inmates that he needed their “criminal talent” to eliminate Russia’s enemies and that, in exchange, they could “get married, study, run a dignified life…”.
Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyzes in Washington writes in The Washington Post that Kiev’s strategy of denying Russia a symbolic victory at Bakhmut does not favor their plans because in a war of attrition, Moscow has the time and the human and material resources on its side. Russia has not yet used its full conventional arsenal, nor declared full resource mobilization.
Two Wagner fighters captured by Ukrainian forces revealed to journalists from The Washington Post that, in exchange for six months on the front lines, Wagner guarantees them the annulment of their convictions, $1,700 a month, $1,200 bonuses for capturing enemy positions, and $80,000 life insurance in the event of death in combat.
Violations of the terms of the contract are paid with life. On one occasion, they say, they saw 400 of their companions die in 72 hours of failed attempts to take Krásná Hora. On at least one occasion, one of the men from his unit was arrested for disobeying orders. They never saw him again.
According to Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars, thousands of them have begun returning to their hometowns after fulfilling their contracts with Wagner laden with medals, money, expungement documents, military training and slim job prospects.
the oldest trade
Mercenaries are as old as war. The first allusions to the use of mercenaries go back to ancient Egypt, when around the year 1500 a. C., Ramses II employed 18,000 Nubians, Hittites and Philistines in his conquests, to whom he paid with what they looted. Except for his senior officers, Hannibal’s Carthaginian forces in the Punic wars against Rome were made up of mercenaries from all over the Mediterranean.
In the 15th century, Swiss mercenaries became renowned for their bravery on the battlefield, until their formations became vulnerable to artillery. In the China of the warlords (1916-1928), English and American mercenaries –Homer Lea, Philo Norton, Morris Cohen…– became rich serving the military cliques of Canton, Sichuan or Guangxi.
In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the contractors of Blackwater intervened, founded in 1997 by Erik Dean Prince and Al Clark to offer external services to the Pentagon. In 2004, four of them were killed and their bodies hung from a Fallujah bridge, sparking a battle in that Iraqi city that claimed the lives of 107 coalition soldiers and 1,350 Iraqi insurgents.
In 2007, Blackwater was charged with the murder of 17 civilians in an operation in Iraq. Canada’s Garda World, for its part, hires former members of British and European special forces to provide logistical support to oil multinationals in countries like Nigeria. In Libya in 2021, according to Bloomberg, his contractors participated in the siege of Sirte that ended with the capture and assassination of Muammar Gaddafi.
These times are propitious for the so-called soldiers of fortune. Three weeks after returning to St. Petersburg after completing his contract, one of the prisoners enrolled by Wagner in a Krasnoyark prison told Russia Behind Bars that he was preparing to return to the front. “Civilian life is very boring”, he justified himself.