So, who is Wagner and what is Wagner all about. What benefit does Wagner provide to Russia and the Russian Federation, and how does it serve the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Military, and of course how does it serve Russian President Vladimir Putin? For years, Wagner Group was shrouded in secrecy.
The Wagner Group, officially known as PMC Wagner mean Wagner Private Military Company or Contractor, is a Russian state-funded paramilitary organization. In certain cases and situations outside Russia, it could serve as a mercenary forces or provide individual mercenaries for countries or non-governmental organizations, and or even private companies and corporations around the world. And it has. Wagner is a private military company (PMC) comprised of mercenaries (former/ex-military, convicts and men rough enough to handle it) and has been described as a de facto private army of Russian President Vladimir Putin's former close ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, who addresses Putin affectionately as “Poppa.” The group operates beyond and outside the law in Russia, where private military companies are officially forbidden. However, because it operates in support of Russian interests, Wagner Group is funded and receives training, equipment, munitions and weapons from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and uses MoD installations for training. In addition, but not official confirmed, the Wagner Group is reported to be a de facto unit of the MoD or Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, equivalent to the U.S.’ Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). While the Wagner Group itself is not ideologically driven, there are some elements of Wagner are linked to neo-Nazism and far-right extremism - such as Wagner’s Deputy Commander and former Spetsnaz Lt Col and Wagner’s founder Dmitry Utkin, a veteran of the First and Second Chechen Wars in southern Russia and Syria. In 2021, the origin of the name "Wagner" came to be known that it came from Utkin's own call-sign, "Wagner" after the historically famous German composer Richard Wagner. Utkin is said to have chosen due to his passion and like for Wagner as composer.
As I’ve previously written regarding various types of military strategy, particularly when it comes to highly secret clandestine/covert operations and missions, it is widely speculated that the Wagner Group was used by the Russian military because it provided Russia “plausible deniability” and also provide the opportunity to hide the true casualties counts and financial costs of Russia's foreign involvement and interventions (which I will address later in this piece). Wagner was envisioned in 2013 and looked at as a battalion. Again, it was founded in 2014 by former Spetsnaz and GRU officer Lt Col Utkin and Russian businessman and close friend of Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Wagner came to prominence during the Donbas War in Ukraine, where it helped pro-Russian separatist forces from 2014 to 2015. However, over the same course of time Wagner contractors have also taken part in conflicts around the world, including the civil wars in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Rwanda, and Mali, often fighting on the side of forces aligned with the Russian government and allies. Wagner operatives have developed a reputation of hardcore brutal and ruthless fighters and in turn have been accused of committing war crimes including murder, torture, rape, and robbery of civilians, as well as torturing accused deserters and terrorists.
For years, it had long been reported that Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, known by and referred to by many as "Putin's Chef,” because of his catering businesses that hosted dinners for Vladimir Putin attended and foreign dignitaries, had links with Wagner and Utkin personally. As a businessman Prigozhin was said to be the main funder and providing financial support and because of that the ‘actual owner’ of the Wagner Group. For a long time, Prigozhin denied any link with Wagner, for security reasons and to avoid its actual legitimate existence until September 2022, when he admitted having co-founded the group in a social media post. Prigozhin claimed, "I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself, and found specialists with the skills who could help me with building this organization.
Wagner Group has played a significant role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for which it recruited prison inmates from Russia for frontline combat. By the 2022 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its strength had grown from 1,000 to between 20,000 and perhaps 50,000, but that is unconfirmed. In 2023, Russia granted combat veteran status to Wagner contractors who took part in the invasion of Ukraine. Recent intelligence reports have indicated that Wagner’s actually ranks are down to 8,000 to 15,000 fighters, as a result of attrition and battlefield casualties in Syria and over the past 16-months of fighting in Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
As I noted, prior to 2022, Prigozhin had denied association or involvement directly with Wagner, but finally admitted being the leader of Wagner in September 2022. By then, Prigozhin began to openly criticize the Russian MoD for what he claimed was mishandling the war against Ukraine, culminating on 23 June 2023, and complaints of lack of logistical support; inadequate arms and ammunition from the Russian MoD for his forces to fight effectively in Ukraine, particularly in the battle for Bakhmut.
Again, as has been stated the media and political pundits, albeit incorrectly, Prigozhin launched what many in the media claim to have been an armed rebellion after accusing the Russian military of killing Wagner soldiers in an unconfirmed missile strike. As a result, Wagner units withdrew many of its forces from Ukraine and moved by road to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and the location of Russian’s Southern Military Command this past Friday and Saturday. Again, as noted, many, if not most in the mainstream media continue to claim Prigozhin seized the Russia regional command headquarters, but of course these so-called journalists are writing off a politically biased scripted narrative. Everyone needs to realize these reporters and journalists never served in the military or have an effective understand of complex asymmetric situations – they literally have no idea what they’re talking about. What actually occurred is that Prigozhin went into the Army Headquarters and sat down for several hours to address his concerns with Russian Colonel General Sergey Kuzovlev and his staff, as well as Sergei Shoigu, Commander and Chief of the Russian Armed Forces. While in the meeting, a sizable number of Prigozhin’s vehicle convoy and troops waited parked outside. Wagner did not take-over the Headquarters in Rostov, despite what many are trying to claim. Most of those reporting, coming from reporters and journalists from thousands of miles away, via other mainstream media wire reports, do not have the experienced and are confused and have both a noticeable misunderstanding and certainly a naïve perception of military movements, operations, actions, tactics and strategy. They automatically tend to jump to inaccurate, misguided, and at times, as in this situation present emotional and insanely hyperbolic conclusions.
While Prigozhin talked and negotiated with the general staff, a small contingent of Wagner forces in a convoy supposedly headed north, towards Moscow over 700 miles away. And of course, as expected, the moronic media reporters and clueless political pundits who know nothing about conflict, coups, revolts, rebellions, or insurrections, obviously -- grasped for straws at the idea and assumption that this small contingent was heading to Moscow was doing so to overthrow Putin. Again, a knee-jerk reaction and position showing how totally clueless they are about what it would entail and require overthrowing the Russian Federation and Putin. But the relatively modest convoy was apparently ordered to halt between the cities of Vorontsovka and Voronezh on Highway M4. But following the halt and as a result of the negotiated agreement by Belarus President Alexandr Lukashenko, a close and trusted friend to Putin. It appears, at this point, that the halt resulted in the Wagner troop convoy making left turn and heading west on the highway to Belarus. Still to be determined - with the question being, are these Wagner forces moving to Minsk, Belarus to serve under Prigozhin, as a result of his exile to Minsk, Belarus.
Realize, for Wagner Group, being a private military force of about 8,000 to 15,000 or so, that has been fighting in Ukraine for the last year, is certainly not the force capable of suddenly doing a quick turn to redeploy on a 1,000+ mile road trip, to conduct a coup against Putin and the Russian Federation. Certainly, with limited supplies and assets, no opportunity to rest and refit – this was a non-starter. Secondly, Prigozhin never made the call for a coup against Putin. Again, we understand the premise, Prigozhin was angry with the Russian Generals over ammo supplies and a supposed accidental missile strike, although still unconfirmed. If so, likely friendly fire or an errant missile that killed and wounded a number of Wagner forces. Prigozhin reportedly went public, albeit on social media, or at least it was reported and commented on in social media -- which Putin took as a betrayal. Realize, Prigozhin would still be selling sausages if it wasn't for Putin. But in Putin's mind, he crossed the line and called for his exile in Belarus as negotiated and brokered by Lukashenko on Saturday. I might take this opportunity to add that there is a very close relationship between Prigozhin, General Shoigu, and President Lukashenko and Putin.
At this point, although still unconfirmed, the question is what is the disposition of the Wagner Group? What will become of it and what does the future hold for the private military company. On Sunday, we learned that at least some of Wagner’s forces are to be inducted into the Russian Army. Almost immediately, the Russian MOD reportedly began enlisting many of Wagner’s forces, making them sign enlistment contracts with the Russian Army. Perhaps a way to dissolve Wagner and transfer their best trained and most experience into the Russian military. Remember, while Wagner was not a line Russian Army unit, it was a private and autonomous military contractor, that's been around for less than ten-years and totally dependent on the MOD for beans and bullets, but there remain benefits for the MOD. As noted, Russia originally used Wagner as a "force for denial" to give Russia deniability in sensitive situations.
At its peak, Wagner had upwards of 50K forces. In addition to normal wartime attrition in combat, it should be noted that the U.S. actually contributed to reducing that number in Syria in 2018 by wiping out 500 Wagner troops in one day. After Wagner engaged U.S. special operations forces, President Trump sternly asked Putin "were these your guys?" Putin lied, denying it, so Trump said fine, I'll take care of that, and he ordered Wagner’s liquidation. In Ukraine, over the last year, Wagner had over 20K casualties - KIAs. For Russia, that number doesn't officially count against the Russian Army and Russian military casualties in Ukraine. As a result, Wagner Group’s numbers are down to somewhere between 8,000 to 15,000 or so. That number is nowhere near what would be needed to conduct a coup, as well as sustain and control the Russian Federation. On top of that there was no popular support of the people of Russia, support of the Russian Armed Forces, or outside support from major countries around the world.
If Wagner is subsumed into the Russian Army or dissolved, the loss to Putin and the Russian Army is defining the "real benefit” Wagner provided to Russia. That benefit certainly need to be more than "non accountable cannon fodder” aka, its loses did not count officially as part of the body count of the Russian military. Russia did used Wagner as a denial weapon in other countries, but Russia can always get around that requirement. It was a force-multiplier without the consequences for Russia, until now. Again, one of the reason Russia tried to keep Wagner a secret. Realize until this past weekend, most of the world had never heard of Wagner Group. Wagner had no public prestige or notoriety as a valiant fighting force -- they were known only as a PMC made-up of some pretty tough member, convicts, and thugs recruited out of Russia's prisons. They didn’t carry the distinction and valor of the French Foreign Legion, or even the distinction of Blackwater which draws from former, mostly U.S. special operations forces (SF, Rangers, Spec Air War, or SEALs)
Wagner's effectiveness pretty much speaks for itself. A secondary benefit, not thought of, but that being that most of Wagner’s conscripts, its fighters are criminals, they’re off the streets of Russia in one way or another. Putin knows the benefit of Wagner, so overall he’s likely satisfied to have Prigozhin in charge of the responsibility he has had leading Wagner. At this time the court is out on this aspect. One other option perhaps was in play – was this a rouse, a deception to move Wagner to Minsk, in Belarus which only on 270 miles from Minsk to Kiev … or around 50 miles from the Belarus-Ukraine border to Kiev. That is an unknown and will likely remain so for now, certainly something that need not be revealed, but opens a second front for Ukraine to defend against.
There is also the strategic question that comes to mind, does Putin really need Wagner Group? The answer is no -- especially when its leadership's sloppiness causes a national-level crisis with international attention, especially in the media and with still yet unknow implications, especially for Putin, as well as I postulated a hidden agenda. As a result, Prigozhin became an irritant for Putin, at least as he has been painted. And Putin has remained quiet on that aspect. We only know this because that what was brokered by Lukashenko and the fact that Prigozhin arrived in Minsk in the early morning hours on Monday and stay at the Green Hotel. Remember 99.9% of the world before Friday had never heard of Wagner, let alone who Prigozhin was. Propaganda and disinformation put forth by the pro-Ukraine and western mainstream media is literally trying to make Wagner out to be a force equal to a superpower with the implication that Putin's days are numbered. That in and of itself shows both their hypocrisy and biased against Vladimir Putin by the west and the western media.
I continue to believe, in an asymmetric world we are dealing with, military entities such as Wagner have both a place and a role from a strategic military perspective. However, I also pose a very serious and pointed question – if Wagner alone was that good -- as the mainstream media and the political pundits, and even national security and military experts over the last several days, have led people believe -- that Wagner was pushing a coup to topple Vladimir Putin, here’s what I need to see. Give me ALL the facts and show me that Wagner has the ability, capability, and capacity to stage an effect coup to topple Putin and the Russian Federation. Lay it all on the table. If they are that capable and powerful, why haven't they marched into Kiev and toppled Zelensky. Why? If they were that good, I can assure you Putin would have given Wagner Group all arms and equipment they needed if he KNEW Wagner was capable of pulling-off the fall of Kiev and Ukraine. I can assure you that. In the end and certainly to the contrary that the pro-Ukraine west wishes to believe – Putin comes out of this strengthened. There is much more to follow on Wagner Group, and particularly Prigozhin. Can things get more interesting?
Jim Waurishuk, Colonel, USAF (Ret.)
Retired USAF Colonel, serving 30-years as a Tactical Air Control Party (TAC-P), Special Reconnaissance, and Special Mission Strategic Intelligence Officer to multiple Tier 1 units as part of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and USSOCOM. Served as Chief, Psychological Operations - Strategic Influence JCS/National Command Authority. Served as Deputy Director for Intelligence U.S. Central Command, and on the White House National Security Council (NSC) staff. Former Chairman, Hillsborough County Republican Party and the Republican Party of Florida Executive Board. Chairman, Program on Fifth Generation Warfare.