Ride of the Valkyries: Wagner Group and the logic of Russia’s arm’s-length foreign policy

By Miranda Lupion

Boasting a net worth of a billion rubles, “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin has a proverbial finger in all the pies. The food and beverage mogul, whose catering company regularly prepares caviar for presidential summits, also founded the infamous Internet Research Agency (AKA the troll factory). Numerous outlets report that he is now seeking to expand his portfolio with two Petersburg-based news sites: Delovoi Petersburg and Fontanka.

While Prigozhin may simply recognize the value of media investments. However, his motivation for acquiring Fontanka likely runs deeper. In October 2015, the outlet began its extensive reporting on the Wagner Private Military Company (PMC), an elite and secretive mercenary unit that fought alongside Russian forces in Crimea, Donbass and most recently Syria. Prigozhin has financial ties to the company, the existence of which is ostensibly illegal under a Russian law that bans PMCs.

Yegveny Prigozhin

Registered in Argentina, Wagner PMC has training camps in Molkino, Krasnodar, which have prepared more than 2,000 private fighters, most of whom are Russian combat veterans. The organization lacks a paper trail, with the exception of the state-awarded Order of Courage that its members have received. Although connected to Prigozhin, the details of Wager’s financing are blurry; there are unofficial reports that Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) manages the group, while others assert it is a private organization operating with the president’s consent. A September Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) report sheds light on the subject, claiming to possess evidence that proves the Kremlin is writing at least part of the check for the venture. According to the SBU, in 2017 the organization’s state funding increased by 185 million rubles. Wagner also outfits its mercenaries with advanced and expensive weaponry, such as Vystrel tanks and Kornet missiles in Syria, the use of which likely indicates government support.

Financially speaking, Wagner is not a cost-saving venture for the Kremlin. Earning 250,000 rubles a month, Wagner’s soldiers in Syria make more than seven times than the monthly wage of the average Russian (32,122 rubles or $437 as of January 2016). For comparison, in 2015, a Russian service member earned an average monthly salary of 62,000 rubles. This number differs based on rank, but even senior general lieutenants take home only 117,000 rubles a month. Meanwhile, soldiers in the Donetsk People’s Republic forces or the Luhansk People’s Republic forces reportedly make just 15,000 a month – barely enough for cigarettes, toiletries and a cellphone.

Put simply, Wagner PMC’s per capita human resource costs are considerably more expensive than that of the Russian services. However, in Ukraine the steep price yielded political returns. Deploying Wagner troops in Crimea and Donbass allowed the Russian government to plausibly deny its involvement in these conflicts, with mercenaries masquerading as “polite people” or “little green men”. But why did the Kremlin call on this costly force in Syria, a war in which the Russian presence is public?

Characteristic of the chef’s handiwork, Wagner’s seasoned fighters have masked bitter violence and unpalatable causalities in Syria…

In Syria, Wagner represents a different breed of political investment. In the run-up to the 2018 presidential elections, PMCs allow the Kremlin to avoid publishing high casualty rates and thus fully disclosing the cost of the conflict. As of early November, the government has recorded only 41 Russian combat deaths in Syria. However, a document from the Russian Consulate in Damascus dated 4 October establishes that in the first nine months of 2017, a minimum of 131 Russian citizens died in Syria, not distinguishing them as military personnel. The notice fails to explain what brought these individuals to Syria, noting only that their cause of death was “charring of the body”. Reuters has independently confirmed that at least 26 worked for Wagner. Along the same lines, the Russian Ministry of Defense denies that any of its soldiers have gone missing in Syria – yet two Russians, identifying themselves as servicemen, were recently captured in an ISIS video. Independent analysts have linked them to Wagner.

These casualty figures correspond with the deadly operations which Wagner soldiers undertake – for instance, serving as shock troops during the first and second Palmyra offenses. In fact, Wagner forces engage in the very ground combat missions which Russia’s operation in Syria eschewed. The campaign, which began in September 2015, endeavored to limit Russian ground force involvement, instead focused on aiding Syrian troops with blitz air campaigns. State TV broadcasts strategically showcase Russian troops bombing ISIS strongholds and delivering humanitarian relief to Syrian orphans, but before the cameras roll, Wagner PMC fighters have allegedly been quietly undertaking missions to clear the way for these more domestically palatable operations.

This secrecy is understandable. Historically, Moscow’s land wars, from Chechnya to Afghanistan, have cost the country its citizens and politicians their votes, catalyzing the very protests and instability that Putin fears most. The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan lasted nearly a decade and ended the lives of 14,500 Soviet soldiers. A declassified CIA assessment traces the conflict’s domestic backlash that, coupled with Gorbachev’s reforms and tremors from the ethnic republics, arguably fuelled the Soviet Union’s collapse. More recently, the first Chechen war generated an estimated 40,000 civilian casualties and accelerated Yeltsin’s demise, as his approval rating plummeted from 85 percent in 1992 to 30 percent in 1994.

By minimizing official causality statistics, the government hopes to prevent the public from drawing parallels between these two wars and the ongoing Syrian intervention. Even so, Russians are growing weary of the Kremlin’s adventures abroad. A Levada survey conducted in August 2017 found that 49 percent of those polled believe Russia should end military operations there. 32 percent think the conflict could turn into a new Afghanistan, and only 11 percent say it “definitely won’t”. Moscow, sensitive to public opinion in this domain, is winding down Russia’s presence there; state press releases claim that Assad controls 95 percent of Syrian territory, and the Ministry of Defense has discussed reducing Russian air support. And, at the tail end of the war, Putin’s approval rating still stands at 82 percent. Characteristic of the chef’s handiwork, Wagner’s seasoned fighters have masked bitter violence and unpalatable causalities in Syria – evidence that the Kremlin’s investment has paid its political dividends.

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