By Sean Crowley
On 27 July 2018, three Russian journalists – Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko – arrived in the Central African Republic. They were in country to film a documentary about the shadowy Russian private military firm the Wagner Group for the Information Control Center, an initiative bankrolled by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovskiy.
After unsuccessfully pursuing leads for the first few days of their trip, the team met up with a United Nations official on 30 July who promised them access to the Ndassima gold mine. The journalists hoped to come in contact with Wagner contractors at the mine, which is being developed by Lobaye Interest, a company owned by Russian businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin, with the protection of Wagner personnel. En route, ten unidentified assailants ambushed the journalists’ vehicle. The attackers reportedly spoke Arabic rather than French or Sango, the two dominant languages of the C.A.R. They killed all three reporters after attempting to steal their equipment.
Reports of the Wagner Group’s activities in Syria and Ukraine have demonstrated that the PMC is used in lieu of formal Russian forces in both these theatres, though the Kremlin does not seem to have full control over its actions. The deaths of these three journalists and the spotlight on Wagner’s presence in the C.A.R indicates a broadening of the use of PMCs to fulfil different roles where Russia exerts economic and military influence.
Wagner officially classifies itself as a private military company (PMC) even though such entities are illegal in the Russian Federation. As a result, Wagner is registered in Argentina. The upper echelons of the Russian government remain divided on what role PMCs should play in Russia’s national security policy. President Vladimir Putin has stated that they are “a way of implementing national interests without the direct involvement of the state”. In 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Rigozin proposed setting up PMCs with official state backing. However, in 2014 the Security Council shot down legislation proposed by the lawmaker Gennadiy Nosovko that would have legalized PMCs. Nosovko’s proposal was rejected because of pressure from the armed forces and security services, who believed that mercenaries would weaken their monopoly on violence.
Although Russian security services opposed the legalization of PMCs to prevent them from becoming too powerful, there is ample evidence that Russia’s military/intelligence apparatus relies on groups like Wagner to carry out deniable operations in Russia’s near abroad and beyond. Wagner’s founder, Dmitiry Utkin, maintains considerable connections to the Russian military given that he served as a commander in the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. Wagner has ties to the GRU and the Defense Ministry (MO). When Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, the GRU set aside a military compound in southern Russia to train Wagner mercenaries. The MO reportedly provides Wagner with everything from ammunition to food and even military airlifters to transfer its personnel in and out of Syria. It’s worth noting that the slain Russian journalists in the C.A.R. were denied access to a supposed Wagner training facility because they lacked MO credentials.
In both Ukraine and Syria, Wagner has performed offensive military operations that Russia would prefer not to use its own armed forces for. In Ukraine, Wagner fought on behalf of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), a Russian-backed separatist entity in the Donbas. According to Ukrainian security forces, Wagner has been involved in leadership changes in the LNR. In Syria, Wagner contractors fulfilled a diverse number of combat roles. For instance, they served on the frontlines against anti-Assad insurgents while active duty Russian special operators (spetsnaz) functioned mostly as combat air controllers or trainers. Wagner personnel also operated tanks, artillery, rockets, anti-air (AA) systems, and occasionally coordinated airstrikes. Given that mercenary service is still illegal under the Russian Criminal Code, using groups like Wagner for combat operations in Syria and Ukraine meant that Moscow did not have to officially declare any casualties.
Wagner’s close ties to the MO and the group’s involvement in deniable military operations on Russia’s behalf has led to speculation that it is directly connected to the Kremlin. This, however, is inconsistent with what appears to be miscommunication between the Russian military and Wagner during the PMC’s most high-profile military confrontation to date. In Syria in early February Wagner mercenaries attacked American and Kurdish forces to seize an oil field for Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the same businessman who owns Lobaye Interest operating in C.A.R, after he had negotiated a deal with the Syrian government to allow his company, Evro Polis, access to oil seized from the Islamic State (IS). It appears that Wagner did not consult with the MO before the assault, and the Russian air force did not support the mercenaries when they came under fire.
The firefight in Syria and Wagner’s presence in the C.A.R indicates that Wagner is used for both government military operations and to provide security for privately-owned corporations. In the C.A.R Russian corporations – and the government – seek to acquire deposits of gold, diamonds, and uranium in the country. And the group is moving into other parts of Africa as well. In Sudan, Wagner mercenaries also protected gold, diamond, and uranium mines. According to Jamestown Foundation fellow Sergey Sukhankin, the contractors were in country to “hammer out beneficial conditions for the Russian companies.” The mercenaries provided training for armed forces and national police in other countries that lack a significant Russian military or intelligence presence, including Libya and Sudan.
Wagner mercenaries serve both private and government interests in hazardous environments abroad. These interests are closely intertwined, and it is clear the group has at least the tacit blessing of the Kremlin. “We can assume the Kremlin gave the green light to Wagner’s activities in the CAR when the leadership of the country was visiting Russia (in May this year),” said defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer. “Without the approval of the Kremlin, Wagner would not be there.” The mercenaries are allowed to carry out their own activities so long as they recognize that the state has the ultimate monopoly on violence. From Syria to Ukraine to the African continent, the Wagner group fulfils different functions depending on Russian objectives. It’s unlikely the PMCs illegal status will prevent it from playing a pivotal role in Russian foreign policy any time soon.