What is Wagner?

Alan Cai

June 30, 2023

The Russian Federation is no Soviet Union. Whilst the former USSR could field over thirty million soldiers during the second world war, the modern Russian military numbers under 2 million personnel. The depleted state of modern Russia is the reason why a private military contractor army of 25,000 troops was able to march within 125 miles of Russia’s capital, Moscow.

Although the origins of the Wagner Group are murky, it was likely founded a decade ago by Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian army officer who had a history of working with paramilitary organizations. Utkin reportedly is a Nazi sympathizer who named the Wagner Group in honor of Richard Wagner, whose music and ideas were admired by Hitler and used as justification for his evil ideas. Utkin has not appeared publicly since at least 2016.

In the latter half of 2022, Russian Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that he was, in fact, the founder of Wagner, leading to more speculation surrounding the organization’s origins. Prigozhin, prior to his attempted coup, was a close confidant of Putin and owned several food companies. His close relations with the Russian president and personal catering to the Kremlin and Russian military have led to the somewhat unflattering nickname, “Putin’s Chef.” In his late teenage years and early adulthood, Prigozhin was convicted of robbery and spent nearly a decade behind bars. Following his release, he started grocery and restaurant chains that bloomed into his business empire today. Prigozhin has also acknowledged his role in leading Russian efforts to interfere in US elections through his key role in the Internet Research Agency, a Russian propaganda agency designed for the aforementioned purposes. Due to the numerous questionable business practices and connections, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project named him the Corrupt Person of the Year in 2022.

Regardless of whether he actually founded the organization, Prigozhin is the current de facto leader of the Wagner Group. Despite private military companies being legally forbidden in Russia, the Wagner Group was allowed to operate under several convoluted circumstances. The group technically serves as a private paramilitary organization working on its own accord. In reality, it is deeply ingrained into the fabric of the Russian armed forces and is employed such that Russian officials are able to plausibly deny any Russian involvement in conflicts despite directly supporting them. Thus, the group is often deployed in regions in which the Russian government wishes not to be directly involved yet holds a vested interest in taking a side.

The Wagner Group is headed by Prigozhin and operates with Russia’s central spy agency, the GRU. Conflicts the Wagner Group is known to have been involved in include the Illegal Annexation of Crimea, the War in the Donbas, the Syrian Civil War, the War in South Sudan, and the Central African Republic Civil War among others. Most recently, its inhumane conduct of warfare and extrajudicial executions in the Russo-Ukraine War have caught much public attention. With the failed coup and subsequent near-bloodless retreat, the Wagner Group has been propelled into the international spotlight. More details and analysis of the future of Russia will be published next week.