Russian soldiers line up in front of their commander at the Russian military base of Hmeimim, located south-east of the city of Latakia in Hmeimim, Latakia Governorate, Syria, on September 26, 2019. - With military backing from Russia, President Bashar al-Assad's forces have retaken large parts of Syria from rebels and jihadists since 2015, and now control around 60 percent of the country. Russia often refers to troops it deployed in Syria as military advisers even though its forces and warplanes are also directly involved in battles against jihadists and other rebels (Photo by Maxime POPOV / AFP) (Photo credit should read MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images)

By Neil Hauer

After a deadly debacle in Syria, Vladimir Putin has put the Wagner Group in its place—but plenty of other private security firms remain, and they could pose a threat to security in Russia and beyond.

he Russian firm Wagner Group, a shadowy mercenary outfit waging secret wars on the Kremlin’s behalf from Ukraine to Syria to the Central African Republic, seems like something from a Tom Clancy novel.

Born out of a need for plausible deniability in Moscow’s military operations abroad, Wagner contractors were at the forefront of some of the heaviest fighting in eastern Ukraine and Syria in recent years before exploding into the headlines with their brazen assault on a U.S. military position in northeast Syria in February 2018.

Wagner seemed to herald a new reality, one in which it would form the spearhead of an aggressive new Russian policy abroad. But Wagner may be less influential than it seems.

The past few months have been filled with revelations about the group’s reversal of fortune. On July 28, an investigation by the Russian independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta revealed that three Russian military contractors killed in central Syria in mid-June were not Wagner employees but part of another such firm, called Shield.

The casualties were the first confirmed non-Wagner-linked Russian contractors killed in the country, a fact made more significant by their presence in the central Syrian desert, heretofore one of Wagner’s primary operations zones in Syria: The group played a pivotal role in capturing (and then recapturing) Palmyra and Deir Ezzor in 2016 and 2017.

If another Russian private military contractor apparently muscling in on Wagner’s turf was not enough, another report the following day painted the group in an unflattering light.

Meduza, a Russian independent news portal, spoke with one of the Russian contractors deployed to Venezuela. When a group of contractors arrived in the country in January, it was widely reported that they were Wagner mercenaries, sent to the country to shore up Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s rule in the face of sustained mass protests.

Some Western analysts, not unreasonably, took the move to be an indication of Wagner’s growing status as a Kremlin policy instrument to militarily bolster a key allied regime whose survival was in serious doubt, furthering Moscow’s foreign interests while remaining at arm’s length.

The Meduza report suggested the opposite. Their source, a Wagner employee, revealed that he and his fellow contractors had served merely as security guards for Rosneft office buildings in Caracas during an unremarkable yearlong posting.

Other interviewees, including a longtime Wagner employee, confirmed that Wagner itself has played no role in Venezuela, contrary to initial reports.

The outfit has reportedly hemorrhaged experienced veterans to several other such groups, including the firms Shield and Patriot, in recent months, while it has lost its autonomy in decision-making and has been downgraded to guard duty in Syria.

Wagner has become a shell of its former self, having had its wings clipped by the Kremlin after the February 2018 debacle and its most valuable personnel stripped away by competitors.

Wagner’s confrontation with U.S. troops in Deir Ezzor in February 2018 marked the beginning of the end for the firm.

Wagner’s confrontation with U.S. troops in Deir Ezzor in February 2018 marked the beginning of the end for the firm.

On Feb. 7, 2018, roughly 600 Wagner contractors, armed with tanks and artillery, launched an assault on a position of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a largely Kurdish militia force that had worked closely with the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, in northeast Syria.

What they may not have known is that U.S. advisors were embedded with the unit and promptly called for air support.

Wagner forces nevertheless maintained the assault for a full four hours, during which they were hammered by U.S. artillery, airstrikes, helicopters, and even an AC-130 gunship.

When the dust cleared, an estimated 300 of the 600 Russians were dead or wounded, in the first direct battle between Washington’s and Moscow’s forces since the Vietnam War.

The most astonishing aspect of this incident was that it evidently occurred without being ordered by, or even fully known to, the Kremlin itself.

Leaked telephone conversations revealed that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a man referred to as President Vladimir Putin’s “chef” who is believed to lead Wagner, ordered the assault after conversing with several Syrian business colleagues.

(Prigozhin also controls a company with oil and gas stakes in the region.) Prigozhin himself has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his role in Russia’s 2016 U.S. election interference several times, most recently on Sept. 30.

The disjointed response from official Moscow also suggests they were uninformed: It took a week for Kremlin officials to say that there “may be citizens of the Russian Federation” not linked to the Russian armed forces fighting in Syria, before later saying that five Russians may have been killed, a number that later grew to “several dozen.”

Sources close to the Russian Ministry of Defense told the Russian investigative outlet the Bell they were “simply stunned” when they learned the attack had occurred and that a deeply embarrassed Prigozhin then had to grovel to Kremlin officials that such an error would not happen again.

It seems that he was hardly given the opportunity. Already in March, Wagner sources confirmed to another Russian reporter that half of the firm’s forces were preparing for missions in Africa, as their fallout with the Kremlin over Syria continued.

Viewed in this light, the group’s moves in places such as South Sudan and Mozambique appear almost pathetic, casting about desperately in a mostly futile search for opportunities that could come close to matching those they found in Syria and Ukraine. 

Training a handful of minor militias in Central Africa and bidding, seemingly unsuccessfully, against Erik Prince (of Blackwater fame) for security contracts is a far cry from leading assaults backed by the Russian air force in a major civil war in the strategically sensitive Middle East.

With a wealth of new competitors springing up, such as Shield, Patriot (allegedly directly linked to the defense ministry), and Vega, Wagner’s days as the top dog of Russian defense contractors are likely done.

The waning of Wagner will elicit few tears in and around the Kremlin.

The group appears to have been downgraded without major scandal, its personnel dispersed among similar groups, and its operations curtailed.

Prigozhin himself, never one for the spotlight, has certainly not attempted to complicate matters in any remotely public manner, likely aware that doing so would only further jeopardize his position. 

In the short term, Wagner’s fall has had few consequences for the Kremlin, which has no pressing need for a professional yet expendable military force at present.

Combat in Syria has wound down significantly in the past year and a half, with Russian forces not engaging in large-scale operations aimed at capturing territory since the conclusion of their campaign against the Islamic State in December 2017.

Eastern Ukraine, Wagner’s other primary area of operations, has likewise long since settled into a stable front line punctuated by occasional shootouts and shelling.

It is thus quite serendipitous for Moscow that Wagner waited until it had already successfully completed its shock infantry missions in eastern Syria to engage in such a flagrant breach of established norms.

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Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist and security analyst based in Yerevan, Armenia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict and politics, conflict, and minorities in the North and South Caucasus region.

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