John A. Lechner & Marat Gabidullin

The mercenary group is a product of the system Putin built, and he can’t dismantle it without undermining Moscow’s global influence.

Much ink has been spilled on what the Wagner Group’s June 23 mutiny means for the mercenary outfit.

One of us is a former Wagner Group commander, and based on experience and a look at Wagner’s past, it’s clear that it’s here to stay.

Wagner is a reflection of the system Russian President Vladimir Putin has built. The same opportunities and challenges that created Wagner will constrain the Russian state’s willingness and capacity to replace it. The organization’s relocation to Belarus is simply its latest iteration.

To predict Wagner’s future, we need to understand what Wagner was. Analysts have scoured history to find precedents: from Frederick the Great’s Freikorps to the ronin of feudal Japan. The best answer, however, is that Wagner is something new. As Sergey Eledinov, an Africa expert, told Foreign Policy, “Wagner is a sociological phenomenon, one that could only manifest within the context of Russia at a certain time in an increasingly interconnected world.”

The Russian system is an amalgamation of competing institutions and individuals framing their projects within the “interests” of the state. Guidance from the center—the Kremlin—is rare, so political entrepreneurs pursue what they believe to be good for Russia and their bank accounts. But there’s the risk of misinterpreting the center, or that the center will reinterpret its interests.

Wagner began during the war in Ukraine. While the 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea was directed from the Kremlin, the initial phase of the war in the Donbas was not. Rather, hawkish elements within the Russian government worked, successfully, to draw the Kremlin further into the conflict.

Once in, the Kremlin could not appear weak on its preferred talking point: protecting Russian minorities outside Russia’s borders. But Putin wasn’t interested in annexation, either, and so the Kremlin turned to a mix of soldiers without uniform, volunteers, and mercenaries to shore up local militias.

At its core, Wagner arose from a government need—to shore up, in a deniable fashion, weak local militias facing an increasingly confident Ukrainian military.

In 2013, Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces officer in Russia’s military intelligence, still known today by its old acronym, the GRU, was part of a mercenary group, Slavonic Corps, that fell afoul of the FSB, Russia’s internal security service, over its actions in Syria. A few months later, he was in Ukraine commanding a military detachment primarily composed of former Slavonic Corps mercenaries. That detachment would form the basis for Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to develop a private military company (PMC), the future Wagner Group.

The FSB worked to organize the government of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). The GRU—subordinate to the MoD—organized, prepared, and managed militia units, as well as coordinated joint actions between mercenaries and militias. The LNR—where Utkin’s detachment was most active—required more mercenaries than the DNR given its lower industrial base.

Prigozhin was also active in Luhansk, where he recognized the potential for a Western-style PMC in Russia. He brought on high-ranking GRU officials as informal advisors to the project, but not as authorized representatives of the Russian government.

At its core, Wagner arose from a government need—to shore up, in a deniable fashion, weak local militias facing an increasingly confident Ukrainian military—but it was Prigozhin, and informal networks from state institutions, who took the initiative for its future development. The relationship between Wagner and the state was always dependent on the political context.

For example, in 2016, Wagner Group was in Syria, part of the Russian military’s intervention. After Wagner’s involvement in capturing Palmyra from the Islamic State, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu insisted on pulling the PMC out of the country. Wagner turned over its weapons to the Russian military.

Prigozhin formed a new company, Evro Polis, and signed a contract with the Syrian government to liberate oil fields in exchange for 25 percent of the profits. In December 2016, the Islamic State drove the Russian military out of Palmyra. The MoD once again issued weapons to Wagner to retake the city. When Russian Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov denigrated Wagner’s role in the fighting, an infuriated Prigozhin sent his men back to camp. It was only under great pressure that Wagner rejoined the conflict.

The incident in Syria revealed a peculiarity of the Russian system. The Wagner network worked to embed itself within Russia’s national security infrastructure, itself a web of powerful interest groups. The U.S. PMC Blackwater also marketed itself as an indispensable pillar of the U.S. military’s “Total Force,” but Blackwater’s mandates were very different. Blackwater, unlike Wagner, was never tasked with offensive operations parallel to or in place of the U.S. military.

At the same time, the freedom of Russia’s elite to pursue foreign policy allowed Prigozhin to sign contracts with foreign governments—even when separate defense agreements existed between national governments. In this sense, Wagner resembled the South African PMC Executive Outcomes (EO) in the 1990s, which signed contracts with Angola and Sierra Leone. EO provided training and engaged in combat, yet unlike Wagner or Blackwater, it could not leverage ties to a “host” government.

Prigozhin still needed a narrative to frame outside contracts as furthering Russia’s “national interests.” Enter the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In 2017, Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir lobbied the Russian government to protect his country from U.S. influence. “It was impossible, however,” Eledinov told us, “for the Russian military to send troops.” The only viable option for Russia’s top diplomat, Sergey Lavrov, was to send contractors.

Of course, the use of contractors in Africa is widespread; the U.S., for example, hired an American PMC, DynCorp, to rebuild Liberia’s army. But the U.S. military could have fielded troops if it were a priority. Syria, half the distance between Sudan and Russia, already presented challenges to the MoD.

That same year, following a disagreement at the United Nations Security Council over an arms embargo in the Central African Republic (CAR), French diplomats told CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to reach out to Russia directly. Lavrov, eager for another foreign-policy win, took advantage. He flew CAR officials to Russia and struck a deal to send weapons and instructors to the beleaguered government in Bangui.

It was in CAR that Wagner broke from all previous PMC models. Not because of mineral concessions linked to security provisions—this is common—but because of diplomacy. In 2019, according to those involved, Wagner and Prigozhin personally delivered Lavrov another foreign-policy win. They brought the CAR government and 14 armed groups together to sign a peace accord, the 2019 Khartoum Accord. Despite it’s failure to hold, it’s a peace deal the international community still supports.

In Syria, Wagner found itself constantly checked by Russia’s MoD, which, as the 2016 incident showed, had direct leverage over the PMC through the distribution of military equipment within Syria. But CAR’s lack of importance to the Kremlin’s security institutions allowed Prigozhin to pursue business ventures and projects as he saw fit.

Until late 2020, Wagner’s military operation focused on training. But a presidential election—pushed by the entire international community—upset the fragile Khartoum Accord. Six armed group signatories formed a new alliance, the CPC, and pushed toward Bangui. The rebels thought they were about to kick Wagner out. Instead, they supercharged it.


John A. Lechner, an analyst concentrating on the politics of Russia, Turkey, and African nations.

Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner Group commander in Syria.


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