Wagner, I hardly Knew Ye
The dust has settled following last weekend’s abortive insurrection by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the private military company known as the Wagner Group, and some 8,000 fighters he employed, against Russian President Vladimir Putin. A clearer picture has since emerged about what exactly transpired during this coup, and why these events unfolded as they did. It also has allowed time to shine a light on Wagner Group, revealing it as something more than the invincible band of heroic Russian patriots celebrated by Russian society at large. Instead, a less complimentary image of Wagner emerges, one which portrays it as a business venture run by a corrupt narcissist who used Russian state funds to build a cult of personality that hypnotized an unwitting Russian populace into believing that Wagner was the sole source of salvation for Russia from the threat posed by the war with Ukraine.
As a military analyst with no small amount of experience in covering armed conflict, I don’t believe that I am susceptible to being star-struck in the presence of men who have earned, through experience, reputations as warriors of formidable stature. I was myself a US Marine, a member of a fraternity of sea-going warriors proud of both their martial history and military abilities, which are held to be second to none. I have served in harm’s way with special operators from America’s most elite military units and have worked closely with similarly skilled professionals from other nations. I think I have a good judge of what constitutes military competence and am not hesitant to give credit to where it is due.
Scott Ritter will discuss this article and answer audience questions on Ep. 78 of Ask the Inspector.
As someone who follows events in the Middle East closely, I had been tracking the activities of the Wagner Group in Syria since their initial deployment in 2015. Their reputation as skilled fighters was earned in the blood of dozens of their comrades who lost their lives fighting terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. As such, when in 2022 rumors started to circulate about the presence of Wagner Group fighters operating alongside the Russian Army in the region of the Donbas, I took notice. It was difficult to find credible sources of information, and the Wagner Group was reticent about anyone giving out information about its activities. But eventually I was able to piece together an understanding of the role played by Wagner in the Donbas, along with the impact Wagner had on the war. My analysis, both spoken and written, reflected the high regard I had for the Wagner Group as a combat formation, and the heroism and skill of the soldiers it employed.
Prior to my recent visit to Russia, my host informed me that the Wagner forces engaged in the fierce fighting around Bakhmut spoke highly of my analysis and could be counted among my biggest fans. Indeed, during my visit, I was introduced to several Wagner veterans, and a few serving Wagner employees, all of whom wanted to shake my hand, and many of whom presented me with gifts signifying the depth of their appreciation for my work. Whether it was a combat knife, a chrome-plated sledgehammer (an unofficial symbol of the Wagner Group), or various Wagner combat patches (including one embroidered with my name), I was taken aback by the level of genuine and heartfelt affection these Wagner men—noted for their toughness under fire—showed for me.
When the events of June 23-24 unfolded before me, I was taken aback. An organization that I held in the highest esteem was engaged in an act of self-destruction before my very eyes, engaged in conduct—an armed insurrection against a constitutionally-mandated government—that any military professional imbued with a respect for the chain of command and the nation he or she served would find reprehensible. Like many others, I was compelled to reexamine my understanding of the Wagner Group, the people it employed, and its history in the service of Russia.
Relatively little is known about the formation of the Wagner Group. What little information is available comes from Yevgeny Prigozhin himself and, as such, must be seen in the context of his tendency for self-promotion. Prigozhin long denied any involvement with Wagner Group, and indeed initiated legal action against journalists (including Bellingcat) who reported on his involvement. This changed in September 2022, when Prigozhin openly discussed his role with Wagner Group in a post published on his Telegram page.
Wagner’s origins date back to February 2014, following the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s constitutionally-elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, by Ukrainian nationalists backed by the United States and European Union. At that time, Crimea was part of Ukraine. Shortly after the Maidan revolution ousted Yanukovych, right-wing Ukrainian nationalists attempted to take control of Crimea, which had a majority ethnic-Russian population whose loyalties leaned decisively toward Moscow. The nationalists were confronted by so-called “self defense units” drawn from the local pro-Russian citizenry.
But there were other actors on the ground as well. Concerned that the Ukrainian government would call out the Ukrainian army to intervene, the Russian government mobilized a force of several hundred “little green men,” consisting of elite Russian special forces who, because of constitutional limitations regarding the deployment of regular Russian army forces on the soil of a foreign nation, were “sheep dipped” (a US term made popular during the CIA’s covert war in Laos in the 1960’s and 70’s, where active duty US Air Force officers would be transferred to the CIA’s “Air America” proprietary company for operations inside Laos.)
The man put in charge of these “sheep dipped” special operators was Dmitry Utkin, a recently-retired Lieutenant Colonel who had previously commanded a Russian special forces (Spetznaz) unit affiliated with Russian Military Intelligence (GRU). Utkin and his “little green men” played a leading role in the Russian takeover of Crimea on February 26, 2014, four days after Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014, Utkin’s “little green men” were dispatched to Lugansk, where they were tasked with providing training and assistance to the pro-Russian fighters that had taken up arms against the Ukrainian nationalists who had seized power in Kiev.
As the fighting expanded, so, too, did the role of the “little green men,” and by April it became clear that the Russian government would need to create a more formal organization which would serve as the conduit for military assistance to the pro-Russian militias fighting in the Donbas. On May 1, 2014, a new entity, known as the “Wagner Group” (named after the call sign—“Wagner”—used by Utkin) was created and given a contract with the Ministry of Defense to serve in this role. While Utkin served as the military commander of this new organization, “Wagner Group” itself was managed by a group of civilian businessmen headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who by that time had established himself as a successful restaurateur whose clients included Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Wagner was heavily involved in the fighting that raged in the Donbas from May 2014 through February 2015, when a ceasefire came into effect after the signing of the Minsk 2 accords. With the fighting in Ukraine winding down, Prigozhin and Utkin sought to exploit Utkin’s own past experience as a mercenary in Syria. The ability to deploy a professional military unit capable of operating on foreign soil where regular Russian forces were prohibited was attractive to the Russian Ministry of Defense, who contracted with Wagner to provide military assistance to the embattled Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. Wagner’s success in Syria led to additional “support contracts” being executed for operations in several African countries. In addition to being paid by the Russia government, Wagner Group was able to arrange its own economic relationships with its African clients, which led to several profitable ventures designed to enrich its owners, including Prigozhin.
On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to commence what was being called a “Special Military Operation” (SMO) against Ukraine. The Russian military began deploying onto the soil of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (which were both recognized by Russia as independent states days prior to the SMO being kicked off), where they fought alongside local militias. Wagner Group continued to operate on the territory of the Donbas in a reduced capacity from 2015 until the SMO’s initiation.
After the collapse of the April 1, 2022, peace negotiation between Russia and Ukraine scheduled to take place in Istanbul, Turkey, the Russian military was instructed to begin large-scale offensive operations intended to liberate the territory of the Donbas still occupied by Ukraine. On May 1, 2023, a new contract was signed between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group for some 86 billion rubles, or $940 million, to expand the scope and scale of its Ukrainian operation from advisory and assistance to that of a combat unit of roughly division-size capable of largescale fighting against regular Ukrainian forces. To sweeten the deal, the Russian Ministry of Defense signed a separate 80-billion-ruble deal (some $900 million) for the provision of food to the Russian Army using Prigozhin’s catering company.
War, it seems, had become very profitable business for Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Wagner played a major role in many of the battles waged in the spring and summer of 2022 which, collectively, became known as the Battle of the Donbas. Wagner was initially organized as a battalion-sized unit of several hundred highly-trained military veterans. As the fighting dragged on, the Wagner forces began to expand in size and capabilities, soon acquiring their own armor and artillery forces, as well as dedicated fighter aircraft. By the time the Lugansk city of Sievierodonetsk fell to Russian forces, on June 25, 2022, the Wagner Group was a division-sized unit which had developed a reputation for expertise in urban warfare, taking the lead in clearing Ukrainian troops who were dug in among the ruins of that city. By the fall of the neighboring city of Lysychansk, on July 3, 2022, the Wagner Group had become synonymous with operational excellence.
The fighting in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, however successful it was for the Russians and Wagner, had proven to be extremely costly from the standpoint of casualties. It became apparent to both the military command structure of Wagner, built around a cadre of experienced military veterans known as the “commanders council,” and Wagner’s corporate owners, headed by Prigozhin, that Wagner would suffer both in terms of military efficiency and profitability if it had to recruit and train seasoned veterans to replace those who had fallen in battle. During the house-to-house fighting that defined the Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk battles, Wagner’s small unit commanders had developed tactics which combined firepower (indirect artillery and direct fire support from tanks) with aggressive infantry assaults which could overwhelm Ukrainian defenders.
Rather than waste experienced fighters in this style of fighting, Prigozhin began recruiting new fighters from Russian prisons, promising them expungement of their criminal record in exchange for a six-month contract to fight on the frontlines. The Wagner commanders would train these inmate recruits over the course of a 21-day program that focused on the rudimentary combat skills needed to execute the Wagner urban warfare tactics, before organizing them into “shock” units which would be fed into the fighting. These units, while ultimately effective, suffered up to 60% casualties. Between 30-50,000 convicts were eventually recruited by Wagner, of whom 10-15,000 are believed to have been killed in the subsequent fighting for the cities of Soledar and Bakhmut.
The battles for the twin cities of Soledar and Bakhmut began on August 1, 2022. Wagner Group and its inmate “shock” units played a central role in the intense combat that followed. By this time, the world was starting to take notice of the fighters of this private military company. Labeled as mercenaries by the Western media and governments, and patriotic heroes by the pro-Russian citizens of the Donbas whose homes, villages, towns, and cities were being liberated, Wagner began emerging from the shadows. Whereas previously the Russian government and media were reticent to even acknowledge its existence, by the end of September 2022 Prigozhin, who had famously sued journalists who (accurately) reported that he was the owner of Wagner Group, wrote a posting on his Telegram channel admitting that he was, indeed, the owner.
While many observers took Prigozhin’s unexpected step into the spotlight as a sign of Wagner’s increasing public profile, the reality behind Prigozhin’s decision was simple business. From September 25-27, 2022, the citizens of the Donbas undertook a referendum on whether they wanted to be incorporated as part of the Russian Federation. By the end of the first day, it was clear that the result would be an overwhelming “yes.”
Prigozhin went public with his role as the owner of Wagner Group on September 26, 2022. This was the first salvo of what would become a massive public relations campaign designed to create the impression that Wagner was an essential part of the Russian war effort, whose fighters were singularly capable of defeating the Ukrainians. Prigozhin’s public relations campaign was further enhanced by the fact that the Russian public had been shocked by the retreat of the Russian army during the Ukrainian Kharkov Offensive, which began on September 6, 2022. While the regular army was in retreat, the forces of Wagner continued to advance along the Soledar-Bakhmut front, providing the Russian people with the only example of battlefield success during these dark times.
For Prigozhin, it became essential that he separate Wagner from the Russian Army in the eyes of the Russian people. The reason why was simple—with the Donbas now part of the Russian Federation, Wagner Group was in technical violation of Russian laws which prohibited the operation of private military contractors on Russian soil. Already there was talk about the need to change the contractual status of Wagner’s relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense as soon as Wagner’s contract expired on May 1, 2023.
But Prigozhin had a money-making system in place, especially when it came to the use of convicts. Prigozhin could pay them less than a regular Wagner recruit, and the cost of their training was miniscule compared to that given more specialized fighters. The money saved by this process was estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars, all of which flowed back into the pockets of Prigozhin and his fellow owners and investors. Desperate to keep this enterprise intact, Prigozhin went on the offensive, publicly condemning senior Russian generals and officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
In November Wagner unveiled a shiny new center in Saint Petersburg designed to propel the company into the psyche of the Russian public as a major player in Russian national security affairs. All the while, the fighters of Wagner pressed forward their attacks on Soledar and Bakhmut, driven by Prigozhin’s desire to be seen as the only effective fighting force fighting the Ukrainians. And, increasingly, the fighters leading the charge were units composed on former Russian inmates.
But Prigozhin was running into a problem. He was forced to stop recruiting from prisons for the simple fact that he lacked a contract vehicle to pay the inmates after May 1,2023, meaning the last inmate recruit was processed by Wagner by December 1, 2022. Prisoners were still allowed to volunteer as frontline fighters, but they would have to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense going forward. Since the prisoner contracts were linked to specific periods of service that had to be fulfilled before their records could be expunged, Wagner could not commit inmates to anything less than a full-six-month term of enlistment. Wagner could still recruit non-inmate persons, since there would be no legal headaches created if Wagner did not renew its contract with the Ministry of Defense.
While Prigozhin’s PR campaign was a tremendous success (Wagner even released a feature-length film, Best in Hell, in February 2023 that brought the horrors of urban warfare—and the individual heroism of the Wagner fighters—to the screen), he was failing to win over the Minster of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and First Deputy Minister of Defense, Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin turned what should have been a professional disagreement about legalities into a personal matter filled with allegations of corruption and incompetence. Prigozhin also began accusing the Russian Ministry of Defense of deliberately holding back on the provision of ammunition to Wagner forces, a phenomenon he described as “shell hunger,” which resulted in Wagner forces suffering disproportionally high casualties.
Prigozhin began to behave erratically. It was becoming increasingly clear that the Wagner contract was not going to be renewed, meaning that Wagner forces would have to be incorporated into the very Russian Ministry of Defense Prigozhin was publicly denigrating, a move widely rejected by the rank and file of Wagner as well as its leadership. It also was becoming clear that Prigozhin’s lucrative food contract with the Ministry of Defense was likewise not going to be renewed, an action most probably related to Prigozhin’s attacks on the Defense Ministry’s two most senior officials, Shoigu and Gerasimov.
It was around this time that Prigozhin first discussed the issue of what would become of Wagner’s 50,000-strong force if the Russian Ministry of Defense continued to insist on their formal incorporation. In an interview in February 2023 with Semyon Pegov (“War Gonzo”), a pro-Russian combat correspondent and blogger, the topic of a potential Wagner attack on Moscow was raised in the context of why the Ministry of Defense was restricting ammunition. While Prigozhin noted that the idea did not originate with him, he indicated that it was interesting—not something one wants to hear from who owns a large, combat-hardened, well-equipped private army.
It was also in February 2023 that, according to US intelligence, Prigozhin and the Ukrainian intelligence service began communicating directly. Perhaps picking up on Prigozhin’s frustration and paranoia, the Ukrainian intelligence service notified the Wagner owner of a plot involving former Wagner personnel to orchestrate a coup in Moldova. Prigozhin and Wagner had, by this time, been conducting secret talks with Ukrainian intelligence. Concerned that Russian intelligence had gotten wind of these discussions, Ukraine raised the possibility of Prigozhin’s arrest and subsequent labeling as a traitor.
The impact of Prigozhin losing nearly $2 billion in contacts, combined with an increasing level of paranoia on his part that he was caught up in a life-or-death struggle with Shoigu and Gerasimov, led the Wagner owner to double down on his vitriolic attacks on Russia’s military leadership, and thereby create the impression that he and Wagner alone could guarantee military victory for Russia over Ukraine. These attacks reached their culmination in the final fights for Bakhmut, which concluded on May 20, 2023, when Prigozhin announced that his fighters had captured the city. Prigozhin spoke of the “meatgrinder” aspect of this battle, and how Wagner—at great sacrifice—“broke the back” of the Ukrainian army, killing between 55-70,000 Ukrainian soldiers for a loss of between 20-30,000 of its fighters.
As Russia celebrated the accomplishments of Wagner in Bakhmut—elevating even further the near-mythological status Wagner and its fighters enjoyed in the eyes of an adoring Russian public—Prigozhin had more pressing matters to deal with. His contract with the Ministry of Defense had expired. He had been given a two-month extension—through July 1, 2023—given the fact that Wagner was heavily engaged in the fighting in Bakhmut. After that time, however, the Wagner forces operating in the Donbas would have to enter a contractual relationship with the Ministry of Defense or else be disbanded. Prigozhin withdrew his fighters from Bakhmut to camps in eastern Lugansk, where he lobbied his combat-hardened commanders to reject the terms of the Ministry of Defense, and instead join him to create a common front of opposition to the leadership of the Russian military.
Prigozhin’s opposition to Shoigu and Gerasimov, and his plotting to supplant them, did not escape the attention of either the Russian government or Russia’s enemies in Ukraine, the US, and Great Britain. Vladimir Putin, in a speech delivered to Russian security officials on June 27, indicated that Russian officials were in constant contact with the commanders of Wagner to warn them not to help Prigozhin use Wagner for his own personal ambition. Days before Prigozhin sent Wagner forces to Rostov and Moscow, the CIA briefed US Congress and President Biden on the existence of Prigozhin’s plot. The British MI-6 did the same, briefing the British Prime Minister as well as Ukrainian President Zelensky.
According to Ukrainian sources, the British also lobbied the Ukrainians to pause offensive operations during the window of time Prigozhin was expected to move on Moscow in the hopes that a civil war would break out that would cause Russia to withdraw combat troops from the frontline, providing the Ukrainian army with increased opportunities for success. MI-6 also used its connectivity with the Ukrainian intelligence services, in coordination with MI-6-controlled Russian oligarchs operating out of London, to reinforce Prigozhin’s belief that he had the support of the Russian military, politicians, and business elite, all of whom Prigozhin was led to believe would rally to his side once Wagner began marching on Moscow.
The failure of Prigozhin’s gambit has already become cemented in history. However, there remains an element of Russian society which, having been swayed by Prigozhin’s intensive PR campaign, continue to believe that Prigozhin’s complaints against Shoigu and Gerasimov were legitimate and, as such, so too was his march of Moscow. The facts speak otherwise. At the time of Prigozhin’s precipitous move on Moscow, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov were overseeing a Russian military campaign that was eviscerating Ukraine’s NATO-trained army, inflicting casualties at a 10-to-1 ration. During the first three weeks of the current Ukrainian counteroffensive, more than 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed, along with hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles—many of which were just recently supplied to Ukraine—destroyed. The Russian military was well-equipped, well-trained, and well-led. Morale was high. Any notion that Shoigu and Gerasimov were professionally incompetent was belied by the facts.
Prigozhin has bragged about the superiority of the Wagner forces when compared to those of the Russian Army. But the real reason the Wagner forces halted their march on Moscow and returned to their barracks was the fact that they had encountered the Russian military outside Serpukhov, south of Moscow. There, some 2,500 Russian special forces backed by Russian air power were waiting. At the same time, some 10,000 Chechen “Akhmat” special forces had closed in on Rostov-on-Don, where Prigozhin had taken up headquarters, and were preparing to assault the city with the intent to destroy the Wagner forces deployed there, along with their leader. Wagner’s combat experience could not make up for the fact that they were not prepared to carry out sustained ground combat against Russian ground and air forces.
Prigozhin was not only confronted with the reality of his imminent demise and of the men who had accompanied him, but, contrary to the expectations created by the British and Ukrainian intelligence services before the Wagner mutiny, the fact that not a single military unit or officer, not a single politician, and not a single businessman—no one—rallied to Prigozhin’s cause; Russia had sided with its President, Vladimir Putin. While Prigozhin’s extensive PR campaign had succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of Russian people, it had failed to convince people that they should betray their president.
In the interest of avoiding Russian-on-Russian bloodshed, Prigozhin accepted a compromise, brokered by Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, that had he, Dmitry Utkin (the only senior Wagner commander to join him) and the 8,000 Wagner fighters who participated in the failed coup return to their camps in eastern Lugansk. There they would disarm, turning over their heavy weapons to the Russian military, before being sent off into exile in Belarus. For those Wagner fighters—some 17,000—who refused to participate in Prigozhin’s act of treachery, they, along with their commanders, were given the option to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense or go home. Prigozhin’s contracts were cancelled, and Wagner disbanded. Moreover, there would be no changes in the Russian Ministry of Defense—Shoigu and Gerasimov would remain in their respective positions.
Even had Prigozhin not betrayed Russia, the Wagner Group would have ceased to exist as Prigozhin’s private army. However, the Wagner Group’s honor would have remained intact. Prigozhin’s treachery guaranteed that Wagner will be forever tainted by the greed and naked ambition of its owner, a man who sought to exploit the goodwill of the Russian public that the fighters of Wagner had earned with their blood and sacrifice on battlefields in the Donbas, Syria, and Africa, all in a misguided effort to usurp a constitutionally-mandated government the people had themselves put in power.
Farewell, Wagner—I hardly knew ye.
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