Is The Wagner Group A Private Military Company?
An assessment of the Wagner Group as a 'Private Military Company' and an explanation of why the label can be challenging when trying to understand it.
The labelling the Wagner Group as a Private Military Company (hereinafter referred to as a PMC) has been the norm amongst many Western media analysts and scholars since 2014 when its involvement in the annexation of Crimea, invasion of the East of Ukraine and the Syrian Civil War became evident. This article attempts to provide information concerning the Wagner Group (shortened to Wagner for this article) to help one assess as to whether or not it is appropriate to label it as one. It’ll do this by identifying the core features of PMCs, what distinguishes Wagner from a conventional PMC and what makes Wagner similar to one.
Core Features Of a PMC
PMCs are legal corporate entities that provide military services for a global market. Like any corporate entity, they tend to have a board of directors that is often accountable to shareholders. They also have a clear business hierarchy, employ orthodox business practices (such as marketing) and work within company policies. As opposed to operating in an opaque within an informal black market, they are legal entities subject to a visible presence designed to attract customers for their military services (Singer, 2011, P.46).
One should not be mistaken in believing that this more visible presence detracts from the secretive nature of some of the contracts that PMCs take on. While PMCs are easier to regulate than their informal black market counterparts, there is a precedent of them committing human rights violations and operating in ways which have gone against the wishes of state governments they have contracts with. Academic and policymaking discussions regardings PMCs have also called into question the extent to which it is possible to regulate them and whether their employment to provide military services does more harm than good (specifically within the peacebuilding and counter-insurgency context).
It is also crucial to note that PMCs can undertake the provision of a wide array of military services, some of which do not involve their personnel engaging in tasks that would engage in military combat. Based on a range of various sources from various specialists on the topic of PMCs, a range of services (which will by no means be exhaustive) will be outlined.
Services that PMCs provide:
Logistical services for militaries - This involves anything from feeding troops, delivering ammunition or providing supply chain support/vehicles
Maintenance of capabilities - PMCs may also be used in maintaining the functionality and condition of differing equipment on behalf of militaries. Such equipment could be anti-air equipment, military vehicles or even equipment used for electronic warfare
Providing specialist capabilities - states can also utilise PMCs to bolster or provide specialist capabilities that will strengthen their militaries. These specialist capabilities could range from electronic warfare, precision artillery, air support or ISTAR capabilities (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance)
Force Multiplication - This involves the provision of personnel and equipment that aid militaries directly in combat operations against their adversaries. They are employed by states to either bolster the quantity of manpower and military hardware utilised within military operations or to plug inadequacies within their force composition or capabilities.
Training & Arming - PMCs have been frequently employed by Western states to arm and train allied forces within the regions they operate. PMCs providing these services normally utilise former Special Forces (SF) contractors within their rooster to shape the training of a certain state’s or entity’s personnel, as well as to inform how they should be equipped. It is also not uncommon for these contractors to directly deploy with the forces they are training in the earlier stages of providing this service.
Intelligence - This is a broad category of services that could include surveying areas of operation for militaries, providing reports regarding the activities of enemy forces, providing analysis of any relevant collected information regarding military operations or language translation of information which can be given to militaries.
Site Security - Involves PMCs guarding key infrastructure, government buildings or other strategically important sites from the enemies of the entity employing them. These contracts require PMCs to be very well-armed and self-sufficient when it comes to their military capabilities.
The provision of these services normally takes on the form of securing contracts with governments and their various military, defence and intelligence organs. These contracts can either be ones where any of the costs for providing necessary equipment and personnel are expected to be covered by the PMC itself, or where the PMC is given the ability to claim expenses and/or profit on any of the personnel and equipment that it needs to provide a service to its clients. The latter may be done if the client wishes to rely on the procurement expertise of a PMC as a service provided alongside any other ones.
The Temptation Of The PMC Label
There are a few reasons why it has been tempting for scholars, policymakers and journalists to refer to Wagner as a PMC, which are important to not ignore (even if this article is arguing that labelling is inaccurate). There is also a lot of overlap between the utility and qualities of PMCs and Wagner, adding further temptation for one to label Wagner as a PMC.
A Tool To Hide The Bodies
The value for the Russian state in utilising Wagner as a semi-state security force to bypass the political blowback of military casualties is somewhat similar to the benefits noted when Western states used PMCs post 9/11. Since Wagner personnel are technically not a formal part of the Russian Armed Forces, any casualties Wagner forces sustain do not have to be disclosed to the Russian public. This has enabled the Russian state to portray its military interventions within Syria and Eastern Ukraine - something that is proving to be challenging for Russia to do with the wider invasion of Ukraine more recently - and many other places abroad as ‘bloodless’ wars to curb political opposition to them. Additionally, any deaths of Wagner personnel engaged in covert operations conducted within the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and Libya can also be hidden to prevent political resistance to such expeditionary operations too.
Whilst not engaging in the same level of obfuscation concerning much of their military activity post 9/11, Western states have benefited from utilising PMCs in COIN (Counter-Insurgency) operations within Iraq and Afghanistan to - in the end insufficiently - negate the political challenges that come with military casualties to waging war. Western states benefited from not needing to publicly disclose the scale of dead PMC personnel and also able to rely on the relatively negative image the public has of such personnel compared to regular soldiers to mitigate any political blowback from their deaths. This less sympathetic attitude from the public towards what is seen as non-state military personnel is something that also has in the past existed amongst the Russian public towards Wagner personnel too. However in light of the wider invasion of Ukraine more recently, Wagner’s popularity has now grown amongst the Russian public.
Luring Military Talent With Money
Both Wagner and PMCs provide higher pay rates than regular armies to attract combat-experienced personnel to join their ranks. By offering higher rates of pay than the Russian military, Wagner has enjoyed a track record of recruiting skilled infantry, armour and artillery personnel - including those from Russian SF - to fill its ranks. This form of ‘labour poaching’ (Singer, 2011, P.77) by Wagner of militarily experienced personnel from the Russian Armed Forces is not unique to Wagner, PMCs do precisely the same thing to their own state’s and other state’s militaries to attract militarily capable personnel to work for them.
Wagner and PMCs also mutually employ the same practice of assigning pay based on military rank and experience, with those of higher ranks and elite forces being given the highest pay rates. It is worth noting that selective recruitment and tailored pay are something that has become less pronounced during Russia’s current invasion of wider Ukraine, which has led to Wagner increasing focus on generating manpower quantity at the expense of quality (especially after Russian mass mobilisation has begun). While PMCs also tend to become less selective in the personnel they hire as operators in combat roles when they need to meet demands for quantity to secure contracts with a state, they tend to still abide by a strict policy of hiring those with military experience (something Wagner has moved away from doing recently).
Exploitation Of Fragile Security In Weak States In Exchange For Natural Resources Access And Revenue
The practice of exploiting ‘weak’ states with fragile security frameworks for access to natural resources and to accrue revenue is something that both Wagner and PMCs have been documented doing. Wagner and PMCs continue to use the insufficient capacity of weak states to carry out effective military campaigns, while also making them reliant on their services long-term and giving up significant amounts of control of their natural resources and wealth in the process. Not only does this mean ‘weak’ states are often trapped into relying on the services of Wagner and PMCs, but they are also forced to jeopardise their ability to have the economic means to rebuild their states after such wars. Often as a form of payment to make up for lacking finances, both PMCs and Wagner have accepted these weak states giving them access to natural resources (such as diamonds, gold and oil).
Wagner and many PMCs also contribute to the instability within the aforementioned weak states. For example, PMCs (such as the Emirati-based Black Shield PMC) and Wagner forces - fighting on behalf of Khalifa Haftar or aiding him in some capacity -also compounded instability within Libya during the ongoing Second Libyan Civil War. Having said this, the extent of war crimes and human rights violations seem to be more endemic within Wagner’s operations in places such as the Central African Republic and Mali, than they do for those that have involved PMCs. That is not to say there are not well-documented cases of PMC also committing these human rights violations, however.
Based on the earlier listed roles that PMCs can undertake, there’s a provable similarity between Wagner and them in the activities they conduct. For one, Wagner has acted as a force multiplier for the Russian state in similar ways to how PMCs have to other states. As mentioned earlier, for most of Wagner’s existence (since roughly 2014) it has recruited former Russian military personnel with the promise of higher pay and an ability to operate within more expeditionary campaigns. In Syria, Wagner was used for bulking up the amount of manpower available at Russia’s disposal. Not only did this contribute to force multiplication that could be hidden from the Russian public to make the Kremlin’s footprint look smaller in the Middle East, but allowed the Russian state to employ more disposable Wagner personnel as a forward advance force in the 2016 Palmyra Offensive.
Wagner is also documented to have conducted site security and training missions, also roles that PMCs commonly undertake. Wagner provided site security in oil and gas fields on behalf of the Syrian government-owned company General Petroleum Corporation (SPC). This operation was financed via a contract between SPC and Evro Polis LLC, a front company for Wagner owned by its admitted founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, which would take a 25% cut of the revenue from SPC’s hydrocarbon sales in exchange for Wagner’s site security protection work. In a testimony before the Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 7 2020, Kimberly Marten (an expert on the Wagner Group) also suggested that 170 ‘civilian’ instructors sent to the CAR by the Russian state in December 2017, were actually Wagner personnel conducting training missions for CAR SF (See P.10 on link).
The Shoe Doesn’t Fit The Foot Enough: Why Wagner Is Not a PMC
A Not-So Corporate Venture
As stipulated earlier, PMCs are legal corporate entities that employ conventional business practices to secure customers for their military services in a global market. Wagner is different in this regard in several ways. Firstly, Wagner does not operate in the open market. States would not be able to approach a member of a corporation or publically listed entity for Wagner’s services. They’d instead have to approach the Russian state and its military/intelligence organs. Additionally, Wagner’s ‘services’ seems to be only made available to those who the Russian state has an interest in helping for geopolitical reasons (with that being shown by Wagner’s involvement in ‘aiding’ Khalifa Haftar or Assad for example).
Wagner is also not a legal corporate entity either. Under Russian law, Private Military Companies are illegal. There are speculations as to why that is, but the most commonly restated view is that this adds a layer of plausible deniability to Wagner’s activities and existence. Although Wagner’s existence and use by the Russian state is no longer a secret - in light of Prigozhin admitting to being the ‘founder’ of the semi-state security force - and now has a glitzy official ‘headquarters’ in St Petersburg, to say it is a legal corporate entity within Russia would still be a far reach.
A State Venture?
To call Wagner a PMC would imply that it is a private entity that provides military services with limited ties to the Russian state. There is a lot of information to suggest doing so would be unwise. Investigative journalist and human rights activist Vladimir Osechkin’s interview with former Wagner commander Marat Gabidullin provides some particularly important insights in this regard. He challenges the notion that Prigozhin nor any other benefactors of Wagner’s operations are footing its operational costs. Instead, Gabidullin says the following: “I'm convinced in all certainty that in terms of budgetary financing, the Wagner Group is financed directly by the Russian state” (45-47 minute mark within the interview). Gabidullin also goes on to reiterate this point by saying that while “Yevgeny Prigozhin is rich but he is no Roman Abramovich”
While one can be suspicious as to why Gabidullin has such a desire to explain the inner workings of Wagner and how it operates in such a publically visible way, if what he says in that interview is even marginally accurate it drastically undermines the notion that Wagner is a PMC. PMCs do not get financing directly from the budgets of the states they originate from, but instead, enter contractual agreements where they are paid in exchange for their services by them or other ‘customers’. The customer may front some of their initial operating costs as part of certain contracts, but do not tend to take on other operating costs.
Gabidullin’s latter comment about Prigozhin’s wealth is also insightful. In the interview, he explains that Wagner’s expeditionary presence across the world is a costly affair for someone of Prigozhin’s wealth to absorb. This makes sense too, as operating on multiple continents and military conflicts would require the maintenance of numerous bases and military equipment. His comment is therefore an attempt to emphasise how Prigozhin is not the wealthiest of Russian oligarchs (such as Abramovich) and certainly not someone who can absorb Wagner’s vast operating costs, thereby further alluding to his Wagner ‘venture’ being financed by the Russian state instead.
An Instrument Of Russian Military And Intelligence
While Wagner has made an effort to present itself as an entity that remains somewhat separate from the Russian state, an array of information points to the opposite being the case. It has been documented that Wagner established a permanent training presence within a GRU facility in the village of Mol’kino, which is attached to the location of the 10th Special Mission Brigade of GRU Spetsnaz (see P.20 in linked PDF). Wagner could only have been given the ability to train its personnel in such an area by the Russian Defence Ministry, indicating an intimate relationship between Wagner and the Russian state, which PMCs and customer states do not typically have.
There’s also information to suggest that Wagner has direct access to at least some of the military inventory of the Russian Armed Forces based on an analysis of the capabilities Wagner has employed in different conflicts. As reported on September 11 2020 by Al-Monitor, US AFRICOM (US Africa Command) stated that they had intelligence which indicated the delivery of multiple Russian fighter jets being operated by Wagner personnel in Libya. The US believed that before these fighter jets arrived in Libya to be used as Wagner air support for General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), they were repainted by Russia in Syria to camouflage their origin. Within the same conflict, there’s also evidence of Wagner utilising modern S1-Pantsir systems against Government of National Accord (GNA) forces in Libya.
The procurement of such military capabilities by Wagner for its operations, as well as evidence that it has access to military facilities that could only be secured with explicit permission from the Russian Defense Ministry, indicates that Wagner has a deeply intimate relationship with the Russian state. Given the centralisation of power within Putinist Russia, it is unlikely that Wagner is merely a private actor operating with an elementary mandate from the Russian state. Instead, it is far more likely that Wagner is a tool of the Russian state itself, carrying out plausibly deniable operations on behalf of key actors within the Russian military and intelligence (and Putin himself)
Wagner’s Not-So-Subtle Politicking
While I’d argue that it is a big misnomer to suggest that operators within PMCs are apolitical actors that do not share a specific sets of views - which are common to those who are predisposed to serving in militaries - the political overtones of Wagner’s personnel are especially pronounced. The first showcase of this is the sizable contingent of Neo-Nazis within the Rusich cadre of the Wagner Group. The Rusich cadre has been operating (in a rather brutal matter) alongside so-called LNR/DNR ‘separatists’ since 2014, but its social media presence became especially pronounced during the wider invasion of Ukraine this year. They represent an element of committed far-right Russians who are also strong political advocates of Russian militarism on Russian social media. This makes them far more akin to far-right paramilitary personnel than PMC operators in this regard.
To say that it is solely the Rusich cadre that is engaged in overtly political activity within Wagner would however be inaccurate. The amplification of Prigozhin’s recent political attacks on the Russian military leadership by Wagner-affiliated social media activity indicates an evolution in the ‘not-so-subtle politicking’ that Wagner engages in. There’s a range of speculative theories as to why this may be done, ranging from Prigozhin trying to become a key player within Russian politics to allowing Putin to put pressure on the Russian MoD to perform better (none of which are theories the author will stand behind yet). However, they do suggest a rather vocal political position taken by Wagner that is not orthodox for PMCs.