Wagner Group

Wagner Group

Wagner Group
Группа Вагнера
Participant in the War in Donbass and the Syrian Civil War
Active 2014 – present[1]
Leader Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin
Size 1,000–5,000 (March 2016)[2]
6,000 (December 2017)[3]
Allies Russian Armed Forces
United Armed Forces of Novorossiya
Syrian Armed Forces
Opponents Armed Forces of Ukraine
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
Al-Nusra Front/ Tahrir al-Sham
Syria Free Syrian Army
Battles and wars Crimean Crisis[4][5]
War in Donbass

Syrian Civil War

The Wagner Group (Russian: Группа Вагнера, tr. Grupa Vagnera), also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner, or CHVK Vagner (Russian: ЧВК Вагнер, tr. ChVK Vagner), is a Russian paramilitary organisation. Some have described it as a private military company (or a private military contracting agency), whose contractors have reportedly taken part in various conflicts, including operations in the Syrian Civil War on the side of the Syrian government as well as, from 2014 until 2015, in the War in Donbass in Ukraine aiding the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Others are of the opinion that ChVK Wagner is really a unit of the Russian Ministry of Defence in disguise, which is used by the Russian government in conflicts where deniability is called for.

History, organization, status

The founder of the company is alleged to be Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, who was born in Kirovohrad Oblast (then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR) in 1970.[14][15][16] According to the Security Service of Ukraine′s statement in September 2017, Dmitriy Utkin used to be a Ukrainian citizen.[15] Up until 2013, he was a lieutenant colonel and brigade commander of a special forces (Spetsnaz GRU) unit (the 700th Independent Spetsnaz Detachment of the 2nd Independent Brigade) of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU).[17][1][18] He retired in 2013 and began working for the private company Moran Security Group founded by Russian military veterans; the company performed security and training missions around the world, specializing in security against piracy. The same year, senior Moran Security Group managers were involved in setting up a Saint Petersburg-based organization Slavonic Corps that headhunted contractors to “protect oil fields and pipelines” in Syria.[1] Utkin was in Syria as part of the Slavonic Corps and survived its disastrous mission.[17] The Wagner Group itself first showed up in 2014,[1] along with Utkin in the Luhansk region of Ukraine.[17] The company’s name comes from Utkin’s own call sign (“Wagner”), which he allegedly chose due to a passion for the Third Reich.[19] In August 2017, the Turkish Yeni Şafak speculated that Utkin was possibly just a figurehead for the company, while the real head of Wagner was someone else.[20]

On 9 December 2016, Dmitriy Utkin was photographed with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin reception given to highly decorated servicepeople to mark the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland — along with three persons, Alexander Kuznetsov, Andrey Bogatov and Andrey Troshev. The photo was published shortly after and caused a scandal.[21] Kuznetsov (call sign “Ratibor“) was said to be the commander of Wagner’s first reconnaissance and assault company, Bogatov was the commander of the fourth reconnaissance and assault company, and Troshev served as the company’s “executive director”.[22] A few days after, the Kremlin spokesman confirmed the presence at the Kremlin reception of a person called Dmitry Utkin as a representative of the Novgorod Region; he said the reception was organised for those who had been awarded the Order of Courage and the title Hero of the Russia and was unable to elaborate further.[23][24]

Wagner is believed to have a membership of 1,000–5,000, is registered in Argentina, and has its members train at a Russian MoD facility Molkino (Russian: Молькино)[18] near the village of Molkin (ru), Krasnodar Krai.[25][2][26][27][28] The company also has offices in Saint Petersburg.[29]

The pay of Wagner private military contractors (PMCs), who are usually retired regular Russian servicemen aged between 35 and 55,[20] is estimated to be between 80,000 and 250,000 Russian rubles a month.[30] One source also stated the pay was as high as 300,000.[21] When new PMC recruits arrive at the training camp, they are no longer allowed to use social network services and other Internet resources. Company employees are not allowed to post photos, texts, audio and video recordings or any other information on the Internet that was obtained during their training. Company employees are not allowed to tell anyone their location, whether they are in Russia or another country. Mobile phones, tablets and other means of communication are left with the company and issued at a certain time with the permission of their commander. Passports and other documents are surrendered and in return company employees receive a nameless dog tag with a personal number. The company only accepts new recruits if a 10-year confidentiality agreement is established and in case of a breach of the confidentiality the company reserves the right to terminate the employee’s contract without paying a fee.[31] During their training, the PMCs receive a 1,100 dollar monthly pay.[20]

Wagner is also believed to have a Serbian unit, which was until at least April 2016 under command of Davor Savičić, a Bosnian Serb[8] who was a member of the Serb Volunteer Guard (also known as Arkan’s Tigers) during the Bosnian War and Serbia’s Special Operations Unit (JSO) during the Kosovo War.[32][33] His call sign in Bosnia was “Elvis”.[33] Savičić was reportedly only three days in the Luhansk region when a BTR armored personnel carrier fired at his checkpoint, leaving him shell-shocked. After this, he left to be treated.[8] He was also reported to had been involved in the first offensive to capture Palmyra from the Islamic State (ISIL) in early 2016.[32] One member of the Serbian unit was killed in Syria in June 2017.[34]

In early October 2017, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said that Wagner′s funding in 2017 had been increased by 185 million roubles ($3.1 million) and that around forty Ukrainian nationals were working for Wagner, with the remaining 95 percent of the personnel being Russian citizens.[35] One Ukrainian was killed in Syria while fighting in the ranks of Wagner in March 2016.[36]

It has been reported that Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also a chef for Russian President Putin,[37] has links with Wagner[38][39] and Dmitry Utkin personally.[40][41] Prigozhin, who was sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury in December 2016 for Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict,[42][43] denied any communication with Wagner.[44] The US Department of the Treasury also imposed sanctions on ″PMC Wagner″ and Utkin personally in June 2017.[45] The designation of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control listed the company and Dmitriy Utkin under the ″Designations of Ukrainian Separatists (E.O. 13660)″ heading and referred to him as ″the founder and leader of PMC Wagner″.[46]

Russian experts as well as some people who have been personally involved with Wagner Group believe that the Wagner Group does not actually exist and is but a myth created by Russian propaganda and in reality it is a disguised branch of the Russian MoD.[47][48][49][50][51][52][53] Private military companies are not legally allowed in Russia; nevertheless a number of them appear to have been operating in Russia and in April 2012 Vladimir Putin, then Russian prime minister, speaking in the State Duma endorsed an idea of setting up PMCs in Russia.[54] Several military analysts described Wagner as a “pseudo-private” military company that offers the Russian military establishment certain advantages such as ensuring plausible deniability, public secrecy about Russia′s military operations abroad, as well as about the number of losses.[55][54] Thus, Wagner contractors have been described as “ghost soldiers”, due to the Russian government not officially acknowledging them.[56] In March 2017, Radio Liberty characterised the ChVK Wagner as a ″semi-legal militant formation that exists under the wing and on the funds of the Ministry of Defence″.[57] In September 2017, the chief of Ukraine′s Security Service (SBU) Vasyl Hrytsak said that in their opinion Wagner was in essence ″a private army of Putin″ and that the SBU were ″working on identifying these people, members of Wagner PMC, to make this information public so that our partners in Europe knew them personally″.[15][58]


Crimea and Eastern Ukraine

Wagner PMCs first showed up in February 2014 in Crimea[4][5] during Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula where they operated in line with regular Russian army units, disarmed the Ukrainian Army and took control over facilities. The takeover of Crimea was almost bloodless.[59] The PMCs, along with the regular soldiers, were called “polite people” at the time[60] due to their well behavior. They kept to themselves, carried weapons that were not loaded, and mostly made no effort to interfere with civilian life.[61] Another name for them was “little green men” since they were masked, wearing unmarked green army uniforms and their origin was initially unknown.[62]

After the takeover of Crimea, the PMCs went to the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine where a conflict started between Ukrainian government and pro-Russian forces. Thanks to their help, the pro-Russian forces were able to destabilize government security forces in the region, immobilize operations of local government institutions, seize ammunition storages and take control of towns.[59] The PMCs conducted sneak attacks, reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and accompanied VIPs.[63] In October 2017, the Ukrainian SBU claimed it had established the involvement of the Wagner Group in the June 2014 Il-76 airplane shoot-down at Luhansk International Airport that killed 40 Ukrainian paratroopers, as well as a crew of nine.[6] Russian and Serbian “mercenaries” were already reported being involved in the summer 2014 battle for the airport, although it was not stated if they were linked to Wagner back then.[64][65] According to the SBU, Wagner PMCs were initially deployed to eastern Ukraine on 21 May 2014, and the service was planning to file charges on Dmitry Utkin to the office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine.[35] The PMCs also participated in the early 2015 Battle of Debaltseve, which involved one of the heaviest artillery bombardments in recent history, as well as reportedly hundreds of regular Russian soldiers. The battle ended in a decisive victory over Ukrainian forces.[2]

Following the end of major combat operations, the PMCs were reportedly given the assignment to kill all pro-Russian commanders that were acting in a rebellious manner, according to the Russian nationalist Sputnik and Pogrom (ru) internet media outlet. According to Sputnik and Pogrom, in one raid, they killed more than 10 militia fighters.[59] In another operation in early January 2015, the PMCs disarmed without any loss of life the Odessa brigade of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), after surrounding their base in Krasnodon with the support of tanks and artillery, and demanding the separatists disarm and return to their homes.[66] According to the SBU and the Russian news site Fontanka (ru), Wagner also forced the reorganization and disarmament of Russian Cossack and other formations.[63][67] The PMCs acted mostly in the LPR,[59] for whose authorities they allegedly conducted four political killings of separatist commanders.[5][59] The killed commanders were in a conflict with the LPR’s president, Igor Plotnitsky.[63][68] The LPR accused Kiev of committing the assassinations,[68][69] while unit members of the commanders believed it was the LPR authorities who were behind the killings.[69][70][71] Wagner left Ukraine and returned to Russia in autumn of 2015, with the start of the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War.[5]


The presence of the PMCs in Syria was first reported in late October 2015, almost a month after the start of the Russian military intervention in the country’s civil war, when between three and nine PMCs were killed in a rebel mortar attack on their position in Latakia province.[9][72][73] It was reported that the Wagner Group was employed by the Russian Defense Ministry, even though private military companies are illegal in Russia.[30] The Russian Defense Ministry dismissed the early reports by The Wall Street Journal about the Wagner Group’s operations in Syria as an “information attack“. However, sources within the Russian FSB and the Defense Ministry unofficially stated for RBTH that Wagner was supervised by the GRU.[26] Furthermore, according to a few Wagner fighters, they were flown to Syria aboard Russian military transport planes.[4] Their equipment was delivered to Syria via the so-called Syrian Express (ru),[74] a fleet of Russian military and civilian merchant ships that had been delivering supplies to Syria since 2012.[75] Later, a Defense Ministry source told RBC TV that the FSB was also directing the PMCs.[74] The usage of Wagner had reportedly cost Russia 170 million dollars by August 2016.[76] By July 2017, according to The New York Times, the Kremlin established a policy in Syria where companies that seize oil and gas wells, as well as mines, from ISIL forces would get oil and mining rights for those same sites. Two Russian companies received contracts under this policy by this time, with one employing the Wagner Group to secure those sites from the militants.[45] As of early August 2017, the number of Wagner employees in Syria was reported to had reached 5,000, after the arrival of an additional 2,000 PMCs, including Chechens and Ingush.[20]

Wagner PMCs were involved in both Palmyra offensives in 2016 and 2017, as well as the Syrian Army‘s campaign in central Syria in the summer of 2017.[8][10][77] When they arrived in Syria the PMCs received T-72 tanks, BM-21 Grad MLRs and 122 mm D-30 howitzers.[78] During the first Palmyra offensive, according to one of the contractors, the PMCs were used as “cannon fodder” and most of the work was conducted by them, with the regular Syrian Army, who he described as “chickens”, only finishing the job.[4] An expert on Russian security at the IIR, Mark Galeotti, said they served as “shock troops” alongside the Syrian Army.[55] Following the successful conclusion of the offensive, during which 32 of the contractors were reportedly killed and about 80 wounded, the PMCs were withdrawn between April and May 2016, and they surrendered all of their heavy weapons and military equipment. When they returned for the second Palmyra offensive and to capture ISIL-held oil fields at the beginning of 2017, the PMCs reportedly faced a shortage of weapons and equipment as they were issued only older assault rifles, machine guns, T-62 tanks and M-30 howitzers. Several sniper rifles and grenade launchers were delivered a few weeks later, which did not solve the issue. According to Fontanka, the equipment problems in combination with a reported reduction in the quality of its personnel led to Wagner suffering a significantly higher number of casualties in the second battle for Palmyra than the first one. Between 40 and 60 were reported killed and between 80 and 180 were wounded.[78] The Russian investigative blogger group[79] the Conflict Intelligence Team attributed the higher losses mainly to ISIL’s heavy use of suicide-bombers and the militant group’s unwillingness to negotiate.[10] Still, the second offensive also ended in a victory for pro-government forces.[80][81]

Besides fighting ISIL militants, according to RBC TV, the PMCs trained a Syrian Army unit called the ISIS Hunters (fr), which was also fully funded and trained by Russian special forces.[82] The ISIS Hunters were one of the leading units[83] during the capture of the al-Shaer gas fields from ISIL in late April 2017.[84] However, as of the beginning of July, the PMCs were still fighting to secure the al-Shaer gas fields and the areas of the phosphate mines. At this time, a video emerged that allegedly showed Wagner PMCs bludgeoning a captured ISIL militant in the Palmyra area, with the jihadist reportedly being beheaded after.[85] In mid-September, the al-Shaer gas fields started getting back into production.[86]

In late September 2017, the PMCs, along with regular Russian troops, supported Syrian government forces in repelling a HTS-led rebel offensive north of Hama.[11] At the end of that month, during an ISIL counter-offensive in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate, two Wagner PMCs were captured by the militants.[87][88][21] Initially, the Kremlin attempted to distance itself from the two,[89] while a brother of one of them accused the Russian government of rejecting them.[90] Subsequently, the Syrian ISIS Hunters unit pledged to pay one million dollars for the release of each of the captive Russians. However, the ISIS Hunters also said they would execute 100 captive militants for each of the Russians if they were killed by the jihadists.[91] At the same time, a Russian parliamentary official stated that the two had almost certainly been executed, presumably for refusing to reject their Christian Orthodox religion, reject Russia, become Muslims and join the militant group.[92][93] This claim was questioned by the Conflict Intelligence Team who pointed out the fact that there had been no reports to this effect from the militants′ sources.[25]

In late October 2017, a video emerged on YouTube glorifying the PMCs actions in Syria.[94] Between the end of October and the start of November, Wagner took part in the Battle of Deir ez-Zor[12] where they cleared the remaining ISIL militants from the districts of Al-Rashidiyah and Al-Ardi, as well as the Al-Bazh and Abu-Adad neighborhoods, along with the Syrian Army.[13] Syrian government forces took complete control of the city by 3 November.[95][96] A besieged pocket of ISIL militants remained on an island in the city’s outskirts, which soon came under attack.[97] As government forces advanced, the pro-opposition SOHR reported that Russia demanded the release of the two captive PMCs during negotiations with the trapped militants.[98] On 17 November, the last ISIL fighters on the island had surrendered, leaving the Syrian Army in control of all territory surrounding Deir ez-Zor city.[99][100] However, the two PMCs were still prisoners. At the end of November, it was reported that the Russian military was negotiating for the release of the two PMCs who were reportedly being held on the border of Syria and Iraq.[101] However, on 4 December, the ISIS Hunters reported they had killed the ISIL militants that had captured and executed the two PMCs.[102] Meanwhile, Russia announced plans to withdraw some of its troops from Syria by the end of the year. It was reported that to avoid potential security losses, Russia would fill the void with private military companies, including Wagner.[103]


In an interview with the Russian news site The Insider in early December 2017, veteran Russian officer Igor Strelkov claimed that Wagner PMCs had returned to Luhansk from Syria and were also present in South Sudan and possibly Libya. Strelkov had a key role in the annexation of Crimea by Russia, as well as in the early stages of the war in the east of Ukraine.[104] Several days before the interview was published, Strelkov stated Wagner PMCs were being prepared to be sent from Syria to Sudan or South Sudan after Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, told Russia’s president Putin that his country needed protection “from aggressive actions of the USA”. Two internal-conflicts had been raging in Sudan for years (in the region of Darfur and the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile), while a civil war had been taking place in South Sudan since 2013. The head of the private Russian firm RSB-group said that he heard PMCs had already went to Sudan and returned with a severe form of malaria.[105] Several dozen PMCs from RSB-group were sent to Libya in early 2017, to an industrial facility near the city of Benghazi, in an area held by forces loyal to Field marshal Khalifa Haftar, to help in demining operations. They left in February after completing their mission.[106] The RSB-group was in Libya at the request of the Libyan cement company (LCC).[107]

Casualties and awards

At least 62 PMCs belonging to Wagner were reported killed between October 2015 and September 2017 in Syria.[36][108][109] Other estimates put the number higher, with no fewer than 100 dying by the end of August 2016.[26] Another 40–60 were killed during the first several months of 2017, according to Fontanka.[78]

Two Wagner PMCs were also confirmed killed during the Battle of Debaltseve in Ukraine in early 2015.[8][110] Other estimates put the number of killed PMCs in Ukraine by October 2015, at between 30 and 80.[63] The Ukrainian SBU claimed the Wagner Group had lost 72 PMCs during the fighting at Luhansk International Airport (15), the Battle of Debaltseve (21) and on the demarcation line between government and separatist forces (36).[6] Four of those who died in the battle for the airport were killed at the nearby village of Khryashchevatoe.[111]

Families of killed PMCs are prohibited from talking to the media under a non-disclosure that is a prerequisite for them to get compensation from the company. The standard compensation for the family of a killed Wagner employee is up to 5 million rubles (about 80,000 dollars), according to a Wagner official.[26] In contrast, the girlfriend of a killed fighter stated the families are paid between 22,500 and 52,000 dollars depending on the killed PMC’s rank and mission.[112]

Wagner PMCs have received state awards[8] in the form of military decorations[29] and certificates signed by Russian President Putin.[113] Wagner commanders Andrey Bogatov and Andrey Troshev were awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation honor for assisting in the first capture of Palmyra in March 2016. Bogatov was seriously injured during the battle. Meanwhile, Alexander Kuznetsov and Dmitry Utkin had reportedly won the Order of Courage four times.[22]

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