ANOTHER TOOL FOR THE KREMLIN
Russia’s return to the global stage as a major power relies on an array of diplomatic, information, security, and economic tools that help the Kremlin punch above its weight. One of the newest instruments in that toolbox is the Wagner Group—a shadowy band of mercenaries loyal to the Kremlin and controlled by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a member of President Vladimir Putin’s coterie. Russian and Western media have been following the group’s expanding footprint from Ukraine and Syria to Sudan, the Central African Republic, and now possibly Libya and Venezuela. But despite the significant attention, Western understanding of Wagner’s role and capacity is still incomplete at best. This is partly due to Moscow’s relentless disinformation campaigns and efforts to deny responsibility for Wagner’s operations. Adding to the confusion is a false perception that Wagner is a private military company (PMC) no different than Western outfits like Academi (formerly Blackwater) and DynCorp International.
A detailed analysis of the group—including its origins, ties to the Putin regime, political and economic drivers, and capabilities—is essential for Western policymakers to better gauge the threat Wagner poses and how to respond. The group may not offer the Kremlin entirely new ways to wage war or build influence, but its existence is emblematic of how a more assertive Russia often—and at times implausibly—tries to evade responsibility for actions beyond its borders. Wagner is also a window into the broader dynamics of the Putin regime, including how it harnesses the ambitions and self-interests of elites like Prigozhin to create deniable and flexible tools. The West should not overreact to the challenge from Wagner, but a multilateral, low-cost campaign to shed light on the group and constrain its options will reduce the risk.
AN IMPROVISED IMITATION OF A PMC
Wagner is a vehicle the Kremlin uses to recruit, train, and deploy mercenaries, either to fight wars or to provide security and training to friendly regimes. Western and Russian sources often call it a PMC, but it falls outside widely used definitions despite performing some similar functions.1 It is not a true commercial entity operating in a global marketplace; no one who runs it will admit to doing so, and it is not a legally registeredcompany in Russia.
Wagner’s place outside the market—and the secrecy around it—stems from its origins as a covert creation of the Russian military, built to serve the needs of the Putin regime. Still, it was not part of a Kremlin masterplan. Moscow’s penchant for ad hoc decisionmaking shaped the group’s formation, and it developed in fits and starts as the Kremlin looked for advantageous and politically palatable ways to fight the wars in Ukraine and Syria in 2014–2015.
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