Articles

Sympathy for the Devil: Russian Mercenary Operations Around the World as a Case Study for Future Geopolitics

This paper was written by Dan C. for the course on Geography and Strategy (IWP 634). Dan is an IWP student in the Strategic Intelligence program with a background in research and analysis of post-Soviet spaces, the study of extremism, and intelligence analysis.

Introduction

Modern geostrategy has moved rapidly forward with each generation, consigning many activities once considered the norm as obsolete, cruel, or even war crimes. Some tactics eschew the test of time, for better or worse – horseback combat has been used within the last two decades in major Middle Eastern campaigns, and torture has found its way into many modern battlefields and black sites, despite the “best intentions” of the nations conducting it. Throughout Russian history, however, the use of unconventional forces, or mercenary fighters, has stuck around in a way that it has not for many other peer nations. The forces are also not strictly private – they represent ex-military “volunteers” acting on the orders of Russian military intelligence, and their funding and transit are, at times, ubiquitous[1]. As some of the modern world’s largest proprietors of asymmetric warfare and political assassination, it seems hard to put anything past Russia, and a great deal of analysis has gone into endeavoring to anticipate future Russian actions.

This paper is designed to explore the hypothesis that Russian clandestine activities, especially those focused in Africa, the Middle East, and even South America, are laying the foundation for the future of Russian foreign policy and can be used to analyze future Russian tactical and political aspirations. Evidence will be primarily based on previous documented activity, as well as analysis of figures at high levels of the strategic planning end of operations and their philosophical and political influences, objectives, and goals, with particular emphasis on the recurring theme of the “Russkiy Mir” and the Gerasimov Doctrine.

Background: Russia, Land of Mercenaries

As an article in the Jamestown Foundation mentions overtly that pre-revolutionary Russia had a long history of using mercenary forces. The Carsten Rohde were utilized by Ivan the Terrible both for operations and for economic development; the Stroganov family used mercenaries in Siberia; and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky’s “volunteer” forces were used against the Polish-Lithuanian forces. Following the revolution, “mercenary” units were used in Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and beyond, even into the 1990s in Yugoslavia.[2]

In the 21st century, the applications of mercenary fighters began to shift slightly to more official channels, despite maintaining similar sponsors as those they had historically maintained, which reflected the differences between Soviet mercenaries and those of Imperial Russia. Rubikon represented an early attempt to create a Russian PMC (private military company) with a specific set of objectives in the modern geopolitical sphere. Its significance was primarily in that it represented the interest that Russian siloviki began to hold in monetizing armed forces. During this period, there was interest within the Duma of the Russian Federation to promote laws legalizing the formation of armed military companies to promote the interests of so-called “strategically important enterprises,” including Gazprom and Transneft[3].

It is of significant interest that much of the push for modern implementation of private military companies came from politicians who, in some cases, received significant funds from foreign gas, oil, or mineral companies.[4] This is consistent with much of world history prior to the 20th century and in some cases beyond it – European nations commonly used mercenary forces to seek out and secure precious resources from far-flung lands at the behest of their political leaders. In the modern era, to avoid complexity, it is common to refer to the practice of filching extremely valuable resources from vulnerable or struggling populations (sometimes after a period of plague, conflict, or both) for much less than the actual value of those resources as “colonialism.” This practice is, today, both internationally frowned upon and considered to be a foundational pillar of modern capitalism. This paper, however, does not have time to discuss the use of slave labor by Nestle, Hershey, or Target, and does not seek to create a false equivalency between Russian actions and those of the West, except to say that for any organization in the modern era to use models proven to be outdated, immoral, and objectively cruel by history is effectively failing an open notes test and expecting to be paid more for it.

Refocusing on Russia specifically, the modern practice of mercenary armies has been debated as having multiple meanings and applications. Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, father of the “Gerasimov Doctrine,” emphasizes non-linear warfare, asymmetric operations, and “high technology” methods in fighting chiefly western opponents.[5] Many see the mercenary units as an absolute product of the Gerasimov Doctrine. Others support “power economy” strategies, in which force is used in a “state sponsored system of coercion” to achieve the government’s (and its beneficiaries’) economic goals.[6] It would make everyone’s lives a lot simpler if they just said they wanted to carry colonialism into the next century and be done with it. Since 2014, Russia has made consistent use of the Wagner ChVK (Wagner paramilitary company) for strategic and economic foreign policy goals. In order to understand the future of Russian use of this organization or of others like it, we can and should examine the previous applications of the company.

Wagner ChVK’s Founding and History

Wagner PMC was allegedly formed in the early stages of the Ukrainian conflict, pulled from an organized volunteer fighting division led by Dmitri “Vagner” Utkin, a former Spetsnaz commander who held an obsession with the Third Reich and Nazism. The officer was an elongated, bald man with a rabid following who would make an intimidating and easy figurehead for the PMC, but, while the early days of Wagner’s operations placed him front and center, the truth was a lot more complicated.[7] According to an investigation by Bellingcat, Utkin was essentially utilized as a decoy while voices within the Russian Defense Ministry called for the formation of a “deniable, off-balance army” capable of conducting strategic, tactical, and economic operations that benefit the state but can be easily disavowed in the event of discovery or international backlash. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s catering company, Concord Management and Consulting, would become the matryoshka doll of Wagner, and gained a man named Dmitry Utkin as the CEO in 2017. Interestingly, this man was not the original “Wagner” Utkin and was essentially fabricated through a legal name change months earlier for the purpose of the role.

In 2018, following a scandal involving Wagner troops in Syria, Prigozhin removed this puppet and appointed himself the CEO instead.[8] Prigozhin got his start as a criminal and human trafficker in Saint Petersburg, where he forced minors into prostitution. Unsurprisingly, his jump in the modern era to running a PMC and massive collection of companies and holding a huge number of contracts with the Russian government has been marked by the use of convicts, individuals with a history of violence, and those who are seen by many in the Russian government as too dangerous to be allowed to spend much downtime in the country. The function of Wagner thus became both a means of getting highly dangerous individuals out of the country and giving the government a clandestine and deniable means of power projection and economic measures around the world.[9]

After being forged in the fires of the Ukrainian incursion, Wagner found itself called on by the Russian Federation to integrate into operations in Syria alongside uniformed troops. The government was not required to report on the deaths of mercenaries, and, as a result, they were able to portray operations against ISIS as far less costly in blood and gold than they were. While Prigozhin had previously benefited from the stewardship of the Ministry of Defence, and his troops were equipped with some of the best Russian weapons and uniforms available, after the Deir ez-Zor fiasco, in which hundreds of Wagner mercenaries went up against U.S. Special Forces and were decimated, they lost some of this support and found themselves more often left with lower-quality equipment and pay.[10]

2018 saw Wagner deployed in African countries as well, including Libya, and, according to a Bellingcat investigation, Wagner had “political advisors” acting on behalf of Prigozhin in more than 20 African states and plans for involvement in another 19.[11] The investigation obtained internal documents and built off of an investigation from the Russian website “Proekt,” which stated that:

According to Proekt’s analysis of the leaked documents and follow-up interviews with current or former employees, the tasks and scope of work vary greatly by country. In some countries, like Mozambique and the Central African Republic (CAR), the lead role is played by military mercenaries. In others, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe and Madagascar, there were only political strategists, often boosted by the presence of Russian “bodyguards”. In Chad and Benin, Prigozhin’s people work with politicians close to the armed Muslim group Seleka. In some countries, like the CAR and Mozambique, Prigozhin already had business interests in addition to political interference and paramilitary presence.[12]

The investigation focused on one individual who appeared to be in command of many of the operations in Africa, who went by the callsigns “Mazay” and “Konstantin.” The man’s full name was Konstantin Aleksandrovich Pikalov, and he was associated with a private security company in Saint Petersburg called “Convoy” prior to his work with Wagner under Prigozhin.[13] The Bellingcat investigation speculates that this man took on a similar role to that evidently played by Dmitry Utkin early on, although he did not take on the false name to go with it.

Pikalov did have an interesting background, originating in Russia’s military unit 99795 near Saint Petersburg. The base was allegedly an experimental unit with interest in “determining the effects of radioactive waves on living organisms.”[14] Putting aside for a moment that this makes Konstantin sound like a rejected Marvel supervillain, it displays another prime example of how Wagner recruited leadership from high-ranking members of the military special services. While working with the Russian special services, Konstantin also conducted intimidation operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 2014 election cycle on behalf of a Kremlin-friendly candidate with a troop of dancing Cossacks, who, aside from the dancing, conducted themselves in the manner of a special forces unit while wearing traditional Cossack military regalia.[15]

In addition to activities in Africa, Mozambique, the Middle East, and domestically, Wagner forces have been sent to Venezuela and Nicaragua, and, in 2020, several were arrested in Belarus.[16] Their missions have differed depending on location, but very often there is a significant economic incentive in the form of natural resources from which Prigozhin and his allies are able to benefit, whether in the form of oil shares and access, rare earth elements, or simply proximity to the United States in the cases of Nicaragua and Venezuela (though both nations are also rife with natural resources to be exploited by Wagner).[17] Having been across three continents thus far in their ambitious operations, one must wonder where Wagner could be deployed next, and what for.

The Future of Asymmetric Warfare

Wagner’s recent activity in Africa (and Libya more specifically), as well as its deployments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Belarus, seems to be a trustworthy model useful for understanding deployments in the future. The mercenary group is less likely to see action in areas where Russia has official military operations or peacekeeping, due to its unpredictability and association with war crimes. The Ministry of Defence has also taken steps to distance itself from the company since the Deir ez-Zor incident in 2018.[18] With the possible exception of scenarios in which Wagner can absorb some of the casualty costs of a military deployment, the future of its operations is likely to be in scenarios benefitting a small number of influential Kremlin policymakers fiscally, or in offering clandestine support to countries into which Russia is interested in extending influence.

The operations in recent years reflect these aspirations: Wagner has shifted largely from being strictly a clandestine force to an economic and geopolitical tool for projection of power and influence, and a way for Prigozhin and his allies in the Kremlin to expand their financial networks and access significant global resources.[19] With Russia’s geopolitical goals in the Trump era opening opportunities to expand influence and make arrangements with several countries that used to have more significant relationships with the U.S., Wagner is able to serve as a multipurpose organized force able to meet those goals.

Where U.S. influence is waning, Russia is interested in accelerating the process while also building relationships and capability. According to the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine” to which many prominent Russian politicians and military leaders seem to adhere, asymmetric warfare is the future of opposing NATO around the world and countering U.S. influence, and operating PMCs like Wagner to battle for influence with other states and to complicate the battlefield has quickly become a favored tactic under Putin.[20] One scenario that is a likely fit for the use of Wagner mercenaries by Russia is a repeat of the Crimea annexation, occurring in a post-Soviet border state like Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, or Kazakhstan. If Russia perceived either an opportunity to annex portions of one of these countries with a large number of Russian-speaking citizens, to interfere in election proceedings, or to escalate a low-level internal conflict and create an opening for use of “official” peacekeeper soldiers, it may do so using Wagner “volunteers” as it has in the past.

A major long-term strategic objective of Russia is to undermine and potentially even eliminate NATO as a whole. Using the Gerasimov doctrine, which incorporates Wagner’s asymmetric warfare techniques and economic measures alongside political maneuvering, the Internet Research Agency (also a weapon of Prigozhin’s) to spread misinformation, and funding or backing of multiple sides in many low-level political conflicts, Russia’s overall foreign influence is able to be both active and reactive, fast-moving, and difficult to predict.

The key to defeating it, however, as described by Molly McKew in her piece on the doctrine in Politico is effectively to shine a light on it. By recognizing the way that the different components of the doctrine come together and connecting them in the spotlight, it is possible to weaken them and weaken the structure backing them. She writes that the “shadowy puppeteering at the heart of the Gerasimov Doctrine also makes it inherently fragile. Its tactics begin to fail when light is thrown onto how they work and what they aim to achieve. This requires leadership and clarity about the threat—which we saw briefly in France, when the government rallied to warn voters about Russian info ops in advance of the presidential election.”[21] Wagner mercenaries will still operate in the field, but knowing who they are, why they are there, and what their mission and objective are reveals the key to undermining the benefits of using the mercenaries. When the time comes that the mercenaries are more trouble than they are worth, they may become a relic of the past, which would represent a victory for supporters of rule of law in the world, and the West.

Conclusion

Russia will most likely continue to incorporate the use of Wagner mercenaries into clandestine operations and asymmetric warfare under the Gerasimov doctrine. Mercenaries have worked well for Russia for centuries, and they are highly applicable to a number of modern scenarios that Russia either anticipates or may seek to create. While the soldiers of fortune do not represent the only threat of a multilayered global strategy, their recent history of torture, war crimes, and abuse mark them as highly problematic. It is not enough to wait for the company to be unleashed against a NATO ally or to come up against U.S. forces in Africa or Syria again – U.S. policymakers and media should make a point to expose the crimes of Wagner PMC. By shining a light on their activities and directly linking them back to the Kremlin, it is possible to begin the critically important process of holding the Russian government and oligarchy accountable for the wrongs they are perpetuating. Wagner, like many of Prigozhin’s holdings, is a threat to peace and security in every nation in which it operates and to the principles of modern moral society in those it hasn’t yet touched. Wagner cannot be allowed to continue operating and existing without accountability. NATO countries should take a hard line against doing any kind of business with Prigozhin and any of his partners or allies, whatever the financial cost. It is shameful that to this day some companies in Germany and other central European nations are so willing to overlook Prigozhin’s crimes against humanity and Wagner’s war crimes for the sake of business deals.

Under Article 5, NATO partners have a responsibility to aid one another in the event of an attack by an outside party. Today, using a multilateral system of political and psychological warfare incorporating Wagner, Russia is actively attacking NATO’s very existence through its member states. If we do not want to see the organization and the nations that comprise it weakened to the point of obsolescence, we must act now to create a unified posture that rejects every part of Russia’s attacks on the moral, social, and political integrity of Western Civilization. As McKew describes, the key to the Gerasimov doctrine lies in ensuring your enemies do not know they are already at war with you until they have already lost.[22] On a societal level, it is time to wake up to reality and understand that there is a war going on for our minds and for our souls, and to actually start fighting back.

Endnotes

[1] “Diplomacy and Dividends: Who Really Controls the Wagner Group?” Foreign Policy Research Institute. October 16, 2019. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.fpri.org/article/2019/10/diplomacy-and-dividends-who-really-controls-the-wagner-group/.

[2] Karasik, Theodore and Stephen Blank, Editors. “Russia in the Middle East.” The Jamestown Foundation. December 2018. Accessed January 14, 2021. https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Russia-in-the-Middle-East-online.pdf.

[3] Sukhankin, Sergey. “Russian PMCs and Irregulars: Past Battles and New Endeavors.” Jamestown. May 13, 2020. Accessed October 15, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/russian-pmcs-and-irregulars-past-battles-and-new-endeavors/.

[4] “Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed/.

[5] McKew, Molly K., Jacob Heilbrunn, Michael Crowley, Jeremy B. White, Sam Sutton and Carly Sitrin, and Bill Mahoney and Josh Gerstein. “The Gerasimov Doctrine.” POLITICO Magazine. Accessed October 16, 2020. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/05/gerasimov-doctrine-russia-foreign-policy-215538.

[6] Sukhankin, Sergey. “‘Continuing War by Other Means’: The Case of Wagner, Russia’s Premier Private Military Company in the Middle East.” Jamestown. July 13, 2018. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/continuing-war-by-other-means-the-case-of-wagner-russias-premier-private-military-company-in-the-middle-east/.

[7] “Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed/.

[8] “Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed/.

[9] “Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed/.

[10] Reynolds, Nathaniel. “Putin’s Not-So-Secret Mercenaries: Patronage, Geopolitics, and the Wagner Group.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/07/08/putin-s-not-so-secret-mercenaries-patronage-geopolitics-and-wagner-group-pub-79442.

[11] “Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed/.

[12] “Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed/.

[13]  “Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed

[14]  “Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed

[15]  “Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed

[16] Kirillova, Kseniya. “Ukrainian Reverberations of the Wagner Arrests in Belarus: Russian Disinformation?” Jamestown. September 14, 2020. Accessed October 17, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/ukrainian-reverberations-of-the-wagner-arrests-in-belarus-russian-disinformation/.

[17] Sukhankin, Sergey. “Russian PMCs and Irregulars: Past Battles and New Endeavors.” Jamestown. May 13, 2020. Accessed October 15, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/russian-pmcs-and-irregulars-past-battles-and-new-endeavors/.

[18] Reynolds, Nathaniel. “Putin’s Not-So-Secret Mercenaries: Patronage, Geopolitics, and the Wagner Group.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/07/08/putin-s-not-so-secret-mercenaries-patronage-geopolitics-and-wagner-group-pub-79442.

[19] Reynolds, Nathaniel. “Putin’s Not-So-Secret Mercenaries: Patronage, Geopolitics, and the Wagner Group.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/07/08/putin-s-not-so-secret-mercenaries-patronage-geopolitics-and-wagner-group-pub-79442.

[20] McKew, Molly K., Jacob Heilbrunn, Michael Crowley, Jeremy B. White, Sam Sutton and Carly Sitrin, and Bill Mahoney and Josh Gerstein. “The Gerasimov Doctrine.” POLITICO Magazine. Accessed October 16, 2020. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/05/gerasimov-doctrine-russia-foreign-policy-215538.

[21] McKew, Molly K., Jacob Heilbrunn, Michael Crowley, Jeremy B. White, Sam Sutton and Carly Sitrin, and Bill Mahoney and Josh Gerstein. “The Gerasimov Doctrine.” POLITICO Magazine. Accessed October 16, 2020. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/05/gerasimov-doctrine-russia-foreign-policy-215538.

[22] McKew, Molly K., Jacob Heilbrunn, Michael Crowley, Jeremy B. White, Sam Sutton and Carly Sitrin, and Bill Mahoney and Josh Gerstein. “The Gerasimov Doctrine.” POLITICO Magazine. Accessed October 16, 2020

Bibliography

Atlamazoglou, Stavros. “How Putin’s Favorite Mercenaries Are Using Secretive Operations to Tip the Balance in Africa.” Business Insider. September 09, 2020. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-secretive-operations-by-wagner-group-mercenaries-benefit-russia-2020-9.

“Diplomacy and Dividends: Who Really Controls the Wagner Group?” Foreign Policy Research Institute. October 16, 2019. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.fpri.org/article/2019/10/diplomacy-and-dividends-who-really-controls-the-wagner-group/.

Karasik, Theodore and Stephen Blank, Editors. “Russia in the Middle East.” The Jamestown Foundation. December 2018. Accessed January 14, 2021. https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Russia-in-the-Middle-East-online.pdf.

Kirillova, Kseniya. “Ukrainian Reverberations of the Wagner Arrests in Belarus: Russian Disinformation?” Jamestown. September 14, 2020. Accessed October 17, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/ukrainian-reverberations-of-the-wagner-arrests-in-belarus-russian-disinformation/.

McKew, Molly K., Jacob Heilbrunn, Michael Crowley, Jeremy B. White, Sam Sutton and Carly Sitrin, and Bill Mahoney and Josh Gerstein. “The Gerasimov Doctrine.” POLITICO Magazine. Accessed October 16, 2020. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/05/gerasimov-doctrine-russia-foreign-policy-215538.

“Putin Chef’s Kisses of Death: Russia’s Shadow Army’s State-Run Structure Exposed.” Bellingcat. August 24, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2020/08/14/pmc-structure-exposed/.

Reynolds, Nathaniel. “Putin’s Not-So-Secret Mercenaries: Patronage, Geopolitics, and the Wagner Group.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/07/08/putin-s-not-so-secret-mercenaries-patronage-geopolitics-and-wagner-group-pub-79442.

Sukhankin, Sergey. “‘Continuing War by Other Means’: The Case of Wagner, Russia’s Premier Private Military Company in the Middle East.” Jamestown. July 13, 2018. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/continuing-war-by-other-means-the-case-of-wagner-russias-premier-private-military-company-in-the-middle-east/.

Sukhankin, Sergey. “Russian PMCs and Irregulars: Past Battles and New Endeavors.” Jamestown. May 13, 2020. Accessed October 15, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/russian-pmcs-and-irregulars-past-battles-and-new-endeavors/.

Sukhankin, Sergey. “Russian Mercenaries Pour Into Africa and Suffer More Losses (Part One).” Jamestown. January 28, 2020. Accessed October 14, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/russian-mercenaries-pour-into-africa-and-suffer-more-losses-part-one/.

Sukhankin, Sergey. “Wagner Group in Libya: Weapon of War or Geopolitical Tool?” Jamestown. June 26, 2020. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://jamestown.org/program/wagner-group-in-libya-weapon-of-war-or-geopolitical-tool/.

“Threats, Lies and Videotape: Prigozhin’s Long-Running War on Free Media.” Bellingcat. August 20, 2020. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.bellingcat.com/news/africa/2020/08/20/threats-lies-and-videotape-prigozhins-long-running-war-on-free-media/.