March 3, 2022

Four days before the invasion of Ukraine, an eerily prescient documentary aired on France 5. Le monde en face:Wagner, l’armée de l’ombre de Poutine assiduously tracks the activities of the Russian President’s “shadow army”: the Wagner Group, which arranges military “solutions” for the Kremlin. Since the film was broadcast, members of the 6,000-strong mercenary organisation have been deployed to Ukraine. Their orders: to kill President Zelenskyy and dismember his government.

This isn’t the first time the Wagner Group has taken part in a war; it’s just the first time it’s caught the attention of UK newspapers. In France, though, it has been on the radar for years. And with good reason. The Putin regime has long had bases in the south of France (Putin himself was actually holidaying in Biarritz when Yeltsin called him with the order to take over the Kremlin). But more pressingly, in the last decade Wagner have increasingly interfered in French zones of influence in the Middle East and Africa: Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and, in January this year, Mali, the focus of France’s Operation Barkhane against Sahel jihadists.

As Alexandra Jousset and Ksenia Bolchakova’s TV documentary made plain, the key problem in understanding the Wagner Group is this: it does not officially exist. No company of that name is registered in Russia. Instead, Wagner is a grey network of Russian businesses and mercenary activity. But what is clear in the murk are two key figures.

Wagner’s founder and leader is former Russian special forces officer Dmitry Utkin, a veteran of the Chechen wars. Reputedly, Lieutenant-colonel Utkin’s military call sign was “Wagner”, after Hitler’s favourite composer (Utkin is obsessed with Nazi Germany, suggesting Putin’s “de-nazification” programme could start closer to home than the Ukraine). But the power behind the Wagnerian throne is oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is serially sanctioned by the United States, including for his financing of the troll-factory Internet Research Agency, which interfered in American elections in 2016 and 2018.

In 2020, investigative news site Bellingcat published telephone records revealing that Prigozhin had made 99 calls to Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff in eight months. So cosy is Prigozhin with the Russian president that he is dubbed “Putin’s chef”, metaphorically serving up what the Kremlin requires in foreign policy. The Kremlin itself maintains that Prigozhin is quite literally Putin’s caterer — he is, after all, a skilled restauranteer. Beginning as a hot-dog seller in Leningrad, Prigozhin went onto oversee a chain of classy restaurants good enough even for the epicurean French president Jacques Chirac, and has coordinated many banquets for Putin.

Still, the Kremlin continuously and strenuously denies it has any influence over Wagner. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently blasted the group for ”supporting” Mali’s ruling junta, and accused Russia of lying about Wagner’s existence. “When we asked our Russian colleagues about Wagner, they said they don’t know anything,” Le Drian told France 24. He added: “When it comes to mercenaries who are Russian veterans, who have Russian weapons, who are transported by Russian planes, it would be surprising if the Russian authorities did not know about it.”

In truth, Wagner and Russian security departments overlap. Putin has been photographed at a Kremlin banquet with Wagner troops (including Dmitry Utkin), whose training facility at Molkino in southern Russia is next door to that of Russian special forces, the spetsnaz.

The Wagner Group was birthed in Ukraine in 2014, when Russian military intelligence backed unmarked troops led by Utkin in the annexation of Crimea. Since then, the group’s web of influence has spread to the Middle East, Latin America, and principally Africa. Shocking revelations about the conduct of Wagner fighters followed. In 2017, four Wagner operatives — the group’s distinctive skull logo clearly visible on their uniforms — mutilated and eventually beheaded a Syrian army deserter, Mohammed Taha Ismail al-Abdullah, with a spade. (Tracking down, interrogating and murdering rebels and deserters is very much the Wagner Group’s modus operandi; in Ukraine it is most likely to be at work in areas already seized by the Russian Army.) A fifth Wagnerian acted as the cameraman for the movie. A lawsuit brought by al-Abdullah’s brother got unsurprisingly short shrift from the Moscow City Court.

Meanwhile, in the Central African Republic, both the UN and France claim that Wagner have been responsible for raping and robbing unarmed civilians in the country’s rural areas. An exclusive document obtained by France 5 details the execution of a man on the side of a road in the north of the country by a Wagner unit. In Libya, the BBC obtained a Samsung tablet owned by a Wagner fighter, which revealed he had been placing unmarked personnel mines in a civilian area — an unalloyed war crime, enough to get any real army in the dock at Den Haag.

Which explains, perhaps, why Putin uses the Wagner Group. In the words of Kevin Limonier, Professeur en Géopolitique et Études Slaves at the University of Paris, subcontracting operations to Wagner allows the Kremlin the “denial of causality”. Cost is also a factor: Wagner creatively self-finances (Bashar al-Assad’s regime allowed the Group 25% of the profits from oil and gas fields seized), thus lifting pressure on Moscow’s coffers.

But the group’s usefulness goes beyond that. Using Wagner as a proxy avoids home scrutiny of combat losses. As many as 600 hundred Wagnerians died fighting in Syria alone. In early 2018 Wagner fighters — who, paid about £2,000 a month, are mostly former Russian regulars — attacked an outpost manned by US special forces and their allies at a Conoco gas plant in Syria’s Deir Ezzor Province: embarrassingly, the Wagner company suffered 200 casualties. Yevgeny “The Chef” Prigozhin is unlikely to inform potential clients that his crack force is not all it’s cracked up to be.

It is flexible, though. An examination of the Central African Republic’s recent history shows how Moscow has shifted Wagner from combat roles to propping up fragile regimes by providing troop-training, defence of installations, and the protection of top officials. France 5 also discovered that Wagner is behind troll factories in Mali and neighbouring countries pumping out anti-French propaganda.

Indeed, no regime seems more prone to Wagner’s influence than Mali, where the group’s appearance at Camp 101, north of Bamako airport, in January was one of the reasons given by French president Emmanuel Macron for his recent decision to pull out 2,400 troops from the country. Macron told French media that the Mali military junta considered Wagner “the best partners they can find to protect their power, not to fight against terrorism”. France was not interested in junta-propping. Macron also claimed the Wagner group was “arriving with predatory intentions, but why?”

To build Russian influence, Monsieur Macron. Wagner is the Kremlin’s new favoured tool for establishing a political presence in receptive regimes. Macron’s retreat from the Sahel, where the French army has fought an insufficiently applauded and under-supported war against Islamic extremism, leaves a vacuum, and politics hates a vacuum. Enter: Putin, Prigozhin, and 1,000 Wagner troops.

Ukraine. Mali. Syria. As far as the Wagner Group is concerned it is all one simultaneous war. As Vassily, an active Wagner mercenary, told France 5, “At present, the Russian Federation is not yet an empire, but it intends to become one again… Wagner is one of the instruments to achieve this goal.” The danger is that while all eyes are on Ukraine, Putin is wielding the Wagner Group to achieve victories for Russian power politics in parts of the world British newspapers pay less attention to. And that would be a real Götterdämmerung for the West.

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