April 26, 2023   6 mins

The Wagner Group might be a gang of hired murderers, but it is also a well-oiled machine: peel back its layers of barbarity and you’ll find a slick private military company with plans to expand its influence throughout the world. Experts, including US Congress, have long argued that Wagner is controlled by the Russian special services, specifically the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence, commonly known as the GRU.

But this is wrong. I have been investigating Wagner for six months, and both sources in Ukraine and documents shown to me by the Dossier Center, an investigative project set up by Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky, tell a very different story. The company has never been under the GRU; nor does it report to the Ministry of Defence, with which it now has an increasingly fractious relationship, or any law enforcement or government agencies. In fact, unlike other Russian private or quasi-private military companies, such as Redut, it is funded and run by a single individual: Yevgeny Prigozhin, who in turn answers only to one man: Vladimir Putin.

Wagner, then, is vital to understanding the Kremlin’s emerging global strategy. Its mercenaries are not only butchering in Ukraine, but are also being deployed across Africa as the Kremlin seeks to hoover up the continent’s resources. As violence strafes Sudan, reports, backed up by my contacts on the ground, claim that Wagner supplied Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces with surface-to-air missiles in its battle for control of the state against Sudanese leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. The group is also helping to prop up the regime in Syria and is busy meddling in Baltic states as well.

Late last year, as the war in Ukraine intensified, Prigozhin, who holds no official position, was considered by many to be more powerful than most federal ministers. Some argued he even held more sway in the Kremlin than Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But even if Prigozhin wouldn’t take orders from the Ministry of Defence, Russian sources tell me he would work with it when it suited his needs.

At the direct request of Putin or his office, the Ministry was forced to provide support — including weapons, tanks, fighter jets and military bases — to Wagner. In return, Prigozhin’s units would sometimes find themselves under the operational control of the Ministry of Defence or the Russian special services: this has been the case in Syria since February 2022. For the most part, however, Wagner remains an independent entity, which suits Prigozhin perfectly. If the invasion goes wrong in Ukraine, he won’t be the person responsible; if it goes well, he can point to his role in any success.

For the first time, documents handed to me by the Dossier Center reveal how Prigozhin finances Wagner, as well as many of his other projects. It is a web of dark money that spreads through dozens of countries. Prigozhin is linked to several hundred companies registered in Russia that received government contracts for various state functions, such as building military camps, organising rubbish collections, and supplying food for the military, hospitals and schools. From 2011 to 2018, these companies received more than 5,000 Russian state contracts worth 209 billion rubles (£2 billion), with some of these profits going to projects involving Wagner and so-called “political technologists” — those whom the Kremlin puts in charge of influencing political systems — abroad.

Contracts are generally awarded on a non-competitive basis, but none of Prigozhin’s companies have ever been severely penalised for this behaviour. Due to the legal simplicity of registering new companies in Russia, his firms can dodge sanctions easily. Once a company has been sanctioned, its cash is simply moved to the balance of another of Prigozhin’s companies (as yet unknown to the authorities) — and the trading can begin again. Prigozhin’s internal documents on his many African and Syrian projects illustrate this cash flow, freely paying the necessary expenses for projects in countries of interest to him, including in cash.

In Africa, as the crisis in Sudan shows, Wagner is fast making the region’s many problems worse. Sources in the Central African Republic have confirmed that Prigozhin recently paid bribes to political influencers and local military leaders, while further reports suggest the group is planning to increase its level of activity in Libya (possibly, due to elections that are scheduled for summer 2023). When I was in the region last year, a contact who had recently been inside Burkina Faso (which had just experienced a coup) showed me photos of streets filled with Slavic-looking tough guys.

This all benefits Prigozhin, who is also growing fat off oil and mining concessions in Syria and Africa. In 2019, the Syrian parliament signed contracts for the development of three blocks of gas and oil fields with two Russian companies, Velada and Mercury, both of which are affiliated with Prigozhin. The monthly share of Prigozhin’s structures from the extraction of natural resources is likely to be about $20 million.

One former Wagner commander who fought in Syria recently told me how Prigozhin’s office in the country is in a room rented from the Russian Foreign Ministry in the centre of Damascus, where large amounts of cash are kept for necessary expenses (salaries, recruitment of locals and so on). He explained how the battalion commander once took out about $200,000 for expenses. The cash itself is transported in and out of Syria on private jets used either by Prigozhin or by his many underlings.

Prigozhin knows the value of hiring fighters who have served in some of the toughest places on earth and earned a reputation for viciousness. He pays them well — often more than what is stated in their contract — via both bank transfers and bundles of cash from one of his offices. According to contracts signed by the fighters, relatives or other preselected individuals could collect cash from the offices on their behalf. However, in 2020, security measures were tightened, and Wagner employees are now required to present a badge with an identification number to receive their pay in cash.

Of course, nothing is ever simple, or pleasant, with Prigozhin. As a compulsive micro-manager, he is known to punish employees with large fines for petty disobediences and offences: excessive use of alcohol, drug use, improper use of social media and so on. He is also known to be violent with those who work for him.

Sources in Ukraine tell me that Prigozhin would regularly liaise with high-ranking generals from the Ministry of Defence, including General Sergei Surovikin, the man in charge of Russia’s “special Military Operation” in Ukraine from October to January 2023. Things have not gone well for Russia in Ukraine, which is why Surovikin was replaced, and Prigozhin has repeatedly publicly criticised the Ministry of Defence for its performance — he ridiculed the regular army, claiming his own Wagner units were far superior.

Relations between Wagner and the defence ministry worsened throughout early 2023, especially over the battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut, where both the Russian military and Wagner is battling to claim credit for the city’s eventual fall, as I discovered when I reported from there earlier this year. According to an April 2023 British intelligence report, relations between the two have become so factious that “Russia’s military leadership likely wants a replacement PMC that it has more control over”. But it was also at pains to point out the difficulties. “No other known Russian PMC currently approaches Wagner’s size or combat power,” it concluded.

If this seems like a chaos of internal conflict, it’s one that may well have approval from the very top. Putin has praised Josef Stalin on several occasions — and Stalin, perhaps more than anything, relied on internal rivalries to maintain control. In this context, Prigozhin’s repeated criticisms of the Ministry of Defence are beneficial to Putin, not only for pointing out mistakes that might be corrected, but for pushing it to perform better (while ensuring that neither side becomes too powerful). It is, in effect, win-win for Putin.

But for the rest of the world it is not. Wagner and Prigozhin now face allegations of terrorism, political assassinations and the use of rape as a weapon of war. Last November, UK law firm McCue Jury and Partners announced it was suing Wagner on behalf of Ukrainian victims who have fled to the UK. Jason McCue, a senior partner, told me that the decision to pursue the claim was an easy one. “They have committed war crimes in Bucha… They are the ones who identified civilian targets so the Russian military could strike them. And then there are the numerous documented acts of torture they have committed against both soldiers and civilians.”

And this catalogue of allegations seems destined to swell. Since last year, the number of mercenaries has at least tripled. These recruits not only increased their military capability in general, but also gained vital experience of participating in larger scale operations, such as in Bakhmut. Their equipment has also been diversified, with greater numbers of high-tech heavy weapons flowing in. Wagner is now no longer merely a private military company, but an army.

Behind them stands Prigozhin, a man whose political ambitions, and presence in the Russian public consciousness, has never been greater. Russian aggression is growing globally, and as the Wagner Files reveal, a globally connected, well-funded private army is now at its forefront.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)