The Wagner Group is a notorious private military company from Russia. The insights about their whereabouts and origins are not available. According to various reports, the Wagner Group is officially described as a private military company capable of deploying thousands of private military contractors in combat zones. Everything changed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the group emerged from the shadows and became more publicly exposed. At some point, they were wagging Russian war and offensive operations independently from the Russian Armed Forces.
The Wagner Group was a relatively unknown company in private military contractors. They appeared on the public scene in 2014 after they supported pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s armed conflict. That was an introduction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, where they played a significant role.
Since then, more information started surfacing. Now, they are described as a kind of “unofficial” pro-Russian military force. Their operators were in Syria, Lybia, Venezuela, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. All these countries have a common element. They are places where Russia and its President Putin have interests. Western experts correlated to the security topics consider it clear that they are aligned with the actions of Vladimir Putin’s government.
While the Wagner Group is not the only Russian-born private military company with these characteristics, it is best known. Wagner finds precedents for his model in the Balkan War and the Russian volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
According to the reports, the founder of the Wagner Group is reported to be Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, a former 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). The company’s name comes from Utkin’s call sign (“Wagner”).
The operators working under the Wagner Group are mostly Russian ex-special forces operators (Spetsnaz). They have set up their barracks in Molkin, Krasnodar Krai. Since their foundation, they had no permanent name or legal address in the first years. They were operating fully in shadows. Today, the situation is quite different.Today, they are registered as a company in Argentina and have offices in Saint Petersburg and Hong Kong.
Their military deployment capacity fluctuates between hundreds and thousands in combat zones. In 2014, there were no more than 100 operators. Since then, they have grown up in numbers. In early 2016, Wagner Group had a membership of 1,000, which later rose to 5,000 by August 2017 and 6,000 by December 2017. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the number of operators increased to more than 50,000 thousand at the end of 2022.
The pay of Wagner private military contractors (PMCs), who are usually aged between 35 and 55, is estimated to be between 80,000 ($1087) and 250,000 ($3397) Russian rubles a month. One source also stated the pay was as high as 300,000 ($4077).
Today, Russian private military contractors, including the Wagner Group, are worldwide guns for hire. They are usually deployed in war zones to carry out more specific actions, such as providing security or targeted attacks.
Wagner’s staff has operated on the front lines of Russia’s recent wars in Ukraine and Syria. Sometimes, they have fought alongside the “official” Russian army independently. Wagner operators have also been in Libya and have had a more traditional training and security role in Sudan and the Central African Republic. They were allegedly deployed to Venezuela in 2019 in support of Nicholas Maduro. There are reported deaths of Wagner operators in Mozambique.
Yevgeny Prigozhin established the PMC Wagner Group in St. Petersburg. The operators are dispatched to the territory of the LPR. In August, Wagner Group forces occupied the villages of Khryashchevatoye and Novosvetlovka. In early September, a 40-man detachment stormed the Lugansk airport.
Wagner Group participates in the battles for Debaltseve. In the summer, the first detachments of Wagner PMCs arrive in Syria. After the Russian operation in Syria, the unit’s fighters took part in battles in mountainous Latakia on the border with Turkey.
Starting in February, the assault detachments of PMC Wagner Group engaged in fighting in the vicinity of Palmyra. On March 13, 2016, a Su-25 from the Russian Aerospace Forces attacked a PMC camp in the El Bardo area, resulting in several casualties. The commander of the 4th SHO, Andrey Bogatov (“Tramp”), who would later become a Hero of Russia, loses his arm. On March 27, the 1st SHO Ratibor storms Palmyra. Immediately after the city’s liberation, the Wagner Group disappeared: equipment was removed, and their personnel were withdrawn to the Russian Federation.
After ISIS militants captured Palmyra in December 2017, the Wagner Group fought from the T4 airbase to Palmyra. On March 2, the 1st SHO Ratibor storms the city again. Additionally, Wagner Group detachments conquered gas fields north of Palmyra, restoring power supply to Syria. During the summer, Wagner Group operators are involved in battles for the Akerbat fortified area. Following the area’s liberation in September 2017, Wagner operators broke through to Deir ez-Zor, releasing the city besieged by ISIS militants. Subsequently, the Wagner Group operators cross the Euphrates, establish a foothold in the area of the village of Hasham, and conclude the liberation of Deir ez-Zor, clearing the last ISIS-fortified area on the island of Khuveija Katya.
2018 – 2021
US aircraft launched a massive airstrike on the Wagner convoy near Khasham. Simultaneously, since the beginning of the year, the Wagner Group opened an African direction: the first instructors appeared in Sudan and the Central African Republic. PMC Wagner Group assault units participated in the storming of Tripoli, supporting the forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA). With the onset of fighting in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2020, the local military, aided by PMC assault detachments, repelled militants from Bangui and took part in the CAR’s operations to restore order. Additionally, PMC Wagner instructors commence work in Mali at the request of the country’s government.
From March 19, Wagner units actively participated in a war in Ukraine. On May 8, Wagner assault detachments stormed Popasna, defeating the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) grouping. Following this, Wagner units occupied Svetlodarsk, cleared the territory of the Uglegorsk TPP, and advanced to the outskirts of Bakhmut (Russians use the old name for the city, Artemovsk).
Assault detachments of Wagner Group, led by Anton Elizarov (“Lotus”), storm Soledar. Problems arose with ammunition supply, with Yevgeny Prigozhin and the PMC Wagner leadership blaming the Russian Ministry of Defense. After 224 days of fighting, Bakhmut was occupied in May 2023 by PMC Wagner forces. During the Battle of Bakhmut, the Wagner Group lost around 20,000 fighters, including 10,000 volunteers from the prisoners.
In June 2023, the Wagner Group was pulled from the frontline to the rear camps for rest. However, on June 23, Prigozhin mobilized columns of fighters and equipment for the “March of Justice” across Russia. On June 24, PMC Wagner fighters entered Rostov and started advancing toward Moscow. After reaching an agreement with the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, PMC Wagner halted the march by the evening of June 24 and began redeploying from Russia to Belarus.
By the end of the summer of 2023, Wagner units begin training with the Belarusian military and also resume tasks in Africa. On August 21, an announcement by Yevgeny Prigozhin from Mali was published regarding the continuation of Wagner PMC’s operations on the African continent.
The death toll of Wagner Group operators has been estimated to be between 300 and 500 since 2014. However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the death toll quickly rose from hundreds to thousands. Only during the Battle of Bakhmut PMC Wagner lost more than 20,000 fighters, including 10,000 volunteers recruited from prisons. The PMC Wagner operators have been killed all across the globe, including Libya, Mali, CAR, Sudan, and Syria.
On August 23, 2023, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner commander Dmitry Utkin died in a plane crash in Russia. While the cause of the plane crash is unknown, United States Department of Defense press secretary Patrick Ryder stated that The Pentagon did not indicate that the plane carrying Prigozhin had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile, calling it false information. The Wall Street Journal cited sources within the US government as saying that the crash was likely caused by a bomb onboard or “some other form of sabotage.” The paper also cited three veteran aviation experts who said that, given their analysis of the visual evidence available, there was no missile strike but rather a catastrophic structural failure.