ATLANTA – For Russians, the name Wagner no longer calls to mind the famous nineteenth-century composer of Der Ring des Nibelungen – at least not directly. Instead, Russians associate the name with the Wagner Group, a company of mercenaries that has committed some of the worst atrocities in Ukraine (and elsewhere). The Wagner Group is now so bound up with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions that it fancies itself as a rival to the Russian army – an institution that the group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, openly mocks for its myriad failures in Ukraine.
Putin’s Dogs of War
Like the war in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s previous imperial adventures in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, the emergence of the Wagner Group is consistent with Russia’s political development under Vladimir Putin. The regime rests on the corrupt control of privatized capital, and Wagner embodies the two trends that have come to define it
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The Wagner Group has its origins in the “Slavonic Corps,” a Russian private mercenary unit that was formed in 2013 as part of Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war. In those days, its battlefield effectiveness was so poor that when it encountered the Islamic State, it was crushed and forced to retreat to Russia. But soon thereafter, members of the group were recruited to serve as the “little green men” who invaded and helped annex Crimea in 2014.
That was the year Prigozhin formally incorporated the Wagner Group, deriving its name from the call-sign of one of its commanders, former GRU Lieutenant-Colonel Dmitry Utkin. Rumor has it that Utkin himself chose the name as an homage to Hitler’s admiration for Richard Wagner. In any case, the “Slavonic Corps” was rebranded as “Private Military Company Wagner” (“ВЧК Вагнер”) in time for the group to participate in the opening assault on Ukraine.
After committing mass atrocities in several African countries (including Mali and the Central African Republic), where it funded itself by exploiting the continent’s natural resources, the Wagner Group managed to lower its profile for a brief period. In the years leading up to Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, hardly anyone was monitoring the group’s behavior. It was not until May 2022 that Human Rights Watch published a comprehensive report on Wagner’s crimes in the Central African Republic.
Likewise, before the group’s military operations and war crimes in Ukraine began to attract international scrutiny, little attention was given to its close links to Putin. Until February 24, 2022, anyone who decried the Putin regime’s terrorist methods was dismissed as alarmist or even dangerous. The higher priority was – and to some extent still is – to avoid “provoking” Putin or “crossing any red lines” that could lead to “escalation.”
But Putin’s personal ties to the Wagner Group were already well known, thanks to investigations by Russian journalists. Putin awarded medals to Wagner commanders – including Uktin – during an official ceremony in 2016. By that point, the news agency fontanka.ru had already reported that the group was run by “Putin’s cook,” Prigozhin, himself a former convict who received a 12-year prison term in 1981 on charges of robbery and assault.
Decorated with the Russian Federation’s highest military order, Prigozhin has long been known to oversee a transnational operation with business not only in the Central African Republic but also in Syria and Sudan. According to Novaya Gazeta, Prigozhin finances the Wagner Group from these countries’ budgetary funds, with the value of government tenders received by his companies doubling between 2020 and 2022, to 83.4 billion rubles ($1.1 billion).
THE MASTER OF VOLGOGRAD
Like the war in Ukraine and Putin’s previous imperial adventures in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, the emergence of the Wagner Group – and its role in committing terrorism by commercial proxy – is consistent with Russia’s political development under Putin. The regime rests on the corrupt control of privatized capital and business interests, and Wagner’s operations embody the two trends that have come to define it: re-Stalinization and neomedievalism.
Re-Stalinization has been a cornerstone of Putin’s propaganda since early in his administration. He has consistently sought to exalt his regime in the refracted glory of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in the “Great Patriotic War.” This ultra-patriotic propaganda has become increasingly important as Russia’s economy has deteriorated. Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, Putin has had to divert public grievances over the hardships created by his own mismanagement by appealing to an idealized past and seeking to rekindle imperial ambitions. In the process, he has presided over a deepening militarization of society.
For this ideology to work, Stalin – the Red Army commander-in-chief – had to be rehabilitated. Over the years, monuments to Stalin have been erected across Russia. Most recently, in preparation for Putin’s visit to Volgograd in February to commemorate the 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad, the city unveiled a bust of Stalin and temporarily restored Volgograd’s wartime name. In his speech at the ceremony, Putin trotted out his usual arguments about the importance of historical memory.
The Putin regime has relied on such exhortations for 20 years. Numerous state-sponsored films and cultural productions have glorified the Great Patriotic War and lionized Stalin personally. The primetime TV series Smersh, for example, celebrates Stalin’s secret police and their “heroism” during World War II. Created in 1942 to “kill spies,” the SMERSH terrorized soldiers and civilians alike, especially in occupied Eastern Europe.
When an earlier version of the series aired in 2013, it provoked a heated response, with the opposition politician Leonid Gozman arguing that the secret police should be treated as criminals, like the Nazi SS, rather than as heroes. In response, journalist Ulyana Skoibeda took to the pages of a top pro-Kremlin newspaper to lament “that the Nazis did not make lampshades out of the ancestors of today’s liberals” – hinting at Gozman’s Jewish ancestry. Soon thereafter, Gozman lost his job at the state-owned nanotechnology company Rosnano.
PRISONERS FOR WAR
Prigozhin’s recruitment of Russian inmates convicted of violent crimes is another throwback to Stalinism’s golden age. The use of prisoners as cannon fodder dates to WWII, when the Red Army formed penal military units (Shtafbaty) from Gulag detainees. One of the jobs of SMERSH, an umbrella organization of three counterintelligence agencies, was to take positions behind these unreliable regiments and shoot “fleeing cowards.” Then, after Stalin signed his infamous “Not a step back” order on July 28, 1942, regular regiments of conscripts were treated the same way. Anyone who was deemed a “panic-monger” was to be shot.
Russian human-rights activists have confirmed that the Wagner Group is serving the same function in Ukraine (as are Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen regiments). Andrei Medvedev, a Wagner Group commander who recently defected to Norway, reports that conscripts and prisoners who refuse to fight are being executed in front of newcomers – a tactic straight out of the Stalinist Red Army playbook.
According to a Ukrainian commander, Wagner soldiers use prisoners to “advance under fire […] littering the land with their bodies.” To distract from Russian war crimes, Putin blames the Ukrainians and accuses the Ukrainians of doing the same, recently claiming that Ukrainians are shooting “their own people in the back.”
The Soviet security authorities always regarded felons as exploitable proxies who could be used to suppress political dissent. Putin and his cronies (many of whom, like Putin, served in the KGB) are no different. In its own recruitment of prisoners, the Wagner Group has sought out career criminals, holding out the promise of a presidential pardon to those who survive six months at the front.
According to Russian human-rights activists, most of the convicts who appeared in a recent photo with Prigozhin are felons convicted of murder and other violent crimes. Having returned from Ukraine with their lives, it is assumed that they served as enforcers, rather than as front-line troops. Addressing these “veterans” on their return home, Prigozhin acknowledged that, “You have learned to kill the enemy,” before beseeching them not to “use this practice in the territories where it is prohibited.”
But it would be a mistake to say that these trained war criminals pose a new threat to Russian society. After all, the entire power structure that Putin has built, in which the Federal Security Service (the KGB’s successor) and resource mafias have a firm grip on the commanding heights of the economy and politics, follows the criminal customs and rules that emerged from the Soviet and post-Soviet prison camps. Prigozhin’s pardoned criminals should feel right at home. General Andrei Gurulev of the State Duma Committee on Defense has expressed confidence that the ex-con mercenaries will make for good politicians. If some do secure seats in parliament, they will merely add to the ranks of MPs with criminal backgrounds.
The ease with which Russian society has accepted the war in Ukraine (and the return of inhumane wartime methods) attests to the success of re-Stalinization. If some considerable portion of the population did not still support the regime, it would not have been possible to mobilize 300,000 more conscripts for an absurd war that has already generated 200,000 Russian casualties.
PUTIN’S NEOMEDIEVAL VILLEINS
That brings us to the other prong of Putin’s political project: neomedievalism. Putin has increasingly mined the Russian Middle Ages to offer the closest thing he has to a vision of the future. Even though the Russian Constitution and Russian Penal Code criminalize participation or financing in mercenary forces (abroad and in Russia), neomedieval private armies – like the Wagner Group – fight for their warlords’ interests, and ignore the Constitution. By putting criminals above the law, like Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina did, these armies embody a special legal regime that denigrates the individual rights of ordinary citizens and showcases the arbitrary rule that has existed in Russia for over 20 years.
While the authority to administer punishment in modern states belongs to public institutions, Putin’s regime privatizes it, permitting warlords to use their armies for whatever purposes they see fit, making the individuals who rule them a new political force. The question is, of course, how long Putin will be able to control his villeins. Given Prigozhin’s escalating attacks on military officials, including his recent accusation of “treason” against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, this may be a rather urgent matter for Putin.
After all, Prigozhin is not alone. In addition to Wagner, Russia’s private armies include outfits like Putin’s semi-private National Guard and Kadyrov’s Chechen National Guard, as well as the military wings of various agencies, such as the GRU’s private army, “Redut.”In Moscow, the so-called “Sobyanin’s regiment” (named for the mayor, Sergei Sobyanin) began recruiting mercenaries in July 2022.
While critics of the United States have tried to compare the Wagner Group to US private military contractors like Academi (formerly Blackwater), the Wagner Group’s eager participation in carrying out atrocities against Ukrainian civilians clearly sets it in a league of its own. Prigozhin himself has contributed to this impression with an “unverified video” of a “traitor” being executed with a sledgehammer – an obvious aping of the public executions recorded and broadcast by the Islamic State and other similar groups.
In another, less widely noticed video, Prigozhin offers the European Parliament the “gift” of a blood-stained sledgehammer with the Wagner logo on it. Sergei Mironov of the A Just Russia – For the Truth party recently announced that he had received a similar sledgehammer from Prigozhin as a gift.
To be sure, the growth of mercenary armies is a serious issue for any democracy. But outfits like Academi do not exist to terrorize civilians or shoot army conscripts in the back, and US politicians do not endorse any of the alleged abuses that they may have committed in war zones.
After a year of war and atrocities, the West’s sanctions against the Wagner Group remain woefully unimpressive. Yet the days of worrying about “provoking” Putin are long gone. Putinism is a criminal enterprise that represents a major threat to world peace and democracy. The international community must put an end to it, which ultimately will require defeating all of Russia’s militaries.
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