Content warning: this article makes references to sexual violence, torture, and other details that some readers may find upsetting.
The Wagner Group is a Russian paramilitary organisation founded in 2014 by former GRU officer Dmitry Utkin and businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, and has been described as “one of Russia’s most influential foreign policy tools”. At its founding Prigozhin had close business ties to the Russian president Vladamir Putin, while Utkin has close ties to the Night Wolves, an ultra-nationalist and white supremacist motorcycle club. Since its founding, Wagner Group has become known for its readiness to use extreme levels of violence and brutality during its operations. The group has pushed hard for access to resource rich areas of Africa, in some cases accepting mineral extraction and logging rights in exchange for its military services. These operations have been immensely profitable. For example, in 2018, oil companies connected to Prigozhin were reportedly offered a 25% stake in any oil fields that Wagner Group managed to seize from ISIS in Syria. By 2020, one of these companies generated $134 million in gross sales and $90 million in profit from these Syrian oil fields.
Until recently, Wagner Group has operated relatively discreetly around the world, with involvement recorded in Syria, Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Venezuela, Mozambique, and Ukraine. As well as direct involvement in conflict, the company also provides military support, training, and security services for politicians and at mining and other key sites. The Wagner Group has become well known for its active role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where it has played a pivotal role in some of the military activities taking place there.
The Wagner Group doesn’t appear to exist as a single entity, but rather as a “sprawling network of interacting companies”, as according to the Financial Times. Putin has said that the Russian state fully funds the Wagner Group, telling a meeting of Russian defense officials that the state paid “more than 86 billion rubles (approximately $940 million) to the Wagner Group”.
This profile will focus on Wagner Group’s activities outside of Ukraine.
The Wagner Group is involved in several conflicts across Africa, providing an array of services to Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic. In Libya, Wagner Group supported Khalifa Hiftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) in a 2019-2020 assault on Tripoli, laying land mines and booby traps, weapons that have been banned under international law because they are not able to discriminate between civilians and military personnel. Evidence collected by the BBC suggests that the Wagner Group played a key role in laying anti-personnel mines in the area.
Central African Republic
In the Central Africa Republic, Wagner Group has profited from extractivism and logging operations, after around 1000 Wagner mercenaries entered the country in 2016 to defend the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Wagner Group were given unrestricted logging rights, and control of the Ndassima gold mine. A woman who’s husband worked at the mine told NBC News that he and several others were killed after refusing to leave when Wagner Group mercenaries arrived to violently take over the mine. Others said that the group specifically targetted civilians to terrorize them, before taking over the mine. Since 2021 the mine has seen extensive development, with sophisticated processing equipment installed. Analysts have said there is evidence of a long-term plan for significant resource extraction that might be worth $100 million a year.
In 2023 there were reported clashes between the rebel group Coalition of Patriots for Change and Wagner forces, with Wagner sustaining relatively heavy casualties after an ambush. Rebel factions have started fighting together to protect their mining interests as Wagner was tried to secure access to mining sites.
In 2019, CNN reported on Wagner Groups operations in Mozambique, where the group was contracted to support the Mozambique army in counter-insurgency operations in its northern province. The deployment of 160 Wagner Group contractors took place a month after a visit by the Mozambique president Filipe Nyusi to Moscow. The group arrived on Russian An-124 transport planes, at least one of which belonged to the Russian airforce. A number of Russian companies are competing with other international groups to exploit Mozambique’s natural resources, including liquified natural gas and diamonds. It has been reported that the Wagner Group’s fighters withdrew and were replaced with troops from Rwanda after the Wagner Group failed to contain the insurgency.
A United Nations report published in May 2023 details the massacre of up to 500 civilians, believed to have been perpetrated by the Malian security forces and members of Wagner Group. The attack occurred in the village of Moura in the Inner Niger Delta region of Mali. Dozens of armed troops were dropped off by helicopters. Over five days, hundreds of people – the vast majority unarmed civilians – were killed.
The Wagner Group was first sighted in Syria in 2016, with between 1000 and 1600 employees in the country. The company has been responsible for securing oil and gas wells seized by other Russian companies, and serving as “shock troops” in the Syrian state’s offensive on Palmyra in 2016. It is thought hundreds of Wagner Group fighters were killed in the 2018 Battle of Khasham, when US airstrikes hit pro-regime positions near the towns of Khasham and Al Tabiyeh.
In 2021, three NGOs - the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) and Russian rights group Memorial – launched a legal case against Wagner on behalf of a Syrian torture victim.
In 2017, a video showing the brutal torture and murder of Hamadi Bouta, a Syrian Army deserter, by members of the Wagner Group was released. The footage showed Bouta being killed with a sledgehammer, beheaded, then set on fire. Wagner Group has since made the sledgehammer a key part of its branding, including images of a sledgehammer in its logo, and on t-shirts and other merchandise.
In 2019 it was reported that members of Wagner Group travelled to Venezuela to act as body guards for the president Nicolás Maduro. The deployment occurred as Russia and the US backed different sides of a conflict over control of Venezuela; Russia support Maduro, while the US threw its weight behind opposition leader Juan Guaido.