The Wagner Group: A Brief Summary
The Wagner Group is a Russian paramilitary organization comprised of mercenary soldiers recruited from retired Russian military personnel. Although the Wagner Group is, prima facie, a private military organization, interest in this group often derives from the close relationship between the Wagner Group and the Russian government, specifically regarding the latter’s geopolitical objectives.
Founded around 2014 by Russian GRU (foreign military intelligence directorate of the Russian General Staff) officer Dmitriy Utkin, the Wagner Group has always maintained a close relationship with the Russian state. Indeed, the main training facility used by the Wagner Group is a Russian Ministry of Defence building in the Russian town of Molkin.
During the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, the goal of the Wagner Group was to cloak Russian state actions and offer a ‘degree of plausible deniability’. In this operation, the Wagner Group was one of many different organizations that took the appearance of ‘private entities’ or grassroots political organizations, but in reality, were organized, sponsored, trained, and led by Russian special operatives. While the Wagner Group appears to be one of the more ‘professionally appearing’ organizations that the Russian state uses in its arsenal (in comparison to more outright extremist organizations like the Night Wolves motorcycle group for instance), some members of this organization are still purported to have far-right ideological perspectives.
Nonetheless, it would still not be apt to label them as an overtly extremist group. They are better characterized as a private mercenary group within an ‘arms length of the Russian state’ that takes directives and guidance from this state.
In the 2014 annexation of Crimea, one of the central features of Russian strategy was to create a ‘plausible aura of deniability’ on the international stage to both confuse observers and hide from them the truth of what was actually occurring on the ground. The objective here was to deny the existence of formal Russian intervention and characterize the events in Crimea as ‘organic’ and the result of domestic pro-Russian Ukrainian political impulses. This is precisely the role played by the Wagner Group during the 2014 Crimean crisis and the following Ukrainian civil war in the Donbass region.
The Wagner Group further operated in security-related operations in Syria and central-eastern Africa between 2015-2020. This was likely to bolster Russian relations with the Third World given the long tradition of Soviet engagement with various Third World nations throughout the Cold War. Put another way, the Wagner Group, as it relates to its activities on the international stage, served the purpose of bolstering Russian relations with regimes outside of Europe.
It is likely that the Wagner is operating in some capacity in the current Russian-Ukrainian war. However, it is further likely that their role in this conflict will be relegated to something akin to an auxiliary unit intended to augment and support the actions of the regular Russian Army. Because the Wagner Group is viewed as an entity distinct from the normal Russian forces in the eyes of Russian officials, it may be reasonably hypothesized that the Wagner Group will be delegated with more ‘dirty tasks of an anti-humanitarian nature’ in order to prevent accusations of war crimes being levelled at the regular Russian forces operating in Ukraine.
From a Western perspective, these above factors ultimately constitute the central significance of the Wagner Group.

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