FILE – In this Monday, Sept. 20, 2010 file photo, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, second right, around his factory which produces school means, outside St. Petersburg, Russia. On Friday Feb. 16, 2018, Yevgeny Prigozhin along with 12 other Russians and three Russian organizations, were charged by the U.S. government as part of a vast and wide-ranging effort to sway political opinion during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.(Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
The Wagner Group (Russian), officially known as PMC Wagner. ’Wagner Private Military Company’, is a Russian state-funded private military company (PMC) controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former close ally of Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia. The Wagner Group has used Russian Armed Forces infrastructure. While the group is not ideologically driven, elements of Wagner are linked to neo-Nazism and far-right extremism.
Evidence suggests that Wagner has been used as a proxy by the Russian government, allowing the Russian state to have plausible deniability for military operations abroad, and thereby hiding the true casualties of Russia’s foreign interventions. The group was reportedly founded in 2014 by Prigozhin and former GRU officer Dmitry Utkin (alias ‘Wagner’). It came to prominence during the Donbas War in Ukraine, where it helped pro-Russian separatist forces from 2014 to 2015. Its contractors have operated around the world, including in the civil wars in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali, often fighting on the side of forces aligned with the Russian government. Wagner operatives have been accused of war crimes including murder, torture, rape and robbery of civilians, as well as torturing and killing accused deserters.
Wagner played a significant role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for which it recruited prison inmates from Russia for frontline combat. By the end of 2022, its strength in Ukraine had grown from 1,000 to between 20,000 and 50,000. In 2023, Russia granted combat veteran status to Wagner contractors who took part in the invasion.
Prigozhin admitted being the leader of Wagner in September 2022. He began openly criticizing the Russian MoD for mishandling the war against Ukraine. On 23 June 2023, Prigozhin launched an armed rebellion after accusing the Russian MoD of killing Wagner soldiers. Wagner units withdrew from Ukraine and seized the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, while a Wagner convoy headed towards Moscow. The mutiny was halted the next day when a deal was brokered by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
In early 2016, Wagner had 1,000 employees, which later rose to 5,000 by August 2017, and 6,000 by December 2017. The organization was said to be registered in Argentina and has offices in Saint Petersburg and Hong Kong. In November 2022, Wagner opened a new headquarters and technology center at the PMC Wagner Center building in the east of Saint Petersburg.
In early October 2017, the SBU said that Wagner’s funding in 2017 had been increased by 185 million rubles ($3.1 million) and that around forty Ukrainian nationals were working for Wagner, with the remaining 95 percent of the personnel being Russian citizens. One Ukrainian was killed in Syria while fighting in the ranks of Wagner in March 2016, and three were reported overall to have died that spring. Armenians, Kazakhs and Moldovans have also worked for Wagner.
Following the deployment of its contractors between 2017 and 2019, to Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Libya and Mozambique, the Wagner Group had offices in 20 African countries, including Eswatini, Lesotho and Botswana, by the end of 2019. Early in 2020, Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater private military company, sought to provide military services to the Wagner Group in its operations in Libya and Mozambique, according to The Intercept. By March 2021, Wagner PMCs were reportedly also deployed in Zimbabwe, Angola, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and possibly the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to the Financial Times, the Wagner Group does not exist as a single incorporated entity, but instead as a “sprawling network of interacting companies with varying degrees of proximity to (Prigozhin’s) Concord group” – such as Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering. This abstruse structure has allegedly complicated efforts by western governments to restrict Wagner’s activities.
Based partly on leaked documents provided by the Dossier Center, investigative journalist David Patrikarakos has stated that Wagner has never been under the control of either the GRU or the Ministry of Defence, as has often been claimed, but is instead exclusively run by Prigozhin.
Chef of Wagner
Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin (born 1 June 1961) is the leader of the Wagner Group and a Russian oligarch. He was also a close confidant of Russian president Vladimir Putin until he launched an alleged coup in June 2023.
Prigozhin controls companies such as the Wagner Group, a Russian state-backed mercenary group operating in most notably Ukraine and Syria. He also controls three companies that were accused of interference in the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections. Prigozhin denied any connection to Wagner, however, in September 2022, a video surfaced showing Prigozhin in a Mari El prison promising inmates freedom if they served six months with the Wagner Group.
It was long reported that Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin—sometimes called “Putin’s chef”, because of his catering businesses that hosted dinners which Vladimir Putin attended with foreign dignitaries— had links with Wagner and Utkin personally. The businessman was said to be the main funder and actual owner of the Wagner Group. Prigozhin denied any link with Wagner, until September 2022, when he admitted having co-founded the group in a post at VKontakte. Prigozhin claimed, “I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this. From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later came to be called the Wagner Battalion. Previously, Prigozhin had sued Bellingcat, Meduza, and Echo of Moscow for reporting his links to the mercenary group. “Officially” the group does not exist.
Bellingcat has described Dmitry Utkin’s role as having not been “in the driver’s seat of setting up this private army, but was employed as a convenient and deniable decoy to disguise its state provenance. “Dmitry Valeryevich Utkin, a veteran of the First and Second Chechen wars, reportedly founded the group, which was named from his call sign “Wagner”. Until 2008 or 2013, Utkin served as lieutenant colonel and brigade commander of a unit of Spetsnaz GRU, the 700th Independent Spetsnaz Detachment of the 2nd Independent Brigade.
In December 2016, Utkin was photographed with Russian president Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin reception given in honour of those who had been awarded the Order of Courage and the title Hero of the Russian Federation (to mark the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland, along with Alexander Kuznetsov, Andrey Bogatov [ru] and Andrei Troshev. Kuznetsov (call sign “Ratibor”) was said to be the commander of Wagner’s first reconnaissance and assault company, Bogatov was the commander of the fourth reconnaissance and assault company, and Troshev served as the company’s “executive director”. A few days after, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the presence of Utkin at the reception, stating that Utkin was from the Novgorod Region and had received the award, but could not say for what except that it was presumably for courage. Peskov stated he was not aware how famous Utkin was.
Colonel Konstantin Aleksandrovich Pikalov (call sign “Mazay”) was said to have been put in charge of Wagner’s African operations in 2019. Pikalov served as a military officer in Russia’s experimental military unit numbered 99795, located in the village of Storozhevo, near Saint Petersburg. The unit was tasked, in part, with “determining the effects of radioactive rays on living organisms”. Following his retirement, he continued to live on the military base until at least 2012 and ran a private detective agency. In the autumn of 2014, along with a large group of Cossacks, he possibly took part in suppressing opponents of the Russian-supported president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, during the Republika Srpska general election in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dodik won the re-election. Between 2014 and 2017, Pikalov traveled several times to destinations near the Ukrainian border, sometimes on joint bookings with known Wagner officers.
In 2016, Pikalov ran for office in local council elections in the district of his military base near St. Petersburg on behalf of the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party. However, his participation was denied by Russia’s Central Election Committee, possibly due to his criminal record. His name is listed on a Central Bank blacklist with a note that he was “a suspect in money laundering”, although his current criminal file is blank. According to Bellingcat, this could mean either that the suspicion did not result in criminal charges or that the records were purged. Former employees of Prigozhin interviewed on the condition of anonymity by Bellingcat stated Pikalov was known to have taken part in military operations in both Ukraine and Syria.
In 2019, as the presence of Wagner PMCs in Africa was growing, a planned trip by Utkin to Rwanda was reportedly cancelled at the last moment. He was supposed to travel with Valery Zakharov, a Russian security advisor to the president of the Central African Republic. Subsequently, it was thought that Utkin was withdrawn from the Wagner Group’s African operations due to his over-exposure as a result of the medal-awarding ceremony at the Kremlin in 2016, and the United States sanctions imposed on him. According to another report, there was a change in leadership in the Wagner Group due to changes in the methodology and direction of its work, with Utkin leaving the group and Konstantin Pikalov becoming the new head of the organization. Another theory was that Utkin had been killed, as his phone number was no longer functioning and his regular trips from Krasnodar to St. Petersburg stopped.