|Active||2014 – present|
|Leader||Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin|
1,000 (March 2016)|
6,000 (December 2017)
Russian Armed Forces|
United Armed Forces of Novorossiya
Syrian Armed Forces
Iranian Armed Forces
Sudanese Armed Forces
Central African Armed Forces
Armed Forces of Ukraine|
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
Al-Nusra Front/ Tahrir al-Sham
Free Syrian Army
|Battles and wars||
Sudanese Civil WarCAR Civil War
The Wagner Group (Russian: Группа Вагнера, tr. Grupa Vagnera), also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner, or CHVK Vagner (Russian: ЧВК Вагнера, tr. ChVK Vagner, Russian: Частная Военная Компания Вагнера), is a Russian paramilitary organisation. Some have described it as a private military company (or a private military contracting agency), whose contractors have reportedly taken part in various conflicts, including operations in the Syrian Civil War on the side of the Syrian government as well as, from 2014 until 2015, in the War in Donbass in Ukraine aiding the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. Others are of the opinion that ChVK Wagner is really a unit of the Russian Ministry of Defence in disguise, which is used by the Russian government in conflicts where deniability is called for.
History, organization, status
The founder of the company is reported to be Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, who was born in Kirovohrad Oblast (then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR) in 1970. According to the Security Service of Ukraine′s statement in September 2017, Dmitriy Utkin used to be a Ukrainian citizen. Up until 2013, he was a 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). He retired in 2013 and began working for the private company Moran Security Group founded by Russian military veterans; the company performed security and training missions around the world, specializing in security against piracy. The same year, senior Moran Security Group managers were involved in setting up a Saint Petersburg-based organization Slavonic Corps that headhunted contractors to "protect oil fields and pipelines" in Syria. Utkin was in Syria as part of the Slavonic Corps and survived its disastrous mission. The Wagner Group itself first showed up in 2014, along with Utkin in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. The company's name comes from Utkin's own call sign ("Wagner"), which he allegedly chose due to a passion for the Third Reich. Radio Liberty cited insiders as saying that the Slavic Native Faith (a modern Pagan cult) is a faith favored by the leadership of the Wagner Group. In August 2017, the Turkish Yeni Şafak speculated that Utkin was possibly just a figurehead for the company, while the real head of Wagner was someone else.
In December 2016, Dmitriy Utkin was photographed with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin reception given to highly decorated servicepeople to mark the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland — along with three persons, Alexander Kuznetsov, Andrey Bogatov and Andrey 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, the Kremlin spokesman confirmed the presence of Dmitry Utkin at the reception, which was organised for those who had been awarded the Order of Courage and the title Hero of the Russian Federation. Besides confirming his presence, the spokesman could only say Utkin was from the Novgorod Region and that he indeed 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.
In early 2016, Wagner had a membership of 1,000, 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 also has offices in Saint Petersburg and Hong Kong. The company trains its members at a Russian MoD facility Molkino (Russian: Молькино) near the village of Molkin, Krasnodar Krai. According to a report published by Russian monthly Sovershenno Sekretno, the organisation that hired personnel for Wagner did not have a permanent name and had a legal address near the military settlement Pavshino in Krasnogorsk, near Moscow.
The pay of Wagner private military contractors (PMCs), who are usually retired regular Russian servicemen aged between 35 and 55, is estimated to be between 80,000 and 250,000 Russian rubles a month. One source also stated the pay was as high as 300,000. When new PMC recruits arrive at the training camp, they are no longer allowed to use social network services and other Internet resources. Company employees are not allowed to post photos, texts, audio and video recordings or any other information on the Internet that was obtained during their training. They are also not allowed to tell anyone their location, whether they are in Russia or another country. Mobile phones, tablets and other means of communication are left with the company and issued at a certain time with the permission of their commander. Passports and other documents are surrendered and in return company employees receive a nameless dog tag with a personal number. The company only accepts new recruits if a 10-year confidentiality agreement is established and in case of a breach of the confidentiality the company reserves the right to terminate the employee's contract without paying a fee. According to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Russian military officers are assigned the role of drill instructors for the recruits. During their training, the PMCs receive a 1,100 dollar monthly pay.
Wagner is also believed to have a Serbian unit, which was until at least April 2016 under the command of Davor Savičić, a Bosnian Serb who was a member of the Serb Volunteer Guard (also known as Arkan's Tigers) during the Bosnian War and Serbia's Special Operations Unit (JSO) during the Kosovo War. His call sign in Bosnia was "Elvis". Savičić was reportedly only three days in the Luhansk region when a BTR armored personnel carrier fired at his checkpoint, leaving him shell-shocked. After this, he left to be treated. He was also reported to had been involved in the first offensive to capture Palmyra from the Islamic State (ISIL) in early 2016. One member of the Serbian unit was killed in Syria in June 2017, while the SBU issued arrest warrants in December 2017, for six Serbian PMCs that belonged to Wagner and fought in Ukraine, including Savičić. In early February 2018, the SBU reported that one Serb member of Wagner, who was a veteran of the conflict in Syria, had been killed while fighting in eastern Ukraine.
In early October 2017, the SBU said that Wagner's funding in 2017 had been increased by 185 million roubles ($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 had died that spring. Armenians, Kazakhs and Moldovans have also worked for Wagner.
It has been reported that Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is also a chef for Russian President Putin, has links with Wagner and Dmitry Utkin personally. Prigozhin, who was sanctioned by the United States Department of the Treasury in December 2016 for Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict, denied any communication with Wagner. The US Department of the Treasury also imposed sanctions on ″PMC Wagner″ and Utkin personally in June 2017. The designation of the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control listed the company and Dmitriy Utkin under the ″Designations of Ukrainian Separatists (E.O. 13660)″ heading and referred to him as ″the founder and leader of PMC Wagner″.
Russian and some Western observers, as well as a few people who have been personally involved with the Wagner Group, believe that the organization does not actually exist as a private military company and is but a myth created by Russian propaganda. They believe it is in reality a disguised branch of the Russian MoD that ultimately reports to the Russian government. Private military companies are not legally allowed in Russia; nevertheless a number of them appear to have been operating in Russia and in April 2012 Vladimir Putin, then Russian prime minister, speaking in the State Duma endorsed an idea of setting up PMCs in Russia. Several military analysts described Wagner as a "pseudo-private" military company that offers the Russian military establishment certain advantages such as ensuring plausible deniability, public secrecy about Russia′s military operations abroad, as well as about the number of losses. Thus, Wagner contractors have been described as "ghost soldiers", due to the Russian government not officially acknowledging them. In March 2017, Radio Liberty characterized the ChVK Wagner as a ″semi-legal militant formation that exists under the wing and on the funds of the Ministry of Defence″. In September 2017, the chief of Ukraine′s Security Service (SBU) Vasyl Hrytsak said that in their opinion Wagner was in essence ″a private army of Putin″ and that the SBU were ″working on identifying these people, members of Wagner PMC, to make this information public so that our partners in Europe knew them personally″. The Wagner Group has also been compared with Academi, the American security firm formerly known as Blackwater.
Crimea and Eastern Ukraine
Wagner PMCs first showed up in February 2014 in Crimea during Russia's 2014 annexation of the peninsula where they operated in line with regular Russian army units, disarmed the Ukrainian Army and took control over facilities. The takeover of Crimea was almost bloodless. The PMCs, along with the regular soldiers, were called "polite people" at the time due to their well-mannered behavior. They kept to themselves, carried weapons that were not loaded, and mostly made no effort to interfere with civilian life. Another name for them was "little green men" since they were masked, wearing unmarked green army uniforms and their origin was initially unknown.
After the takeover of Crimea, some 300 PMCs went to the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine where a conflict started between Ukrainian government and pro-Russian forces. Thanks to their help, the pro-Russian forces were able to destabilize government security forces in the region, immobilize operations of local government institutions, seize ammunition storages and take control of towns. The PMCs conducted sneak attacks, reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and accompanied VIPs. In October 2017, the Ukrainian SBU claimed it had established the involvement of the Wagner Group in the June 2014 Il-76 airplane shoot-down at Luhansk International Airport that killed 40 Ukrainian paratroopers, as well as a crew of nine. Russian and Serbian "mercenaries" were already reported being involved in the summer 2014 battle for the airport, although it was not stated if they were linked to Wagner back then. According to the SBU, Wagner PMCs were initially deployed to eastern Ukraine on 21 May 2014, and the service was planning to file charges on Dmitry Utkin to the office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine. The PMCs also participated in the early 2015 Battle of Debaltseve, which involved one of the heaviest artillery bombardments in recent history, as well as reportedly hundreds of regular Russian soldiers. The PMCs were supported by several KAMAZ-43269 "Vystrel" MRAPs. During fighting near the town, their logistics platoon was reported to had extracted several destroyed KAMAZ-43269 "Dozor" MRAPs belonging to the Russian military, during which the platoon's commander was wounded. The battle for Debaltseve ended in a decisive victory over Ukrainian forces. According to a Wagner PMC, Dmitry Utkin himself was wounded during the deployment to Ukraine, getting a splinter in his liver.
Following the end of major combat operations, the PMCs were reportedly given the assignment to kill dissident pro-Russian commanders that were acting in a rebellious manner, according to the Russian nationalist Sputnik and Pogrom internet media outlet and the SBU. According to Sputnik and Pogrom, in one raid, they killed more than 10 militia fighters. In another operation in early January 2015, the PMCs disarmed without any loss of life the Odessa brigade of the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR), after surrounding their base in Krasnodon with the support of tanks and artillery, and demanding the separatists disarm and return to their homes. According to the SBU and the Russian news site Fontanka, Wagner also forced the reorganization and disarmament of Russian Cossack and other formations. The PMCs acted mostly in the LPR, for whose authorities they allegedly conducted four political killings of separatist commanders. The killed commanders were in a conflict with the LPR's president, Igor Plotnitsky. The LPR accused Kiev of committing the assassinations, while unit members of the commanders believed it was the LPR authorities who were behind the killings. In late November 2017, the SBU published what they said were intercepted audio recordings that proved a direct link between Dmitry Utkin and Igor Cornet, the Interior Minister of the LPR, who was stated to had personally led the initiative of eliminating the dissident commanders. In early June 2018, the SBU also published telephone conversations between Utkin and Igor Plotnitsky from January 2015, as well as conversations between Utkin and Russian GRU officer Oleg Ivannikov who was using the pseudonym Andrei Ivanovich. Ivannikov, according to a Wagner PMC, supervised both their forces, as well as that of the LPR separatists, during the fighting in 2014 and 2015. Wagner left Ukraine and returned to Russia in autumn of 2015, with the start of the Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War.
The presence of the PMCs in Syria was first reported in late October 2015, almost a month after the start of the Russian military intervention in the country's civil war, when between three and nine PMCs were killed in a rebel mortar attack on their position in Latakia province. It was reported that the Wagner Group was employed by the Russian Defense Ministry, even though private military companies are illegal in Russia. The Russian Defense Ministry dismissed the early reports by The Wall Street Journal about the Wagner Group's operations in Syria as an "information attack". However, sources within the Russian FSB and the Defense Ministry unofficially stated for RBTH that Wagner was supervised by the GRU. Furthermore, according to a few Wagner fighters, they were flown to Syria aboard Russian military transport planes. Others were transported to Syria by the Syrian Cham Wings airline from the Rostov-on-Don Airport, with 51 round trips being made between January 2017 and March 2018. Their equipment was delivered to Syria via the so-called Syrian Express, a fleet of Russian military and civilian merchant ships that had been delivering supplies to Syria since 2012. Later, a Defense Ministry source told RBC TV that the FSB was also directing the PMCs. The usage of Wagner had reportedly cost Russia 170 million dollars by August 2016. By July 2017, according to The New York Times, the Kremlin established a policy in Syria where companies that seize oil and gas wells, as well as mines, from ISIL forces would get oil and mining rights for those same sites. Two Russian companies received contracts under this policy by this time, with one employing the Wagner Group to secure those sites from the militants. Later, it was revealed that the company would receive 25 percent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its PMCs captured and secured from ISIL. Some reports stated that the contracts with Damascus were established after Wagner lost the trust and financing of the Russian Defense Ministry in early 2016. As of early August 2017, the number of Wagner employees in Syria was reported to had reached 5,000, after the arrival of an additional 2,000 PMCs, including Chechens and Ingush.
Wagner PMCs were involved in both Palmyra offensives in 2016 and 2017, as well as the Syrian Army's campaign in central Syria in the summer of 2017 and the Battle of Deir ez-Zor in late 2017. They were in the role of frontline advisors, fire and movement coordinators and forward air controllers who provided guidance to close air support. When they arrived in Syria the PMCs received T-72 tanks, BM-21 Grad MLRs and 122 mm D-30 howitzers. During the first Palmyra offensive, according to one of the contractors, the PMCs were used as "cannon fodder" and most of the work was conducted by them, with the regular Syrian Army, who he described as "chickens", only finishing the job. An expert on Russian security at the IIR, Mark Galeotti, said they served as "shock troops" alongside the Syrian Army. Following the successful conclusion of the offensive, during which 32 of the contractors were reportedly killed and about 80 wounded, the PMCs were withdrawn between April and May 2016, and they surrendered all of their heavy weapons and military equipment. When they returned for the second Palmyra offensive and to capture ISIL-held oil fields at the beginning of 2017, the PMCs reportedly faced a shortage of weapons and equipment as they were issued only older assault rifles, machine guns, T-62 tanks and M-30 howitzers. Several sniper rifles and grenade launchers were delivered a few weeks later, which did not solve the issue. According to Fontanka, the equipment problems in combination with a reported reduction in the quality of its personnel led to Wagner suffering a significantly higher number of casualties in the second battle for Palmyra than the first one. Between 40 and 60 were reported killed and between 80 and 180 were wounded. The Russian investigative blogger group the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) attributed the higher losses mainly to ISIL's heavy use of suicide-bombers and the militant group's unwillingness to negotiate. Still, the second offensive also ended in a victory for pro-government forces.
Besides fighting ISIL militants, according to RBC TV, the PMCs trained a Syrian Army unit called the ISIS Hunters, which was also fully funded and trained by Russian special forces. The ISIS Hunters were one of the leading units during the capture of the al-Shaer gas fields from ISIL in late April 2017. However, as of the beginning of July, the PMCs were still fighting to secure the al-Shaer gas fields and the areas of the phosphate mines. At this time, a video emerged that allegedly showed Wagner PMCs bludgeoning a captured ISIL militant in the Palmyra area, with the jihadist reportedly being beheaded after. In mid-September, the al-Shaer gas fields started getting back into production.
In late September 2017, the PMCs, along with regular Russian troops, supported Syrian government forces in repelling a HTS-led rebel offensive north of Hama. At the end of that month, during an ISIL counter-offensive in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate, two Wagner PMCs were captured by the militants. Initially, the Kremlin attempted to distance itself from the two, while a brother of one of them accused the Russian government of rejecting them. Subsequently, the Syrian ISIS Hunters unit pledged to pay one million dollars for the release of each of the captive Russians. However, the ISIS Hunters also said they would execute 100 captive militants for each of the Russians if they were killed by the jihadists. At the same time, a Russian parliamentary official stated that the two had almost certainly been executed, presumably for refusing to reject their Christian Orthodox religion, reject Russia, become Muslims and join the militant group. This claim was questioned by the CIT, who pointed out that there had been no reports to this effect from the militants′ sources.
In late October 2017, a video emerged on YouTube glorifying the PMCs actions in Syria. Between the end of October and the start of November, Wagner took part in the Battle of Deir ez-Zor where they cleared the remaining ISIL militants from the districts of Al-Rashidiyah and Al-Ardi, as well as the Al-Bazh and Abu-Adad neighborhoods, along with the Syrian Army. Syrian government forces took complete control of the city by 3 November. A besieged pocket of ISIL militants remained on an island in the city's outskirts, which soon came under attack. As government forces advanced, the pro-opposition SOHR reported that Russia demanded the release of the two captive PMCs during negotiations with the trapped militants. On 17 November, the last ISIL fighters on the island had surrendered, leaving the Syrian Army in control of all territory surrounding Deir ez-Zor city. However, the two PMCs were still prisoners. At the end of November, it was reported that the Russian military was negotiating for the release of the two PMCs who were reportedly being held on the border of Syria and Iraq. However, on 4 December, the ISIS Hunters reported they had killed the ISIL militants that had captured and executed the two PMCs. The same day, a Wagner representative notified the parents of one of the two that both had died in captivity.
At the end of November, Russia announced plans to withdraw some of its troops from Syria by the end of the year. It was reported that to avoid potential security losses, Russia would fill the void with private military companies, including Wagner. On 11 December, Putin declared victory against "terrorists" during a visit to Russia's Khmeimim air base in Syria. Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies think tank, stated the usage of PMCs was one of the factors that contributed to Russia's victory in Syria. He pointed out that Russia managed to remove the need for deploying large numbers of ground forces by bringing in the Russian PMCs who, unlike American PMCs who were usually only in support roles, were used as highly capable assault troops and that they were often embedded with Syrian units to augment their fighting ability. He also pointed out that the Russian public proved completely indifferent to the losses suffered by the PMCs, rightly believing that "these people are highly paid, and knew what they were getting into".
In December 2017, the PMCs took part in the Syrian Army's offensive into Idlib province against mostly HTS rebel forces. As part of the same campaign in the northwest of Syria, in early February 2018, the PMCs helped in the capture of several villages in the northeastern countryside of Hama from IS. Between 3 and 7 February, pro-government forces seized at least 25 villages, shrinking the IS pocket in that part of the country by a reported 80 percent. The pocket was cleared on 9 February.
At about 10 p.m., local time, on 7 February 2018, a battle began near the Syrian town of Khasham in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate, between pro-Syrian government forces and the Kurdish-led SDF, supported by the U.S. military. During the clashes, U.S. aircraft conducted air-strikes against Syrian troops, leaving between 45 and 100 government fighters dead.
A Russian newspaper, citing Russian military and contractor sources, reported pro-government forces were attempting to capture the Conoco (locally called Al Tabiyeh) gas field from the SDF. According to two U.S. defense officials, the U.S. military assessed that Russian PMCs also participated in the assault, with one saying some of the contractors had been killed in the air-strikes. A Kurdish militia commander and an ex-Russian officer also claimed Russian contractors suffered casualties during the fighting. On 19 February 2018, a publication by the Ukraine-based Inform Napalm alleged the battle was planned and cleared with the Russian military command by Sergey Kim, the chief of Wagner's operations department and a former Russian Marine officer. An official statement by the ISIS Hunters unit stated they had received intelligence that ISIL forces were moving towards Khasham and government forces decided to move from the Euphrates so to cut off ISIL's line of attack. At this point, armed groups were spotted east of Khasham, in SDF-held territory, which then attacked the government's troops. The groups were quickly pushed back. The military claimed that, according to intercepted radio traffic, the groups were partly ISIL and partly Kurds, and retreated towards the Conoco factory. At this point, pro-government units were hit by air-strikes. According to Germany′s Der Spiegel, the ferocious American response was primarily triggered by a unit of Syrian tribal militia and Shiite fighters moving from the town of Al Tabiyeh towards Khasham, concurrently with another group of pro-government forces that had crossed the Euphrates River near the Deir ez-Zor Airport advancing towards Khasham from the village of Marrat. Der Spiegel reported no Russians were in either formation; yet there was a small contingent of Russian PMCs stationed in Al Tabiyeh, who were not participating in the fighting. Similarly, the SOHR activist organization reported that the Russians PMCs, who were accompanying government forces as they advanced towards the SDF-held oil and gas fields, were killed at Al Tabiyeh. Furthermore, SOHR stated they were not killed in the air-strikes, but instead in a booby-trapped explosion at an arms depot.
Several days after the battle, various Russian groups started confirming a number of Wagner PMCs had been killed in the air-strikes. Some posts on Russian social media made claims of over 200 Russian PMCs being killed, although the veracity of this information was questioned and could not be confirmed. A Russian paramilitary chief, critical of the killed contractors, also claimed 218 PMCs were killed and that the families were still waiting for their remains. Various other sources estimated the PMCs' death toll to be either: 14–15, 20–30 or 80–100. Russia officially confirmed five presumably Russian citizens had been killed in the air-strikes. Der Spiegel and the SOHR reported mostly Syrians were killed in the strikes. As of late March, the PMCs remained in the same area and were using local pro-government troops to scout coalition positions.
On 18 February 2018, the Syrian military launched an offensive against the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, east of Damascus, and split the region into three separate pockets by 12 March. As of 17 March, 82 percent of Eastern Ghouta was captured by the Syrian Army. One of the towns captured by government troops during this time was Mesraba. On 18 March, the rebels launched a counter-attack in an attempt to recapture Mesraba and quickly seized most of the town from government forces. Wagner PMCs then reportedly launched an operation and during the night between 18 and 19 March, fully recaptured Mesraba. Another mission they were charged with during the offensive was to secure the humanitarian corridor established by the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria that allowed civilians to leave rebel-held areas for government territory. According to the Center, 79,702 people had left rebel-held parts of Eastern Ghouta as of 19 March. By 23 March, the SOHR put the number of those who left rebel areas or remained in two towns seized by government forces at 120,000, while the UN stated 50,000 had left the besieged areas. The whole Eastern Ghouta region was captured by government forces on 14 April, effectively ending the near 7-year rebellion near Damascus.
In March, an anonymous senior commander of the Wagner Group was quoted as saying that there were five Wagner companies operating in Syria, as well as The Carpathians (Russian: Карпаты, translit. Karpaty) company attached to Wagner, manned mainly by Ukrainian citizens. The Carpathians consisted of about 100 fighters. In May, the SBU announced it identified Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Demyanenko of the Russian Armed Forces as the Carpathians' trainer. According to the announcement, the unit was formed to conduct reconnaissance and attacks in Ukraine. Belarusians were also said to be among Wagner's contractors.
Return to Ukraine
In late November 2017, a power struggle erupted in the separatist Luhansk People's Republic in Eastern Ukraine between LPR president Igor Plotnitsky and the LPR's Interior Minister, Igor Kornet, who Plotnitsky ordered to be dismissed. During the turmoil, armed men in unmarked uniforms took up positions in the center of Luhansk. Some of the men allegedly belonged to Wagner. In the end, Plotnitsky resigned and LPR Security Minister Leonid Pasechnik was named acting leader "until the next elections." Plotnitsky reportedly fled to Russia and the LPR's People's Council unanimously approved Plotnitsky's resignation.
In an interview with the Russian news site The Insider in early December 2017, veteran Russian officer Igor Strelkov confirmed that Wagner PMCs had returned to Luhansk from Syria. Strelkov had a key role in the annexation of Crimea by Russia, as well as in the early stages of the war in the east of Ukraine where he was one of the most senior commanders. He was pulled out of eastern Ukraine in August 2014, reportedly because the Russian authorities felt he was too much of a liability, after which he started opposing the Kremlin.
Sudan and CAR
In the interview with The Insider, Strelkov additionally said that, besides returning to Luhansk, Wagner PMCs were also present in South Sudan and possibly Libya. Several days before the interview was published, Strelkov stated Wagner PMCs were being prepared to be sent from Syria to Sudan or South Sudan after Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, told Russia's president Putin that his country needed protection "from aggressive actions of the USA". Two internal-conflicts have been raging in Sudan for years (in the region of Darfur and the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile), while a civil war has been taking place in South Sudan since 2013. The head of the private Russian firm RSB-group said that he heard PMCs had already traveled to Sudan and had returned with a severe form of malaria. Several dozen PMCs from RSB-group were sent to Libya in early 2017, to an industrial facility near the city of Benghazi, in an area held by forces loyal to Field marshal Khalifa Haftar, to support demining operations. They left in February after completing their mission. The RSB-group was in Libya at the request of the Libyan Cement Company (LCC). In mid-December, a video surfaced showing Wagner PMCs training members of the Sudanese military, thus confirming Wagner's presence in Sudan and not South Sudan. The PMCs were sent to Sudan to support it militarily against South Sudan and protect gold, uranium and diamond mines, according to Sergey Sukhankin, a associate expert at the ICPS and Jamestown Foundation fellow. Sukhankin stated that the protection of the mines was the "most essential commodity" and that the PMCs were sent to "hammer out beneficial conditions for the Russian companies".
In mid-January 2018, it was reported that Wagner may deploy a contingent of its PMCs to the Central African Republic (CAR), as Russia successfully lobbied the UN Security Council to allow it to ship weapons and ammunition to the country, despite an active arms embargo in place since 2013 under Security Council Resolution 2127. In late March, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated five Russian soldiers and 170 "civilian instructors" had been sent to the CAR to train its servicemen. According to CAR's president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the training provided would strengthen the effectiveness of the CAR's armed forces in combating "plunderers". Later, the instructors were indeed confirmed to be Wagner PMCs who were sent to the CAR to protect lucrative mines, support the CAR government and provide close protection for Touadéra. The role of the PMCs was also to fill a security vacuum left by France after it withdrew its military forces from the country in October 2016. The country had been in the midst of a civil war since 2012, which left three quarters of it under rebel control. The PMCs' camp was set up on 24 March, about 60 kilometers from the capital Bangui at the Berengo estate that was used by CAR's former ruler Jean-Bédel Bokassa. This deployment brought the number of PMCs in Sudan and the CAR to about 370. In late May, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper reported the number of Russian PMCs in the CAR was 1,400. Jamestown Foundation fellow Sukhankin told Polygraph.info that the Wagner Group was in charge of military operations in the country, while another Russian private military company called Patriot was in charge of protecting VIPs. 10 Russian military instructors were stationed in the lawless town of Bangassou, on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while another unit was in the key town of Sibut, near rebel-held territory. In August 2018, Russia signed a military cooperation agreement with the CAR.
In mid-2018, it was reported that the Wagner Group was also active in Yemen, where a civil war had been taking place since 2015, between the Hadi government, supported by a Saudi-led military coalition, and the Iranian-backed SPC government dominated by the Houthis. The conflict had left between 10,000 and 50,000 people dead.
Casualties and awards
Fontanka and CIT reported a conservative estimate of at least 73–101 Wagner PMCs being killed in Syria between October 2015 and mid-December 2017, 40–60 of which died during the first several months of 2017, according to Fontanka. The founder of CIT stated the PMCs' death toll was at least 100–200, while another CIT blogger said at least 150 were killed and more than 900 were wounded. A former PMC officer stated no fewer than 100 died by the end of August 2016. One more PMC was killed in late December 2017.
In early February 2018, Russian social media made claims of over 200 Russian PMCs being killed during the Battle of Khasham by U.S. air-strikes, although the veracity of this information was questioned and could not be confirmed. A Russian military doctor, a leader of a PMC-linked paramilitary Cossack organization, a source with ties to Wagner and the Ukrainian SBU claimed 80–100 PMCs were killed and 100–200 wounded. The SBU further named 50 of the PMCs. A Russian journalist believed between 20 and 25 PMCs died in the strikes, while similarly CIT estimated a total of between 20 and 30 had died. The Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported a Russian death toll of 13, while the ataman of the Baltic separate Cossack District, Maxim Buga, stated no more than 15–20 died and that the other estimates were exaggerations. On 19 February, one of Wagner's leaders, Andrey Troshev, was quoted as saying 14 ″volunteers″ died in the battle. Three other Wagner commanders also stated the claim of 200 dead was an exaggeration and that 15 PMCs were killed at the most.
Five more PMC were killed in Syria in May 2018.
Two Wagner PMCs were also confirmed killed during the Battle of Debaltseve in Ukraine in early 2015. Other estimates put the number of killed PMCs in Ukraine by October 2015, at between 30 and 80. The Ukrainian SBU claimed the Wagner Group had lost 36 PMCs during the fighting at Luhansk International Airport (15) and the Battle of Debaltseve (21). Four of those who died in the battle for the airport were killed at the nearby village of Khryashchevatoe.
Families of killed PMCs are prohibited from talking to the media under a non-disclosure that is a prerequisite for them to get compensation from the company. The standard compensation for the family of a killed Wagner employee is up to 5 million rubles (about 80,000 dollars), according to a Wagner official. In contrast, the girlfriend of a killed fighter stated the families are paid between 22,500 and 52,000 dollars depending on the killed PMC's rank and mission. In mid-2018, Russian military veterans urged the Russian government to acknowledge sending private military contractors to fight in Syria, in an attempt to secure financial and medical benefits for the PMCs and their families.
Wagner PMCs have received state awards in the form of military decorations and certificates signed by Russian President Putin. Wagner commanders Andrey Bogatov and Andrey Troshev were awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation honor for assisting in the first capture of Palmyra in March 2016. Bogatov was seriously injured during the battle. Meanwhile, Alexander Kuznetsov and Dmitry Utkin had reportedly won the Order of Courage four times. Family members of killed PMCs also received medals from Wagner itself, with the mother of one killed fighter being given two medals, one for "heroism and valour" and the other for "blood and bravery". A medal for conducting operations in Syria was also issued by Wagner to its PMCs.
In mid-December 2017, a powerlifting tournament was held in Ulan-Ude, capital city of the Russian Republic of Buryatia, which was dedicated to the memory of Vyacheslav Leonov, a Wagner PMC who was killed during the campaign in Syria's Deir ez-Zor province. The same month, Russia's president signed a decree establishing International Volunteer Day in Russia, as per the UN resolution from 1985, which will be celebrated annually every 5 December. The Russian Poliksal news site associated the Russian celebration of Volunteer Day with honoring Wagner PMCs.
In late January 2018, an image emerged of a monument in Syria, dedicated to ″Russian volunteers″. The inscription on the monument in Arabic read: To Russian volunteers, who died heroically in the liberation of Syrian oil fields from ISIL. The monument was located at the Haiyan plant, about 50 kilometers from Palmyra. An identical monument was also erected in Luhansk in February 2018. In late August 2018, a chapel was built near Goryachy Klyuch, Krasnodar Krai, in Russia in memory of Wagner PMCs killed in fighting against ISIL in Syria. For each of those killed a candle is lit in the chapel.
Deaths of journalists
Death of Maksim Borodin
On 12 April 2018, investigative Russian journalist Maksim Borodin was found badly injured at the foot of his building, after falling from his fifth-floor balcony in Yekaterinburg. He was subsequently hospitalized in a coma and died of his injuries three days later on 15 April. In the weeks before his death, Borodin gained national attention when he wrote about the deaths of Wagner PMCs in the battle with US-backed forces in eastern Syria in early February, that also involved U.S. air-strikes. Throughout February and March, Borodin interviewed relatives and commanders of Wagner Group PMCs, and attended their funerals in the town of Asbest.
Local officials said no suicide note was found but that his death was unlikely to be of a criminal nature. They also stated that at the time of his fall his apartment door had been locked from the inside, indicating that nobody had either entered or left. Although the police continued their investigation, they were not treating his death as suspicious. However, Polina Rumyantseva, chief editor of Novy Den, where Borodin worked, said before he died that she could not rule out a crime and that there was no reason for him to commit suicide. Harlem Désir of the OSCE said the death was "of serious concern" and called for a thorough investigation. Borodin's friend stated that one day before his fall, Borodin had contacted him at five o'clock in the morning saying there was "someone with a weapon on his balcony and people in camouflage and masks on the staircase landing". He had been attempting to find a lawyer, but later Borodin called his friend once again and said he made a mistake and that he thought the men had been taking part in some kind of training exercise. After Borodin's death, Rumyantseva stated that Novy Den had been in his apartment and that there were no signs of a struggle, while the investigators thought that Borodin had gone on the balcony to smoke and had fallen. Still, Rumyantseva stated "If there's even a hint of something criminal, we will make it public". Borodin also had a local repute for conducting investigation of prisons and corrupt officials in his native Sverdlovsk Oblast.
On 30 July 2018, three Russian journalists (Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal) belonging to the Russian online news organisation Investigation Control Centre (TsUR), which is linked to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were ambushed and killed by unknown assailants in the Central African Republic, three days after they had arrived in the country to investigate local Wagner activities. The ambush took place 23 kilometers from Sibut when armed men emerged from the bush and opened fire on their vehicle. The journalists' driver survived the attack, but was afterward kept incommunicado by the authorities. In its response to the killings, Russia's foreign ministry noted that the dead journalists had been traveling without official accreditation.
BBC News and AFP said the circumstances of their deaths were unclear. According to the Interfax news agency, robbery could have been a motive. An expensive camera kit and more than 8,000 dollars disappeared from the scene, although three canisters of gasoline, which is considered a valuable commodity in the CAR, were left in the vehicle. A local official and their driver stated that the attackers were wearing turbans and speaking Arabic. According to local residents, interviewed by Khodorkovsky's investigators, around 10 people had camped out nearby before the ambush, waiting there for several hours. Shortly before the attack, they saw another car with “three armed white men … and two Central Africans” pass by. Per an initial report in The New York Times, there was no indication that the killings were connected with the journalists' investigation of the Wagner Group's activities in the Central African Republic. But a follow-up article cited a Human Rights Watch researcher who commented that "Many things don't add up" in regards to the mysterious killings. It reaffirmed there was nothing to contradict the official version the killings were a random act by thieves, but noted speculation within Russia that blamed the Wagner Group, while also adding a theory by a little known African news media outlet that France, which previously ruled the CAR when it was a colony, was behind the killings as a warning to Moscow to stay clear of its area of influence. Moscow-based defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer thought it was unlikely they were killed by Wagner's PMCs.
During their investigation, the journalists tried to enter the PMCs' camp, but they were told that they needed accreditation from the country's Defense Ministry. The accreditation was previously only given to an AFP journalist who was still not allowed to take any photographs or interview anyone. The killings took place one day after the journalists visited the Wagner Group encampment at Berengo.
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