The Changing Face of the Wagner Group: From Military Adventurism to Venture Capitalism
| by Jason Blazakis, Kojin Glick, and and Alice Shepard
Read the full report here: The Changing Face of the Wagner Group: From Military Adventurism to Venture Capitalism
The face of conflict is changing and as it evolves, it is increasingly more likely that organizations like the Wagner Group will become central to the process of conflict transformation. Founded in 2014 by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Wagner Group got its start on the battlefields of Ukraine as part of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Since then, the Wagner Group has become part of a sprawling multiple-continent enterprise that has engaged in a range of activity, most notably the provision of security services in exchange for access to natural resources amongst other financial or political benefits. As earlier research and this report concludes, the Wagner Group’s connections to the Russian state are significant. Advancing Russian foreign and security interests, such as in Ukraine, are a critical component of the Wagner Group’s objectives. In the group’s early days, these interests were advanced under a very thin veil of plausible deniability. Group members were discouraged from openly identifying themselves as being part of the Wagner apparatus. Despite this, a range of documentaries and investigative reporting have shed light on the scale of Wagner’s worldwide activities. Nonetheless, the founder, Prigozhin, did not claim credit for his creation. It took until September 2022, more than eight years after Wagner’s inception, for Prigozhin to openly confirm his role as the founder of the organization. During those eight years, the Russian Federation benefited from the undeclared relationship with the Wagner Group, fitting into a defined pattern of states being wary of open support for proxy groups. However, Prigozhin’s September 2022 acknowledgement that the Wagner Group exists and that he is associated with it effectively positioned the group as a formal proxy of the Russian state. This change in dynamic within Wagner Group, a known private military company (PMC) that once operated in the gray realm of Russia’s foreign operations, significantly alters the nature of the conflict in Ukraine, and potentially the manner in which Russia engages in future conflict.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Wagner Group has undergone drastic transformation. Prigozhin’s gesture could reflect how the tables have turned against the Russian state in the wake of its missteps in Ukraine. It can also be a result of Prigozhin’s, and by extension the Wagner Group’s, increasing importance in the wake of the regular Russian military’s series of tactical miscues. It is clear from this research that the Wagner Group has been benefiting from Russian military actions in Ukraine from the beginning of the conflict in 2014 and that its influence is growing stronger not only with an expanding international presence but also with building the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg and increasing domestic presence.
The second half of 2022 marked an important turning point for Prigozhin and his Wagner Group. From 2014, when the earliest signs of a new Russian private military group began to emerge, until the beginning of 2022, Prigozhin publicly distanced himself from the infamous PMC through the use of plausible deniability..This was likely done to ensure his own self-preservation, as PMCs are illegal in Russia according to its Criminal Code, article 359. But on the 26th of September, Prigozhin rejected this tactic and publicly announced his relationship to the Wagner Group, setting in motion a new era in Russian foreign influence by means of private sector security. According to the statement, Prigozhin single-handedly formed Wagner in 2014 to protect the Donbass and Luhansk regions. This development illustrates the Wagner Group’s evolution from a concealed shadow group to a publicly acknowledged central element of the Russian military’s foreign agenda, with strategies ranging from the obtainment of mercenary contracts to influence in domestic and international relations.
There is an apparent evolution of the Wagner Group from a shadowy mercenary group to a mainstream defense partner and foreign influence broker for Yevgeniy Prigozhin and the Russian government. This paper evaluates the implications of Prigozhin’s sudden emergence from the shadows of operating Russia’s proxy conflicts by examining the group’s history, finances, and new directions, such as building a Wagner Center in St. Petersburg. By analyzing how the private military company grew from conducting security operations on contract in Syria and Africa starting in late 2015, to opening a hyper-modern business center in St. Petersburg in November 2022, we seek to lay the foundation for a deeper understanding of the role that the Wagner Group plays in pushing Russia’s foreign policy objectives.
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