The Rise and Fall of Russia’s Shadow Army: The Origins and Legacy of the Wagner Group Mercenaries

  On June 23, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of the Russian mercenary group Wagner Group, posted a short video on his social media saying that his troops were attacked by the Russian army and suffered casualties. High-level officials should be responsible for this matter and asked President Putin to replace relevant officials including Defense Minister Shoigu.
  At the same time, Prigorzhin also claimed that the Russian army has now lost a large area of ​​land and is retreating from eastern and southern Ukraine. The actual number of soldiers killed in battle is 3 to 4 times higher than the reported figure.
  After sending out a video attacking the Ministry of Defense, the troops controlled by Prigozhin entered the southern Russian city of Rostov and took control of all local military facilities including the airport and the headquarters of the Southern Military District. After the Wagner Legion occupied the Russian military facilities, Putin made a televised speech saying, “Those who organize and prepare a military rebellion and take up arms against their comrades have betrayed Russia, and the rebels will pay the price for this.” At the same time, he declared a state of emergency.
  After the Wagner Legion successfully occupied Rostov, the brigade marched straight to Moscow, and the leader Prigorzhin directly announced: civil war broke out. But what is dramatic is that just when the Wagner Legion marched to only 200 kilometers from the center of Moscow, the Belarusian side stated that President Lukashenko and Prigozhin negotiated a withdrawal agreement and obtained the approval of Russian President Putin.
  Kremlin spokesman Peskov (Sergey Peskov) stated that the Wagnerian soldiers who participated in the mutiny will not be liquidated. He himself will also go to Belarus.
  The biggest political crisis in Russia since the Russo-Ukrainian war seems to have subsided for now. However, for the Russian government, which has been devastated by the war, the possible follow-up response to this attempted coup is obviously more difficult in the future. A bigger change may have just begun.
  The situation in Russia and Ukraine has developed so far, which can be said to have exceeded most people’s expectations. Wagner’s sudden emergence and its background have made many people puzzled. Where did the Wagner Legion, a strange privatized armed force, come from? And why can it set off such a big storm?
Continuing a Centennial Volunteer Tradition and “Justice”

  In fact, the rulers of Moscow did not start using mercenaries as a supplement to the Wehrmacht just today. The participation of Russian irregulars in regional conflicts has been one of the secret weapons of Russian foreign policy for centuries, such as the famous Cossack regiments. It has always been the private army that the tsars rely on.
  However, unlike the Western Europeans who generously call it the Mercenary Corps or the Foreign Legion, both the Russian rulers and the people are disgusted with the term “mercenary”, which is full of copper smell. A Wagner employee I interviewed in St. Petersburg a few years ago insisted that he was a patriotic volunteer, emphasizing it as a virtue.
  There are actually no clear historical records about the origin of the spirit of volunteers. However, since the 19th century, Russian armed volunteers led by the government have been active on the battlefield, such as the intervention in the Balkan Uprising in 1876. General Mikhail Chernyaev, a Russian combat hero in the Crimean War, is considered the creator of the spirit of volunteerism. He not only served as the commander of the Serbian army in the Balkan War at that time, but also founded a The magazine, called “Russian Mir”, trumpeted pan-Slavism. Under his activism, Russia’s Tsar Alexander II allowed active-duty servicemen, known as volunteers, to participate in combat operations in the Balkans after “temporarily abstaining from official duties.”
  Judging from the situation at the time, they were indeed a group of volunteers mainly serving Pan-Slavism. Although they did gain some financial benefits during the war, money was not entirely their purpose. Volunteerism in the Russian context is not just volunteering for war, but also pursuing a “just” war. Prigozhin repeatedly mentioned the word “justice” in his manifesto for raising troops, and he even called the march into Moscow a “just march.”
  However, the connotation of this “justice” has both political and religious concepts. Politically, it means providing armed protection to all Slavs, which is the so-called pan-Slavism. Volunteers believe that if the Slavs are ruled by other nations, they are equal oppressed, they are therefore obliged to provide armed protection. In a religious sense, volunteers believe that they are the armed protectors of the Orthodox Church, and that protecting missionaries and parishes is an act of justice.
  When interviewing employees of the Wagner Legion before, they repeatedly emphasized that they are believers, and that the war is not for money, but for worship.
  In fact, Pan-Slavism was not a unique concept in the 19th century. There was also Pan-Germanicism in Europe at the same time. It was only after the defeat of World War II that pan-Germanicism in Europe was completely eliminated. Originally, after the establishment of the Soviet Union, the government basically suppressed pan-Slavism, but after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, this trend of thought has risen again.
Proxy Wars After the Collapse of the Soviet Union

  After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, a series of fierce armed conflicts broke out in the surrounding areas and its former sphere of influence. Russia, the successor of the Soviet Union, faced severe economic conditions and domestic political turmoil, and was no longer able to carry out military intervention. During this period, Pan-Slavism revived, and the resulting group of armed volunteers can be regarded as the predecessor of Wagner’s Legion.
  The first major regional conflict in the post-Soviet era took place in Transnistria in Moldova (March-July 1992), in which volunteers took the lead. Russian ethnic groups in Transnistria do not recognize that they belong to the Romanian-dominated Republic of Moldova, and formed armed groups to fight against government forces. Behind them are volunteers from Russia——Transnistrian Cossacks The Union, whose backbone is Soviet veterans of the Afghan war who declare themselves Cossack volunteers, provides Russian groups in Transnistria with military training as well as experienced officers and combat cadres. Since then, these troops composed or trained by veterans have easily defeated the newly formed Moldovan government forces and caused the de facto independence of the Transnistrian region to this day.

  Andrei (pseudonym), the subject of my interview in Russia in 2019, participated in this conflict. His commander Victor Ratiev (Victor Ratiev) is a former colonel (retired) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan Fighting heroes in war. He said: “I joined this war first because of economic problems. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, I could not find a job and had no income. However, participating in the volunteer group gave me a guaranteed high salary of 1,000 US dollars a month. In 1991 It’s quite a considerable income.”
  According to Andre, there was no direct assignment from the Russian military or intelligence agencies to participate in the war in Moldova at that time, and their funds mainly came from the support of civil society groups and churches. Andrei said: “The local garrison (the former Soviet 14th Guards Army) provided us with weapons. In addition, the Russian government did not have any clear support, but it was enough for us to win that battle.”
  1992 The Russian government in 2000 obviously did not completely get out of the chaos of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The armed conflict in Moldova was a trivial matter for senior officials of the Kremlin. A good tool, the involvement of informal volunteers allows Moscow to create a geopolitical dynamic in its favor and to absolve itself of responsibility when it comes under political pressure from the West.
  As a result, Russian intelligence agencies began to use volunteers to solve problems in armed conflicts in the former Soviet sphere of influence. In the many wars and conflicts after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, volunteer groups from Russia participated deeply in the local battles. In 1992, Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, and the Bosnian War broke out. Afterwards, some major cities in Russia began to recruit volunteers. Volunteers who sympathized with the Serbian cause were assembled and formed a number of “volunteer army” groups. The backbone is composed of veterans. Composed of soldiers and old Cossack volunteers who fought in the Moldovan war a year ago.

  The conflict in the Balkans lasted far longer and on a larger scale than the conflict in Moldova. From 1992 to 1999, two of the combat groups composed of Russian volunteers were more famous. They were the Russian First Volunteer Army (RDO-1) Like the Russian Second Volunteer Army (RDO-2), the Russians involved in the Balkan conflict not only had light infantry, but also technical arms such as armored vehicle operators, artillerymen and pilots. Of course, special forces and intelligence personnel are the main force among the volunteers. RDO-2 can be regarded as the predecessor of the Serbian White Wolf Special Forces. The Ensign’s Special Forces has a solid reputation for embedded fits. This combat mode of mixing professional Russian volunteers and local armed forces is considered an important form of hybrid warfare. Later, when the Wagner Legion intervened in the civil war in Syria, it also adopted this form of formation and achieved quite good results. .
  The recruitment and use of volunteers by agents or groups surreptitiously backed by intelligence agencies kept Russia from being directly involved in the Balkan conflicts, at least to the Western world at the time, and gave shape to the hybrid war mentality on which Russian military strategists relied. The use of Balkan volunteers can be said to have established the template for the later operation of the Wagner Legion.
  It is also worth mentioning that in the Balkan conflicts, the recruitment methods of volunteer groups have become quite mature, among which the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) has made great contributions to the establishment of volunteer recruitment stations in many places in Russia by using its political influence .
  The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), formerly known as the Liberal Democratic Party of the Soviet Union (LDPSU), was founded on the background of the multi-party reforms implemented after Gorbachev took office. Of course it’s not that simple. At the same time that Gorbachev’s political reform was proposed, the Central Committee of the CPSU “proposed the establishment of a political party controlled by the KGB” to guide the interests and sentiments of certain societies. Therefore, the Liberal Democratic Party is actually an opposition party under the leadership of the KGB organization. When the party was established, the behind-the-scenes boss was KGB official Philip Denisovich Bobkov. As the director of the Fifth Bureau, this person is mainly responsible for handling domestic counterintelligence business , and led the institutional reform of the KGB in the 1980s. Because of his avant-garde thinking and strong execution, he was honored as the brain of the KGB. The establishment of the opposition party directly controlled by the KGB was also a masterpiece of this person. LDPR is still an active Right-wing party in Russian politics.
“They are mercenaries, not Russian soldiers”

  Although the proxy war mode sounds low-cost and high-yield, there are many insurmountable problems in this mode on a more intense battlefield.
  During the first Chechen war, the Russian Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK) tried to send a commando force of volunteers into the Chechen capital Grozny when Chechnya declared independence to directly execute the beheading operation on the rebel leader Dudayev. However, this volunteer contingent composed of former special forces members and tank and armored vehicle assault forces was surrounded by Chechen militants who had already ambushed as soon as they entered Grozny, and were quickly wiped out.
  Andrei, mentioned above, narrowly escaped his life in this battle. Andrei told me: “At that time the FSK officials thought that Dudayev was not ready, as soon as we managed to reach the presidential palace, their men would disperse. However, they had prepared a large number of anti-tank weapons and mines waiting As soon as we entered the encirclement, our armored vehicles and tanks were smashed into sieves. As a rear support force, if I hadn’t broken through decisively, I wouldn’t be able to survive today.” It’s intriguing that this battle was the first time armed volunteers fought
  with The Russian government forces fought together. After the contingent was wiped out, the Chechen armed forces showed their bodies, destroyed tanks and armored vehicles, captured weapons, and even images of prisoners. However, Russian officials said in interviews with the media that they did not know There were no Russian soldiers involved in this operation. Then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev publicly derided the operation as unprofessional, highlighting the “terrible mistake of sending tanks to the city”, saying the men were “mercenaries, not professional Russian soldiers”.
  However, Russia then sent tank troops to attack Grozny, and suffered exactly the same and more tragic failure.
  The lessons of the first Chechen war taught the Russian military a lesson: in high-intensity battles, volunteers are overwhelmed. Therefore, since 2000, Russia has rarely used volunteers as a tool. In 2008, when a conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia, the Russian army went into battle in person. In the decade of the early 2000s, volunteer activity fell silent.
  Of course, the volunteers are not idle. The commander of RDO-1, the main force in the Balkan Wars, Yuri Beliayev (Yuri Beliayev) founded a private military company called Rubikon in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. Rubikon is not only responsible for war operations, but also performs the outsourcing business of Russian gangs. The founder of Wagner Group, Dmitry Utkin (Dmitry Utkin), once worked in Rubikon Group, so Rubikon can be regarded as a prequel of Wagner. Igor Strelkov, the instigator of the little green man incident in Crimea, also worked as a volunteer in RDO-1, and it can be said that he is also a former employee of Rubikon.

Pan-Slavophilic Brotherhood

  Since the beginning of the 21st century, the emergence of the black water model in the war on terrorism has made Russian volunteers also smell business opportunities. From a commercial point of view, they can provide security services in dangerous areas such as the Middle East and Central Asia, or provide armed forces in areas where pirates are infested. Escort obviously has more commercial value than volunteerism. As a result, a number of private military companies with formal commercial registrations have emerged in Russia, and Rubikon also provides such services.
  The most famous Russian private armed enterprise in the era of anti-terrorism is Moran Security Group (Moran Security Group), which was established in 2011, but its history is much earlier than 2011. The Moran Group is a conglomerate of small private security firms that provides customs and border control, rescue missions (including hostage releases and anti-piracy operations), military preparations, and physical protection for VIPs (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Assad is Moran’s client).
  Moran Group and other mercenary companies in the era of anti-terrorism are characterized by being established in accordance with the business registration process of formal companies, providing standardized service packages, mainly security services, and war services are auxiliary services, such as training and logistical support. Local dignitaries guards are already very close to Western private security companies in concept.

  Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, one of the founders of the Wagner Group, a former lieutenant-colonel brigade commander of the GRU Special Forces, and a participant in two Chechen wars, was in Moran The group has worked as an executive in the anti-piracy business. When the Ukrainian coup broke out in 2014, he sensed a business opportunity, used his relationship in the Russian Ministry of Defense to obtain investment, and began to participate in the fighting in the Udon region. It is still unclear whether Utkin’s investor was Prigozhin at the time, but Utkin’s super execution ability made the Wagner Army led by him famous in the Udon conflict.
  Since Utkin also participated in the project of the group in Syria when he worked in the Moran Group, Wagner also quickly obtained contracts and funds from Syria after its establishment. However, Utkin did not want to establish another Moran Group. He joined the far-right organization Slavic Brotherhood (the organization was identified as an extremist organization by the Russian Federal Security Service in 2013 and banned) as early as during his military service. The spirit of volunteerism and the concept of justice of Slavism, so Wagner has never carried out formal business registration, and more often only exists as an organization similar to a brotherhood. This attribute allowed Wagner to escape the supervision of any judicial system, and even Russia’s domestic laws were difficult to restrain.
  In Putin’s new geopolitical plan, the Wagner Legion founded by Utkin can be used just for him. Therefore, under the needlework of Putin’s “royal chef” Prigorzhin, Utkin, a volunteer who has fought for two years, won the Medal of Courage personally awarded by Putin in 2016. Wagner has also begun to appear in more regional conflicts, including Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali. Since its development in 2014, Wagner has become a representative of the Russian Volunteer Corps with a long history. Many secrets of this organization have not been made public. Even the news that Prigozhin is the head of Wagner has only been unearthed by the media in recent years. .
  At present, it seems that Wagner’s Legion’s “March for Justice” will probably be the last performance of the organization with the dramatic end of this mutiny. However, Wagner’s story is obviously not over. What it represents behind it is the ideology of pan-Slavism, volunteer culture, political demands, and the soil that allows such organizations to be born and grow. As an organization, Wagner may Disappeared, but this kind of similar existence may continue to appear.

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