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PMC Wagner: The group that threatened to remove Putin

The Wagner Group  officially known as PMC Wagner is a Russian paramilitary organization. It is seen as a private military company(PMC), a network of mercenaries and a de facto private army of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman formerly with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It operates in support of Russian interests, receives equipment from the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and has used MoD installations for training. While the Wagner Group itself is not ideologically driven, elements of it have been linked to neo-Nazism and far-right politics.

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Prior to June 2023, it was widely speculated that the Wagner Group was used by the Russian government to allow for plausible deniability and to obscure the true casualties and financial costs of Russia’s foreign interventions. The group came to prominence during the Donbas war in Ukraine, where it helped pro-Russian separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics from 2014 to 2015. Its contractors have reportedly taken part in conflicts around the world, including 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 committing war crimes, including rape, robbery of civilians,  and torturing accused deserters.

Wagner has played a significant role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where it has been reportedly deployed to assassinate Ukrainian leaders, among other activities, and for which it has recruited prison inmates from Russia for frontline combat. In December 2022, United States National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby claimed Wagner had 50,000 fighters in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts. Others put the number of recruited prisoners at more than 20,000, with the overall number of PMC forces present in Ukraine estimated at 20,000. In 2023, Russia granted combat veteranstatus to Wagner contractors who took part in the invasion.

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After years of denying links to the Wagner Group, Prigozhin admitted in September 2022 that he founded it. He declared, “I am proud that I was able to defend their right to protect the interests of their country.”

On 23 June 2023, Prigozhin launched an armed rebellion after accusing the Russian military of killing Wagner forces. Wagner units withdrew from Ukraine and seized the city of Rostov-on-Donin Russia. A convoy of Wagner forces then headed towards Moscow, attempting to reach the capital before it could be intercepted by regular forces loyal to the government. The rebellion was abruptly halted on 24 June by a deal brokered by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.

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Origins and leadership

The Wagner Group first appeared in Ukraine in 2014, where it participated in the annexation of Crimea. The group was also active in 2014, fighting with Russia-backed separatists in the Luhansk region of Ukraine.

Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin, a veteran of the First and Second Chechen Wars, reportedly founded the group. 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.

After leaving the military, in 2013 he began working for the Moran Security Group, a private company founded by Russian military veterans, which was involved in security and training missions worldwide, and specializes in security against piracy. The same year, senior Moran Security Group managers were involved in setting up the Hong Kong-based Slavonic Corps, which headhunted contractors to “protect oil fields and pipelines” in Syria during its civil war. Utkin was deployed in Syria as a member of the Slavonic Corps, surviving its disastrous mission. Subsequently, Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested some members of the Slavonic Corps for illegal mercenary activity in November 2013.

In 2021, the Foreign Policy report noted the origin of the name “Wagner” to be unknown. Others say the group’s name comes from Utkin’s own call sign “Wagner”, reportedly after the German composer Richard Wagner, which Utkin is said to have chosen due to his passion for the Third Reich (Wagner being Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer). As such, some believe he is a neo-Nazi, with The Economist reporting that Utkin has several Nazi tattoos. Members of Wagner Group say Utkin is a Rodnover, a believer of Slavic native faith. Radio Liberty cited insiders as saying that the leadership of the Wagner Group are followers of the Slavic Native Faith, a modern Pagan new religious movement. In August 2017, the Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak speculated that Utkin was possibly a figurehead for the company, while the real head of Wagner was someone else.

Various elements of Wagner have been linked to white supremacist and neo-Nazi far-right extremists,  such as Wagner’s openly far-right and neo-Nazi Rusich unit, and Wagner members have left neo-Nazi graffiti on the battlefield. However, Erica Gaston, a senior policy adviser at the UN University Centre for Policy Research, noted that the Wagner Group is not ideologically driven, but rather a network of mercenaries “linked to the Russian security state”. Russia denies the connection and officially the group does not exist.

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 [ru]), 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.

It has been 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— has links with Wagner and Utkin personally. The businessman has been said to be the founder and actual owner of the Wagner Group. Prigozhin denied any communication with Wagner, until September 2022, when he admitted having created 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.

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 that was the result of the medal-awarding ceremony at the Kremlin in 2016, and the United States sanctions imposed on him. Subsequently, Colonel Konstantin Aleksandrovich Pikalov (call sign “Mazay”) was said to have been put in charge of Wagner’s African operations. 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 Dmitry Utkin had been killed, as his phone number was no longer functioning and his regular trips from Krasnodar to St. Petersburg stopped.

Pikalov served as a military officer in Russia’s experimental military unit numbered 99795, located in the village of Storozhevo, near St. 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.

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