The Wagner Group's fighters are often referred to as Russia's 'shadow warriors." Image: Twitter / Salika

By all accounts, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are proving to be a tougher opponent than the Kremlin anticipated. After three weeks of what President Vladimir Putin has termed a “special military operation”, Russia has not achieved any of its military or political goals.

As the West pumps weapons to the Ukrainian Army and local resistance fighters train up and dig in, Moscow will by now be resigned to the fact that its invasion could become a long war. That, in turn, raises the prospect that Russia will deploy battle-hardened mercenaries like those attached to the Wagner Group to fight and intensify the conflict.

The Wagner Group, also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner or CHVK Vagner is a Russian paramilitary organization that is variously described as a private military company, a network of mercenaries, or the de facto private army of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Reports indicate the Wagner Group is trained at Russian Ministry of Defense installations and are widely considered to be an arms-length unit of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, similar to the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). 

The Wagner Group is widely believed to be used by the Russian government to allow for plausible deniability for its involvement in certain global conflicts. Some have likened the Wagner Group to the controversial US private security firm Blackwater active in Iraq and established by ex-US Navy Seal Erik Prince.

The Wagner Group is best known for its role in the war in Donbas, where it has fought alongside separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics now officially recognized by Moscow.

Wagner Group mercenaries at an undisclosed location. Image: ssu.gov.ua

Wagner Group mercenaries have also fought in conflicts around the world including the civil wars in LibyaSyria, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali, invariably fighting on the side of forces aligned with Moscow’s interests. Though welcomed by the governments of Syria and the CAR, Wagner Group operatives have a reputation for ferocity and have been accused of war crimes in some areas.

Reports are now widely circulating that more than 400 Wagner Group mercenaries have been flown in from Africa and deployed to Kiev specifically to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose global stature has risen meteorically since Moscow’s invasion through his social media and other appeals for Western aid and assistance.

News reports indicate that some 2,000-4,000 Wagner mercenaries arrived in Ukraine in January, weeks before the launch of Moscow’s February 24 invasion. Some Ukrainian experts have claimed that Wagner Group members are already active in military operations aimed at seizing the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

The Times of London reported that when Ukrainian intelligence learned of the presence of the guns-for-hire in the capital, a curfew was imposed on Kiev soon after the invasion so that security forces could hunt down what they referred to as “saboteurs.”

Military strategists say the Kremlin would need to deploy much more than 4,000 mercenaries, even as advance scouts, to achieve its military objectives even just for Kiev. Those larger mercenary numbers could be forthcoming, however: Ukrainian sources claim that the Wagner Group has already started recruiting mercenaries in Russia.

That reportedly includes a major recruiting point in a village of Molkino, near Krasnodar in southern Russia. According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Wagner Group’s main headquarters is in Rostov on Don, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Ukrainian border.

The Wagner Group is believed to be financed largely by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with close links to President Putin. With a penchant for the extreme, Prigozhin recommended on social media to send retired military specialists from Russia to the White House and Capitol soon after the January Capitol riot in Washington DC.

His trolling came three years after the United States’ military killed dozens of Wagner mercenaries and Syrian Arab Army troops in the Middle Eastern country.

Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin shows then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 20, 2010. Photo: AFP via Getty / Sputnik / Alexey Druzhinin

In May 2018, Wagner fighters reportedly assaulted a US and Syrian Democratic Forces position in Syria’s oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province, but they were later hammered by the American artillery, airstrikes, helicopters and even an AC-130 gunship.

Following the incident, Russian media was silent, even though it was the first direct battle between Washington’s and Moscow’s forces since the Vietnam War.

Wagner Group was later rebranded as “Liga” and it continues to recruit, train and send private military operatives to conflict zones around the world. In September 2019, Wagner Group forces were deployed to Mozambique to help the African country’s army combat the so-called Islamic State’s Central Africa Province’s (IS-CAP) insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado province.

In July 2020, Belarusian law enforcement agencies detained 33 people who turned out to be mercenaries from Wagner Group. Minsk accused the mercenaries of trying to destabilize the country ahead of that August’s presidential election by organizing a Ukrainian-style Maidan revolution and overthrowing the country’s leader Alexander Lukashenko.

They were, however, released days after the election as Russia insisted that the mercenaries were only transiting via Belarus en route to Istanbul.

A United Nations report has shown that the Wagner Group deployed up to 1,200 fighters to Libya to back Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army. Wagner Group fighters are also operating in CAR in backing government forces in a fight against rebels. CAR has reciprocally said it is ready to deploy fighters to Ukraine to help Russian forces in their “special military operation.”

While Moscow’s specific objectives for its invasion of Ukraine are not known, what is clear is that Russian forces have underperformed in the face of strong Ukrainian resistance. That means Putin will likely look to what many see as his private Wagner Group army and its battle-hardened mercenaries to lead key operations in the days and weeks ahead.

Nikola Mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”