Many had predicted that the death last month of Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin meant the demise of the mercenary outfit. Yet signs in recent days say the private military outfit is active again in Ukraine, a reminder of the Kremlin's interest in continuing a private fighting formula that has worked all around the world.
“Let’s not forget that there is no Wagner Group anymore,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had declared. “Such an organization, in our eyes, does not exist.”
The August 25 statement from came less than two days after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the infamous Russian mercenary outfit, as questions swirled about Wagner's fate after its crucial role in the war in Ukraine and other Russian military missions around the world.
How could an independent military outfit survive after its charismatic founder's death? It seemed highly unlikely that President Vladimir Putin would allow the survival of a group after had launched a short-lived coup attempt in late June that most outside observers believe led to Prigozhin's private airplane being shot down by Russian forces on August 23.
"Wagner is over,” said the Kremlin critic and Russian political commentator Maksim Katz. “The group can’t keep going. There’s the possibility that they could continue in parts or with Defense Ministry contracts, but the group only worked with an unofficial agreement between Putin and Prigozhin.”
Yet barely a month later, and there are already multiple signs that the Wagner phoenix is rising from the ashes.
In recent days, fighters affiliated with Wagner have once again been spotted on the battlefield near Bakhmut in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region, according to a Ukrainian drone operator. This confirmation supports earlier reports from Russian sources regarding the resurgence of Wagner mercenaries near the strategic city in eastern Ukraine.
This marks the first official confirmation of the Wagner Group's reappearance in Ukraine. Prior to this, the Telegram channel “Rybar”, closely linked to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, reported on the presence of mercenaries in the area of Bakhmut.
According to Rybar, fighters who had "broken away" from the mercenary outfit after the Prigozhin-led rebellion are slowly returning to eastern Ukraine. These troops are reportedly under the command of Andrei Troshev, and they continue to recruit mercenaries from Belarus and Africa for operations in Ukraine.
Wagner has created a certain style of behavior.
On September 23, the Telegram channel “Gray Zone”, associated with Wagner, stated that a detachment of mercenaries “would now enter Bakhmut,” similarly emphasizing that this group comprised those who refused to participate in the rebellion.
Whether this distinct subset of mercenaries are still to be considered Wagnerites is unclear. Colin Clarke, Scientific director of the Soufan Group research organization, toldGolos amreiki that “The Russian Ministry of Defense could try to take control of the Wagner group in its entirety in order to integrate it into the Russian armed forces, but there are a number of problems."
Among the problems, he explained, were that "Wagner has created a certain style of behavior .. and in the last couple of years has been practically in opposition to Ministry of Defense." Thus the Wagnerites may resist integration into the Russian army.
August 24, 2023, St. Petersburg, Russia: A member of the Wagner group lays his patch on roses, honoring the memory of Yevgeny Prigozhin.
For more than a decade ago, Russia has built up a system of independent mercenary groups that were deployed for covert military operations in various global hotspots. Though the best-know, Wagner was hardly the only such outfit. These groups have operated with a level of deniability for the Russian government, allowing Moscow to pursue its geopolitical interests without direct military intervention. Their activities spanned from Ukraine to Syria, Libya, and several African nations.
The US has also not yet seen a “decisive shift” in Wagner’s relationship with the Kremlin, or signs that Moscow has absorbed the group’s operations across the continent, the official said. This likely reflects the fact that the Kremlin is still unsure precisely what to do with the mercenary forces now that Prigozhin, is dead.
In the immediate aftermath of Prigozhin's June uprising, well-vetted reports from Reuters in Syria indicated that the Russian military, along with the Syrian security service, interrogated various commanders of the Wagner unit in Syria, and tried to force all the Wagnerites to sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense.
“As a result,” Kimberly Marten, Professor at Barnard College at Columbia University said, “several dozen of these mercenaries signed such contracts, and were taken by plane to Russia...But there are still several hundred of them in Syria. I wouldn’t be surprised if those who didn’t sign a direct contract with (the defense ministry) went to another private military company called Redut, formerly called Shield, and also located in Syria.”
A recruitment poster for a new Russian mercenary group
Other Mercenary Groups
The likelihood that Wagner fighters will move to other mercenary groups is indeed considered high. Since Prigozhin’s death, compensation for Wagner fighters has become uncertain with many other mercenary groups offering higher and more reliable sources of income.
Russian independent news site Vazhnye istorii reported on one such group “Russian Legion”, which was formed in April 2022. Its head, Sergei Fomchenkov, is a Russian politician with strong ties to the Kremlin.
Anyone wishing to join the group must go to work for a Moscow company and sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense. They will then receive a one-time payment of approximately 600,000 rubles ($6,175): with a minority share coming from the Ministry of Defense and about two-thirds “from a Moscow organization, where the volunteer will also be officially employed for the duration of the contract.” From then on, they receive about 350,000 rubles per month ($3600).
There are other groups that have existed at least as long as Wagner.
By comparison, the average Wagner fighter's salary remains around 240,000 roubles ($2,470) a month, which itself is already substantially higher than what government soldiers earn.
Jason Blazakis, director of the Center on Terrorism and Extremism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey, believes such private groups are likely to be on the rise in the coming weeks and months. “Gazprom has its own private army,” he told Golos ameriki, referring to the Russian oil and gas conglomerate. “And there are other groups that have existed at least as long as Wagner, which may be much less powerful and less well-trained; but all private Russian mercenary groups will continue to be an important force for the Russian authorities, because Moscow, using them in various situations abroad, can deny its involvement.”
Yet the importance goes beyond their use as cover for the Kremlin's misdeeds. It's worth remembering that the Wagner Group’s effectiveness, especially in the battle for Bakhmut last year, came from its high levels of morale, elite training and group cohesion that appears to be lacking among standard Russian government platoons. Wagner's recent reappearance in Bakhmut shows again that Russia's mercenary model — in Ukraine and well beyond — looks sure to last at least as long as Putin himself.