Wagner Group in the Ukraine War: A Shadow Force in Warfare?

The controversial Wagner group’s activities in the Ukraine-Russia conflict can ideally be described by the German term “doppelgänger,” which literally translates as “walking double” or “duplicate.” They are Putin’s phantom force, unregistered and do not exist officially, but just like doppelgängers, people can have a glimpse of them, encounter them on a deserted road, and watch them doing stuff but cannot catch them. These duplicate soldiers are wreaking havoc in Ukraine and contributing significantly to Russia’s war effort.

Since the very start of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, more than 13 months ago, it was speculated that it is only a matter of time the Russian force would capture Kyiv. However, to their surprise they encountered fierce resistance from the Ukrainian force and suffered one devastating military setback after another. In this background the mercenary group stepped out of the shadow and is now leading the battles for Russia. The group has sent tens of thousands of mercenaries to fight in Ukraine and is accused of numerous war crimes. The shadow force is also behind the recent success of the Russian military on the battleground and is now in the spotlight again as it is spearheading the battle in eastern Ukraine.

The rise of mercenary groups in warfare in recent history

Warfare has long involved mercenaries and the use of private military dates back to ancient times when armies employed skilled warriors for their combat prowess. These soldiers are known for their expertise and specialized skills that may not be available within regular armed forces. Although these hired soldiers can provide valuable services to regular armed forces in a fast-moving and dynamic conflict environment, their involvement in modern warfare has become a controversial issue due to concerns about human rights violations, accountability and transparency.

Unlike regular soldiers who are bound by military law and Geneva Conventions, these private military contractors are mostly not subject to the same levels of oversight and regulation. It is challenging to hold them responsible for their activities because they mostly function in a legal gray area. Moreover, it is difficult to assess their impact on the ground due to the lack of transparency around their activities. The potential for private defense contractors to erode state sovereignty is another cause for concern. While states have the right to use force to defend themselves, the use of private military contractors blurs the lines between state and non-state actors, and raises questions about who is ultimately responsible for the use of force. In addition, the use of such force also undermines the possibility of peaceful resolutions of a conflict as it remains unclear whom to hold accountable and shrinks the path of diplomacy.

The use of such hired soldiers, however, have heavily been done in contemporary times. During the Vietnam War the American government hired private military companies to provide logistical support, administrative assistance and security services to American soldiers. The CIA contracted Air America to provide air transport services to the US troops and Vietnamese civilians. The company was also involved in covert operations and intelligence gathering.  Private military companies also played a much larger part during the war on terror when the US was involved in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The American government hired firms like Blackwater and DynCorp International to offer security services, training, and logistical assistance to American forces and the Afghan government. These companies were also involved in counterinsurgency operations and provided protection to U.S. diplomats and other high-ranking officials. Now, the Russian private military force Wagner group has not only been involved in conflicts in Ukraine but around the world, particularly in Africa, in countries like Central African Republic, Mozambique, Chad, Mali.

The Wagner Group

The Wagner Group, also known as PMC Wagner, is a Russian paramilitary organization that operates as a mercenary force to aid the military in various conflict zones around the world. For years, the group has been secretly and violently advancing Russian interest abroad. In 2014, just weeks after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to President Putin founded the group. It soon established a reputation for its extreme brutality and ruthlessness. Between the Crimea crisis and the present conflict in Ukraine, Wagner has increased its operations all over the globe in line with Russia’s official foreign policy strategy. While Russia offers the group political protection, they ensure Russia’s interest on the ground. The Kremlin has a history of openly distancing itself from the paramilitary group, but Wagner soldiers have participated in some of the most consequential conflicts. The Group has been involved in conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Central African Republic, Mozambique, and other countries and It is now fighting alongside regular troops in the war in Ukraine.

The group’s members are believed to be former Russian military and intelligence personnel who receive extensive training and equipment from the Russian government. Despite the Kremlin’s official denial of involvement, Wagner’s actions have sparked concern among Western governments and human rights groups due to their alleged human rights abuses and violations of international law.  The group was designated as a “significant transnational criminal organization” by the US and they along with other western countries levied heavy sanctions. Now that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in full swing, the fighters-for-hire have taken center stage to fight on Russia’s side.

Prior to the conflict in Ukraine, the group only hired retired soldiers and military individuals; however, due to the high demand for mercenaries in the war they are now forced to recruit thieves, thugs and convicts from the prison. Wagner is currently being actively and fiercely promoted as a representation of a brand-new version of Russian pride and patriotism.

Prigozhin has been visiting Russian jails to recruit fighters, offering the prisoners full pardon if they made it through a six-month tour of the frontline, serving alongside Wagner. He even posted a video in which he congratulates the first group of convicts that received official pardons and the right to leave the company. The U.S. believes Wagner has about 50,000 personnel battling in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 of the convicts the organization recruited. Wagner is reportedly investing about $100 million per month in the conflict and has allegedly received rockets and missiles from Iran and North Korea.

Significance of the shadow force

Wagner’s ties to the Kremlin have always been murky; they exist in an obscure space where state and non-state players converge to form a complex and nebulous network of ambiguity. The benefits of a group like Wagner are clear; on one hand, they can use the unit to exercise military influence in different parts of the globe, while on the other hand, the Kremlin can always claim that it has nothing to do with the group. Officially, Wagner does not exist, and it is not covered by Russian law since the country’s penal code prohibits mercenaries (Article 359). Russia for years relied on Wagner to do its bidding around the world and because of the law, Moscow was able to maintain some level of credible denial as it pursued its interests and used them around the globe. They vanish without a name, a body or a trace of existence. In short, Wagner is a phantom state-sanctioned force for Russia, running without the official limitations and red lines of a conventional state agency. They are part of Putin’s goals and carrying out his dirty works. Thus, the shadowy army has been deployed to carry out operations in areas where the Russian army cannot legally be involved or did not want to openly commit troops or resources.

Wagner group in Ukraine war: A game changing force?

The Wagner Group has taken an increasingly visible role in the war in Ukraine as regular Russian troops suffered heavy attrition and lost control over some previously captured territory in a series of humiliating setbacks. The more dire the situation gets for the Russian army, the more it will be required to lean on private mercenaries like the Wagner Group. The importance became more visible when Putin called up 300,000 recruits in the military, in face of great loss, and could not make the call up popular among the people. Thus, he has to rely on Wagner for battlefield success and the group has played an important role in return. Wagner bought Putin time in advance of his eventual mobilization push, and, later, Russia’s preparations for a counteroffensive.

Perhaps most effective utilization of the group in the Ukraine war is that they are not subject to ‘body bag syndrome–the mounting casualties that reduces public support for military missions and they offer plausible deniability. It is speculated that, since the battlefield in Ukraine is getting more and more dynamic with western weaponry and military support, Putin’s reliance on the hired group would continue to increase. However, many experts claim Although Wagner mercenaries might be more effective combatants than normal soldiers, their numbers are insufficient to make a significant alteration. They are extremely unlikely to be enough to significantly alter the trajectory of the conflict.

Concluding remarks

The use of shadow force is not uncommon in the history of warfare. For Russia, in past conflicts, the deliberate ambiguity of Wagner’s relationship with the Putin government worked to Moscow’s benefit. Thus, Russia will keep using groups like Wagner in Ukraine even if they increase their formal mobilization. Wagner’s presence has reshaped the Ukraine conflict, but now that it’s out of the shadows, it may no longer serve Russia’s aims abroad in exactly the same way. However, Wagner’s development provides a blueprint for how Russia exerts its power and influence. Its rise provides a glimpse into how Putin may carry out his future plans to assert his influence in the world.

– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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