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Their time to face the music: 5 common Wagner PMC myths

The death of Wagner PMC co-founders Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin (call sign ‘Wagner’) in an air crash in the middle of Russia raised many questions about both the circumstances of the accident and the prospects of Wagner mercenaries. Russian pro-war zealots are greatly preoccupied with the fate of “the world's best army”, which purportedly did the most heavy lifting in Russia’s Syrian and Ukrainian campaigns. However, the group's history suggests that all of its victories were secondary or came at a great price, and facing off well-trained enemy forces in an unfamiliar environment mostly ended in failure. Meanwhile, the motivation behind the activities of Prigozhin's army was primarily commercial, and their operations often involved crimes against civilians.

  • Myth 1: “A private army”

  • Myth 2: “The slayers of Islamic State”

  • Myth 3: “Africa's liberators”

  • Myth 4: “The best in hell”

  • Myth 5: “The conquerors of Bakhmut”

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Myth 1: “A private army”

Investigative journalists have taken to using the term “private army” when referring to the Wagner PMC. Prigozhin himself used it, responding to allegations of the group’s ties to Russia's Ministry of Defense. The phrase often serves the purpose of distinguishing between Wagner and conventional private military companies, which mostly deal with personnel training and security in the rear, not combat missions involving artillery and armored vehicles. Yet, while the “army” part is not so far from the truth, “private” raises more questions.

In recent history, we’ve known at least one fully private army: South Africa's Executive Outcomes (EO). Like the Wagner PMC, EO included a constellation of legal entities operating in a variety of fields, from mining to aircraft maintenance. The South African private military company is best known for its crackdown on insurgents in Angola and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, which included the use of T-72 tanks, BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles, Mi-24 helicopters, and MiG-23 fighters.

Executive Outcomes employees in Sierra Leone against the backdrop of a Mi-17
Executive Outcomes employees in Sierra Leone against the backdrop of a Mi-17

The numerous weapons and equipment used by EO were mostly purchased abroad. Even though retired South African security officers always formed the core of the company, its relationship with the government, especially after the fall of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s ascent to power, was almost always tense. Eventually, the tightening of domestic legislation on foreign military assistance obliterated EO.

Unlike its South African counterpart, Wagner’s activities were intrinsically linked to the MoD infrastructure and, with very few exceptions, always served the Kremlin's interests. Thus, Wagner’s main camp in the village of Molkino in the Russian south was deployed at the base of the 10th Separate Spetsnaz Brigade of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU); Wagnerites were issued passports of the same unique series as the Skripals’ poisoners; MoD jets often flew to countries marked by Wagner presence, and Prigozhin attended talks between Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Libyan field marshal Khalifa Haftar.

Wagner’s activities were intrinsically linked to Russia's MoD infrastructure

Finally, except for individual makeshift armored vehicles, Wagner always fully relied on the Russian Ministry of Defense for weapons supplies, up to modern T-72B3M and T-90M tanks, Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile launchers, and Uragan multiple rocket launcher systems. The scope of government supplies received by the “private army” is evident from the video of the MoD recovering its assets.

Essentially, the Wagner PMC is a parallel military organization typical of dictatorships: think the SS in Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Blackshirts, Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen, or the currently active Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran. The latter analogy was mentioned in the pro-Russian blog War History Weapons in conjunction with Prigozhin's promise to transform his PMC into an “army with an ideology”.

Essentially, the Wagner PMC is a parallel military organization typical of dictatorships

Myth 2: “The slayers of Islamic State”

Wagner's online fans on social media and Prigozhin's portals often applaud the group’s crucial role in the victory against ISIS during the Palmyra offensive and other counter-terrorism operations, emphasizing its role in the global combat against terrorism. These events are sometimes used as a pretext for attacks on the Ministry of Defense. However, the Syrian front where Wagnerites were the most active was secondary for both Assad's troops and the jihadists.

In the early years of its activity in Syria, ISIS rarely engaged in combat with Assad's regime, mostly taking on anti-Assad insurgents and other jihadist groups. The coexistence was so peaceful that engineers of Russia’s Stroytransgaz resumed work at a Syrian natural gas facility once ISIS recaptured it from insurgents. The status quo changed in 2015, when ISIS captured Palmyra for the first time, creating a threat to Damascus from the east.

At that point, Evro Polis, a Russian company associated with Prigozhin, signed a contract with the Syrian government, undertaking to liberate and secure Syrian oil and gas infrastructure in return for a share of proceeds. The battles for oil and gas deposits marked an increase in Wagner's presence in Syria as Assad's troops and the official Russian forces were busy squashing the rebellion – the insurgents controlling a significant part of the territory, thus presenting a greater danger to the regime.

This aspect of Wagner’s “business” is known for the infamous killing of a local, who was beaten to death with a sledgehammer and beheaded at the “liberated” Shair mine in Homs. While Wagnerites never took responsibility for the murder, they made the sledgehammer their unofficial symbol and used it for summary executions later.

Wagner fighters burning the mutilated corpse of a Syrian they'd brutally killed
Wagner fighters burning the mutilated corpse of a Syrian they'd brutally killed

Wagner's role in the Palmyra operations (the first and the second) also draws attention. Despite the city’s significance in the history of European culture (due to its antique buildings), the population of the modern city before the war (or, to be more precise, of Tadmor, the Arabic town adjacent to the ruins) barely reached 50,000 people – much fewer than in Syria’s Raqqa or Iraq’s Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi, or Mosul. All of these cities were controlled by ISIS at its height and were liberated by the U.S.-led international coalition in alliance with Kurdish-Arabic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Iraqi security agencies, and the militia.

In 2018, when the fighting against the remnants of ISIS was still ongoing, Wagner decided to get their piece of the pie by attacking an SDF-controlled natural gas deposit. Sustaining heavy losses due to coalition air strikes (with losses ranging from dozens to hundreds killed, according to different sources), Wagnerites had to retreat. In 2023, Prigozhin attempted to paint the incident as the PMC’c victory, blaming Russia's MoD for the losses.

Myth 3: “Africa's liberators”

Both the Russian government and Wagner often attributed the expanse of Russia's African presence to the combat against Western neo-colonialism and local jihadist groups. However, Wagner's activities on the African continent were openly colonial in nature and involved severe war crimes.

Whereas the Kremlin is using Africa to create at least an illusion of international standing, Prigozhin's entities are mostly after making money in extractive industries. Thus, they went into gold mining in the Central African Republic implicating themselves in hostile takeovers and the killings of locals who mined gold illegally. As of 2022, Prigozhin’s companies plundered most of the gold mined in the neighboring Sudan with the military junta’s connivance. Finally, Prigozhin’s investment in chrome mining in Madagascar ended in a workers’ strike due to non-payment of salaries.

Prigozhin's entities in Africa are mostly after making money in extractive industries

As for Wagner’s “liberating” operations, few have been a real success. Whereas the Central African government regained control over most of the domestic territory (with support from Ruandan armed forces and by using public executions, torture, and killings), Wagner's contribution to the fight against jihadists in Mozambique ended in failure.

Signs at a workers’ strike at the company acquired by Prigozhin's entities in Madagascar: «Russian, go away»
Signs at a workers’ strike at the company acquired by Prigozhin's entities in Madagascar: «Russian, go away»

In Mali, where Wagner replaced French and international peacekeeping forces, Islamists and separatists still have the upper hand, despite the mercenaries joining government forces in a massacre that took the lives of at least 300 village residents.

Myth 4: “The best in hell”

Among Wagner's Ukrainian operations in 2022, its fans single out the Popasna offensive in the spring of 2022, where the “unique offensive experience” of Wagner fighters presumably played a crucial role in securing success in the Battle of Donbas. The events in Popasna even inspired a movie with an eye-catching title: Luchshie v Adu [The Best in Hell]. The town sustained so much damage during the fighting that LPR authorities doubted the practicality of rebuilding it.

However, Wagner hardly contributed any new tactics at Popasna, especially considering that the Russian army has been using assault units in urban warfare ever since the Chechen Wars, and the Red Army in WWII had dedicated sapper brigades, which specialized in pushing through fortified areas.

Wagner fighters and political strategist Maxim Shugaley in Popasna
Wagner fighters and political strategist Maxim Shugaley in Popasna

Besides, Russian and separatist troops were successful at capturing even large cities without Wagner's help in the early stages of the campaign – take Volnovakha, Mariupol, Rubizhne, and Severodonetsk, to name a few. Admittedly, these assault operations came at a great price, but the same goes for Wagnerites – considering that the PMC ramped up its recruiting efforts early in the war and launched a call across Russian prisons to recruit inmates as early as in the summer of 2022.

The only considerable “innovation” one could attribute to Wagner fighters is the intimidation tactics the mercenaries had polished to perfection in the Middle East and Africa. In the summer of 2022, Wagner fighters were most likely responsible for displaying (sensitive content warning) the head and hands they presumably cut off from the body of a fallen Ukrainian soldier, recreating the incident at Shair.

Wagner's only considerable “innovation” was the intimidation tactics polished to perfection in the Middle East and Africa

Myth 5: “The conquerors of Bakhmut”

The Battle of Bakhmut became the cornerstone of Wagner mythology – in many parts thanks to the government propaganda (1, 2, 3), which also included several documentaries.

However, the heavy combat for this district center did not result in Wagner meeting any of its objectives, such as cutting off the road used by the defenders for supplies and the transportation of the wounded (despite the ferocious fighting for this particular road) or building on the successful offensive to capture Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. On the contrary, even before Russian forces gained full control of the city, Ukrainian troops flanked the Russian grouping, thus launching a counteroffensive that is still ongoing.

The root cause of the poor outcome (at least until the street fighting began) lay in the tactic of throwing bodies at Ukrainian defense positions. Ukrainian journalist Yuri Butusov defined it as an assault without any regard for the losses, with poorly-trained personnel from among the prison population who are assigned primitive tasks and micromanaged through drones and comms.

Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner fighters in Bakhmut
Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner fighters in Bakhmut

As a result, Prigozhin had to give up the flanks of the offensive to MoD forces, in particular, the paratroopers, in April – in all likelihood, because the remaining Wagner forces, which were cut off from prison recruitment, would be stretched too thin keeping the flanks and advancing in Bakhmut. Notably, Russian airborne units and other MoD troops had supported Wagner's advance on Bakhmut long before that.

This is further evidenced by Prigozhin’s words about his fighters sacrificing their lives for every meter of land in Bakhmut. As BBC Russian Service remarks, when Prigozhin assessed Wagner’s losses as 20,000 killed in Bakhmut alone, Russia’s overall losses in the campaign stood at 47,000 killed, which meant that Wagner fighters accounted for over one-third of them.

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