I had never heard of the Wagner Group until a recent article outlined who they are, and what they do. The fact that it is a clandestine organization, albeit State sponsored, adds to the lack of general information about its activities.
A computer tablet left by a mercenary in Libya has provided evidence of the Wagner Group’s involvement in mining and booby-trapping many civilian areas. The BBC investigation, mostly conducted through the evidence provided by the content of the tablet, has revealed the scale of operations of this shadowy Russian mercenary group in Libya’s civil war, which includes links to war crimes, and directly to the Russian military.
The Wagner Group was formed in 2014, in the Ukraine, and is owned by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. It is intensely involved in several conflicts. The Group has made its presence mostly in Syria and Libya, where Russia actively participated in the civil war, and reportedly used the Wagner Group as its proxy in the region. The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), on July 24, 2020, accused Russia of “playing an unhelpful role in Libya by delivering supplies and equipment to the Wagner group.” The Group has 2,000 personnel in Libya, according to the Command, and currently has bases in the cities of Sirte and Jufra. According to diplomats, there are estimated to be “more than 20,000” foreign mercenaries in Libya, and Libyan authorities, U.N. officials and world powers have demanded that these mercenaries leave the country. These demands have been almost entirely ignored.
None of this comes as much of a surprise. Russia, under Vladimir Putin and most of his predecessors, has always conducted clandestine proxy operations throughout the world, when it suited their political goals. To be fair, so has the C.I.A. on behalf of the U.S. Government, albeit a lot more ham-fistedly. Indeed, most countries are involved in similar activities, whether they be military or economic.
If this is the norm, why, then, am I writing about this particular group?
The reason is that Valdimir Putin has done a much better job than his predecessors at convincing the world and, in particular, the Western Alliance of Europe and the United States, that he is somewhat civilized and can be reasoned with. He deserves recognition by Hollywood as a superb actor, or perhaps a superb illusionist a la David Copperfield (apologies to David for the comparison). As I have said before, just because he buys his suits from Saville Row in London doesn’t mean he’s civilized, let alone trustworthy. He’s still KGB, and his goal is still the re-establishment of the Soviet Union both in terms of controlled territory and international influence. We forget that at our peril.
Putin has learned that overt actions have consequences that may not be advantageous to his goals. Proxy and underground actions are far less detrimental to his cause. Hence the Wagner Group, the GRU activities poisoning people in other countries, and the overloading of Russian embassies throughout the world with “political officers”; KGB, GRU etc.
Again, this is not unusual in international affairs in general. However, it is the image of civilized behavior in Putin’s methods that is dangerous. That image deflects attention from his goals, and mutes the responses from his enemies.
The Russian Ministry, when questioned about the Wagner Group, claimed that details about Wagner in Libya are mostly based on “rigged data”, and were aimed at “discrediting Russia’s policy” in Libya. What is interesting to note here is that they did not use their normal response in such situations of denying all knowledge of the Group and its activities. On the other hand, one of the ex-mercenaries of Wagner told the BBC that the Wagner Group is “a structure, aimed at promoting the interests of the state (Russia) beyond our country’s borders.”
I don’t expect too many people to be surprised by the revelations about the Wagner Group. I just hope to reinforce the idea that we shouldn’t be taken in by Putin’s cleverly-crafted public image. Please remember his background and his goals and, most importantly, remember he is not getting any younger, and has a diminishing amount of time to achieve his lifelong dream. That makes him all the more dangerous.