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Wagner moves from the shadows to the spotlight

March 8, 2023 at 9:01 am

This picture taken on July 4, 2017 shows Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin [SERGEI ILNITSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

In recent months, the cities of Soledar, Vuhledar and Bakhmut have become the main focal points of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. However, the fact that there has been little significant change in the front lines for months has increased concerns that the conflict may be grinding to a stalemate.

From the beginning until the appointment of General Valery Gerasimov as overall commander of Russian troops in Ukraine, the Wagner private military group gained popularity in Russia amidst a lot of patriotic gung-ho. The international media have reported statements made by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has earned a status rarely attained by a mercenary leader since the heyday of America’s Blackwater CEO Erik Prince. In short, the company is moving from the shadows to the spotlight.

Such increased visibility of the unconventional group has fuelled further political tension between Wagner and Russia’s military institution, especially between Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Gerasimov on one hand, and Prigozhin on the other. The Kremlin seems to use this rivalry to get the best out of both sides. The fact that Putin replaced Sergei Surovikin, who has close ties with Prigozhin, with Gerasimov as the Ukraine War commander is another indicator of this strategy.

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This staunch rivalry also brings out the worst of both sides, as they undermine each other in the theatre of war. Senior military officers are resentful about Wagner’s involvement in some areas as an alternative to the Russian army. Incidents have multiplied whereby the army refused to provide equipment and ammunition to Wagner forces, leading to catastrophic losses by the group in locations where the Russians were dominant. In return, Wagner has intensified its public criticism of the military leadership, exposing their blunders and accusing them of incompetence. As a result, the company has gained an edge in this political conflict, boosting its appeal to the Russian public even more.

Several factors underpin Wagner’s current popularity. For a start, Russian soldiers have lost the image war. Often depicted as lacking motivation, particularly at the beginning when they had qualms about fighting Russian-speaking Ukrainians, the regular soldiers developed negative public perceptions. Their hesitation was understandable, especially since the message cascading from the top leadership was that “Ukrainians and Russians are one people – a single whole”. Moreover, Ukraine did not attack Russian civilians; its troops focused solely on defending its borders. This led to a lack of motivation among Russian conscripts, which resulted in several military blunders. Conversely, Wagner’s recruits had no motivational issues; they were well-trained and well-paid.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognised two breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recognised two breakaway territories in Eastern Ukraine – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The Russian army has not fought against an equal foe for decades. Its experience in Syria has been fighting small, poorly-equipped militias. Wagner, however, conducts multiple operations around the world, including Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan; its forces have much more experience. The group has been able to take a more active role in Ukraine, compensating for the Russian army’s inadequacies on the battlefield.

What’s more, Prigozhin recruited individuals personally by visiting jails. Wagner had sufficient experienced personnel in Ukraine but still had to recruit new mercenaries. On social media platforms, videos emerged of him talking to prisoners. He promised freedom and money, then sent them to the front lines after a period of training. Tens of thousands of convicts answered the call, according to Emmanuel Grynszpan. This recruitment drive became an allegory for Russia’s exorcism of its bad spirits, as answering the nation’s call was seen as purifying the dirty past of prisoners, absolving them of their crimes and giving them a chance to have a better future.

Wagner’s popularity is also due to the fact that the high number of army casualties affected public morale and support for the government. The company, though, is not obliged to disclose its casualty figures. What’s more, the public response to Wagner’s losses is less emotional than the reaction to the loss of Russian soldiers.

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The final reason for Wagner’s popularity is that its mercenaries violate the laws of war, increasing violence in conflict areas. To avoid accountability, operations that may have a negative impact on Russia’s international reputation are conducted through Wagner rather than the Russian army. Using Wagner allows Russia to have more operational flexibility and maintain a lower profile in the conflict zone. By using the mercenary group, Russia may also be able to avoid accountability in any future legal action or international lawsuits.

This is why Wagner leader Prigozhin has grown in popularity during the war and is helping to shape the future of Russian politics. However, Gerasimov’s recent appointment as Russia’s commander in Ukraine — and the fact that he has a close relationship with Shoigu — may be bad news for Prigozhin. The Wagner leader criticised the Russian army heavily recently, claiming that military support has been cut off “treacherously” for his troops, leaving them exposed on the front lines.

This Russian-style game of thrones is shuffling the packs of power and politics and will shape Russia’s future. It is hard to say who will emerge victorious.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.