Summary of CSIS webinar on “Russia’s “Private” Military Companies: The Example of the Wagner Group”

By PAC Intern Kay Minkiewicz

The Washington D.C. based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) presented a webinar on Russia’s private military companies, specifically the Wagner Group on April 28, 2020.

In summary, the webinar discussed the nature of the Wagner Group and its activities and answered two key questions. First, why is the Wagner Group technically illegal (even unconstitutional) in Russia? Second, what implications does the Wagner Group have for the interests of the U.S. and its allies?

Panellist, Kimberley Marten, Professor and Chair at the Department of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University, categorised the Wagner Group as not a “private military company” (PMC) or a mere mercenary force, but rather a form of Russian paramilitary organization. The Wagner group has close ties with the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence organization) and explicitly Kremlin’s interests.

The Wagner Group has been active in conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, Mozambique, and Mali. However, recent activity may suggest that Kremlin is employing the Wagner Group to test out a new model of indispensable influence that makes Russia necessary in holding peace between rebel and state forces. This can be seen by their activity in the Central African Republic (CAR) where the Wagner Group helped rebel militias negotiate a peace deal with Tuoadera, the President of the Central African Republic. This activity coincided with Russia becoming the chair of the Kimberly Process (KP), a multilateral trade regime established with the goal of preventing the flow of conflict in diamonds and the CAR being accepted to renter the (KP) in 2015.  Furthermore, Russian representatives have managed to struck deals with the CAR government to mine diamonds and gold. Therefore, Kremlin may be using the Wagner Group to resolve civil conflict and then pursue their financial and political interests.

Furthermore, in March 2018 Russia refused to legalize any form of PMCs. One reason for this is that it gives Russia some form of plausible deniability in associating with the actions of any PMCs it may employ. Thus, this has detrimental implications to U.S. interests as it permits Russia to act without explicitly associated with the Wagner Group’s actions. An argument has been made that illegality of PMCs can be a form of control where it limits the market to only PMCs that Putin supports. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close ally of Putin, has been the main contractor of the Wagner group since 2016. This also highlights the negative implications of the Wagner Group on U.S. interests as the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against Prigozhin in September 2019, accusing him of steering Russian efforts to influence the US 2018 mid-term elections.

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Kay Minkiewicz is a Policy Intern at the Polish American Congress and a first-year student at The London School of Economics and Political Science, where he is majoring in Philosophy and Economics.

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