Written evidence submitted by Professor Mark Galeotti (WGN0005)

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The Protean PMC: learning the lessons of the Wagner Groups’ ability to be both proxy and autonomous agent

Written evidence submitted to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Inquiry on ‘The Wagner Group and beyond: proxy Private Military Companies’

Mark Galeotti

  1. Summary:
  1. Author: I am Dr Mark Galeotti, managing director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence, an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies and a senior associate fellow with both RUSI and the Council on Geostrategy. I have been following Russian politics and security affairs for over thirty years.
  2. Key Takeaway: Wagner Group shifts almost seamlessly between being an out and out proxy of the Kremlin, and an essentially commercial organisation driven by the search for profit. This not only makes it often difficult to grasp its motivations in any one theatre, it also highlights the challenges of dealing with regimes in which the boundaries between the private and the public are both porous and mobile. This obviously matters when dealing with the immediate Russian challenge, but it also a broader point that will be important in the future, especially as Chinese security companies increasingly accompany Chinese investment, notably in Africa.
  3. Wagner Group’s evolution: The organisation’s origins, various deployments and connection to Evgeny Prigozhin’s Concord business empire are well known, but it is important to stress how mutable it has been.
  4. It began in the Donbas, not so much as a force established by the state, but as a commercial venture established by nationalists who wanted to fight anyway, but who realised that the state was willing to fund likely proxies. Thus, it could be considered to have started as a collection of violent entrepreneurs who acted on their own initiative to monetise their capacity to use force.
  5. Then, it was brought to Syria as a straightforward arm of the state, paid for by the Defence Ministry as it became clear that ground troops would be needed to supplement the openly-acknowledged air deployment of the GVS (Group of Forces in Syria), at a time when the Russian public would not be tolerant of actual troops being used in the fighting.
  6. As the Syrian army and the situation on the ground improved, the military decided they did not want or need Wagner any more and terminated their contract. (The notorious frictions between the GVS command in Hmeymim and the – as they saw them – over-paid and under-disciplined mercenaries hardly helped matters.) However, the Kremlin still saw a potential value to Wagner and charged Prigozhin with keep it in being. Unable or unwilling to maintain it out of his own pocket, Prigozhin signed a deal with Damascus whereby Concord would receive a share of the proceeds from any oil and gas fields Wagner helped recapture: in effect, they became ‘proper’ mercenaries, and it was the quest for profit, not any Kremlin or GVS calculation that fatefully led them to Deir ez-Zor and their decimation at the hands of the US military (while the GVS command cheerfully washed its hands of them).
  7. Wagner gone global. Since then, Wagner has operated in a range of theatres, from Libya to Mali, Mozambique to Venezuela. What is striking is that while clearly Prigozhin would not deploy it – or other Concord assets – without getting clearance from the Kremlin, in most cases it is neither actively tasked by the Russian government, let alone funded by it.
  8. Beyond the current re-deployment into Ukraine, it is only in Libya and – partly – Venezuela that Wagner is clearly and verifiably acting on Kremlin orders and paid for by government funds. In these cases it is clearly a proxy.
  9. Elsewhere, it is being paid by local governments. Typically, as in Syria, this is in the form of a share of ownership or profits from appropriate natural resources: Wagner’s key advantage is that as part of a large corporation with sweetheart contracts from the Kremlin, unlike more PMCs or mercenary organisations, it can afford not to have to be paid in the moment, but can accept longer-term deals of this form. In these cases, Wagner is essentially acting as a mercenary force.
  10. This is especially true of its operations in Africa. There is no real Russian ‘Africa strategy’ beyond an awareness that there is a brief window of opportunity before, as they see it, Beijing buys up everything of interest. Instead, then, Moscow is making whatever short-term deals it can, while it can, and encouraging its corporate players – including Concord – to do the same.
  11. The Kremlin’s advantage. Even where Wagner is simply there for the economic gain, clearly Moscow does accrue some influence and soft power, especially by being demonstrably willing to work with corrupt and authoritarian governments without preaching to them about their human rights record. Prigozhin’s contractors – not just mercenaries but also political technologists – can be a useful foot in the door. In addition, Wagner can act as a cover for intelligence and influence operations conducted by the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and, especially, GU (military intelligence).
  12. However, it is also crucial to appreciate how they can switch almost instantly from one role to the next. In Syria, they morphed from proxies to mercenaries within a couple of months. For the current Ukrainian war, Wagner Group fighters serving as mercenaries across Africa were hurriedly recalled to serve as soldiers under Russian command. In Venezuela, some Wagner fighters were serving as guards for corporate facilities, paid by those companies, yet they were transferred to provide support for the regime when Moscow wanted. Paid mercenary work keeps the Wagner Group force in being, until the Kremlin next needs a proxy.
  13. The mobilisation state. This reflects the way Putin has, especially since 2014, essentially created a mobilisation state. This is not totalitarianism, in that there is still ample scope for autonomous economic activity. However, given that Putin regards Russia as being in an existential political war with the West, the state reserves to itself the right at any time to ‘conscript’ corporate (and other) interests and demand they undertake some service in the name of the Motherland.
  14. A wider lesson? Understanding the complexities of Wagner Groups operations and appreciating how it is not simply or not always acting as a proxy of the Russian state is obviously important in the current crisis. The presence of mercenaries in a country does not necessarily indicate some ‘Kremlin agenda’ at work, it could well simply be that there is profit to be made. More broadly, though, as PMCs and mercenary organisations are arguably again on the rise, it is worth noting that the lesson of Wagner’s protean nature, and how it offers political power projection capacity on the cheap through its largely self-funding nature, may be one under consideration by others.
  15. In particular, the expansion of Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative, especially into Africa, has been accompanied by the rise of Chinese PMCs such as such as China Security & Protection, the Shandong Huawei Security Group and Genghis Security Services. While Chinese law bars them from using weapons abroad, they have all the same been seen with guns. They are also in many cases closely tied to Beijing’s military and security apparatus.
  16. In this context us, it behoves us to consider quite how we talk and think about PMCs and mercenary organisations originating in authoritarian states where ‘business’ is often beholden to, or subsumed within the state. Wagner may be getting something of a hammering in Ukraine, but its lesson will live on.









May 2022