Small Wars Journal

SWJ Factsheet: Observing Wagner Group - An Open Source Intelligence Study

Sat, 05/05/2018 - 12:07am

SWJ Factsheet: Observing Wagner Group - An Open Source Intelligence Study

S.A. Cavanagh




Wagner Group, is a private military company (PMC) used to outsource military tasks to achieve Russian foreign policy. Wagner was founded by Dmitri Utkin a former Russian Lieutenant Colonel, Spetsnaz Special Forces operator. Wagner is fronted by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (Putin’s Chef). It is thought that Wagner is controlled by FSB and GRU officers. Wagner has conducted military operations in the Ukraine, Syria, Central African Republic and Sudan. Tactical combat capabilities of Wagner include: infantry, heavy artillery, air defense, armoured tanks, training advisory and intelligence.  PMC Wagner conducts proxy and hybrid warfare and is used to secure high value infrastructure central to Russian foreign policy.  Wagner has the advantage of controlling the flow of operational information. This enables activities to go unnoticed, avoiding negative public opinion.  The death of contract soldiers draw less attention then Russian state troops killed abroad.  PMC contractors like Wagner, are elemental for conducting Russian military strategic doctrine.  Wagner is central to Russia’s efforts to project power and influence in former soviet era regions of alliance and secure new opportunities that accomplish Russia’s foreign agenda.


Wagner Group


What is Wagner?


  • Wagner Group, also known as ChVK Wagner or Vagner is a Russian private military company registered in Hong Kong  (Vice, 2018)

Where Has Wagner Operated?


  • Ukraine-Crimea
  • Syria
  • Central African Republic (CAR)
  • Sudan

What Does Wagner Do?


Wagner is a private military company used by Russia to outsource & conduct military tasks,

  • Proxy warfare
  • Hybrid warfare
  • Annexation Ukraine
  • Security assistance to Bashar al-Assad Regime in Syria
  • Fight Syrian Rebels
  • Fight ISIS in Syria
  • Training assist-advisory-Syrian ISIS Hunters
  • Capture and secure Syrian oil & gas fields occupied by Rebels & ISIS
  • Advisory & training roles CAR & Sudan

What are Wagner Tactical Capabilities?


Combat capabilities include:

  • infantry
  • heavy artillery
  • air defence
  • armoured tanks
  • training advisory roles
  • intelligence & counter intelligence

What Russian Intelligence Agencies are Associated with Wagner?


Wagner is believed to be under the control of:

  • FSB officers (Federal Security Service)
  • GRU officers (Main Intelligence Directorate)

Who are Wagner Contractors?

  • Former Russian soldiers
  • Former Russian Special Forces operators
  • Integrated soldiers and autonomous units of: Cossack, Serbian, Chechen and Ingush descent

How Many Contract Soldiers are There in Wagner?

  • Wagner is a fluid organization that changes according to operational needs. Exact numbers are unknown and difficult to verify


  • Approximately 2000-5000 Wagner Mercenaries served in the Ukraine (Euromaidan Press, 2017)
  • Approximately 1570 Wagner members that served in Ukraine have been identified by the SBU              (Security Service of Ukraine) (Euromaidan Press, 2017)


  • Fontanka, a Russian news outlet has obtained Wagner documents indicating 3000 contractors have been deployed to Syria with 1500 in the largest contingent (AP News, 2017)

Central African Republic

  • Five military and 170 civilian instructors from Russia were sent to train CAR service personnel (Conflict Intelligence Team, 2018)


  • There are Russian private military contractors actively training Sudanese soldiers
  • Contractor numbers are unknown (Inform Napalm, 2017)

How Many Wagner Soldiers Have Been Killed?


Accurate numbers are unknown, reports are unverifiable



  • 94 Wagner contractors are thought killed in Ukraine (Kyiv Post, 2018)


  • Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) put conservative numbers of private contractor deaths at 101 (ABC News, 2017)
  • Der Spiegal reports claim as high as 600 contractors killed (Spiegal Online, 2018)

What Objectives Does Wagner Front on Behalf of Russia?

  • Russian influence & economic power
  • Annexation of Ukraine
  • Commercial goals
  • Oil & Gas in Syria for profit-25% of production for fields secured by Wagner
  • Mining in CAR
  • Gold mining & Atomic energy in Sudan (Warsaw Institute, 2017)
  • Proxy war with USA
  • Influence Sub-Sahara Africa (Real Clear Defense, 2018)

Who are the Big Players in Wagner?


Yevgeny Prigozhin

  • Dubbed “Putin’s chef” by Russian media Mr. Prigozhin is the owner of restaurants and catering companies for Kremlin dinners with foreign dignitaries.  Since establishing relationships with Putin, Prigozhin has acquired other Russian military contracts. Prigozhin is linked to Evro Polis, Wagner, Concord Management and Consulting & Concord Catering holdings and Internet troll factories in St. Petersburg that influence public opinion abroad including the USA. (New York Times, 2017)
  • Prigozhins companies: Evro Polis Ltd., Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering have been placed on the US Treasury sanctions list for violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. (BBC News, 2018)

Dmitri Utkin

  • Founder of Wagner Group is former Lieutenant Colonel, Spetsnaz Special Forces operator that completed his military service in 2013 with the 700th Independent Spetsnaz Detachment of the 2nd Independent brigade of military intelligence the GRU.  Utkin has worked for the Moran Security Group, and the Slav Corps. (The Interpreter, 2016) (New York Times, 2017)

Why Does Wagner Matter?


Wagner Information Control


Wagner can control information. Wagner is part of a broader Russian strategy for information control and operational security. Russian military activity is easier to hide with PMCs compared to regular Russian forces. A Wagner employee signs a 10 year non disclosure agreement and surrenders personal cell phones and other tech devices when operational; this significantly reduces information leaks.  Family members are similarly bound by non disclosure, in order to receive life insurance payments if the soldier is killed during operations. These factors help Wagner hide information about operations. 

(The Interpreter, 2016)


Russian Military Capabilities Remain Secretive


Wagner helps deny Russia’s military capabilities to the outside world. Secrecy is maintained as many fighters in the group do not even know the first names, let alone the surnames of their platoon comrades. “Curiosity is not welcomed.” (The Interpreter, 2016)


Contractor Deaths Go Unnoticed-This Places Them at Higher Risk


When contractors get killed abroad in combat actions it draws little attention. The general public is less sympathetic to the death of a soldier that fights as a mercenary for a pay check.  Regular Russian soldiers killed in foreign countries draw attention to operations the government does not care for the public to know about.  This places Wagner contractors at significant risk.  Contractors are somewhat anonymous and can be used for more hazardous missions. 


According to Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague,

“The Russian people are not very enthused by the idea of an empire that would involve their boys coming home in body bags. There’s clearly a lack enthusiasm for this conflict.” “By having this military company Wagner, they can have a force they can actually deploy ... but when people die, it doesn’t have to be announced.” (, 2017)

Wagner is Unofficial


There are no official links between Wagner and the Russian government making operations easily disguised.  (Jojart & Racz, 2017) (Newsweek, 2018)


Wagner is a Sustainable Economic & Ideological Model


Russia is emerging with an assertive foreign policy strategy.  Russia is deploying contractors to areas of former soviet influence and is looking to exploit new economic opportunities that present elsewhere.  Wagner is able to secure failing regimes like Syria’s Assad government, in return for lucrative economic partnerships.  Examples include; 25% of production profits for oil-gas fields secured by Wagner & Evro Polis in Syria, and mining and atomic energy opportunities in CAR and Sudan in exchange for military training and advisory assistance. Wagner provides added value to Russian ideology through proxy warfare as a geopolitical tool. A PMC that generates income and achieves Russian agenda will continue as an instrument of tactical & strategic policy.    




Wagner Group PMC is an effective mechanism of Russian foreign policy, achieving geopolitical strategy through proxy warfare and military influence.  Wagner capabilities are extensive and include; infantry, artillery, air defense, armoured tanks, training advisory-assist and intelligence.  Wagner utility has been demonstrated by operations in Ukraine, Syria, Central Africa Republic and Sudan.  Wagner is unofficial. Having no formal links to the Russian government, it is able to operate free of oversight.  Operations are veiled in secrecy because contractors are bound by non-disclosure agreements.  Wagner an extension of Russian government foreign policy is an effective business model, able to supplement itself in Syria by securing oilfields for profit.  It is certain Wagner will continue to be a powerful element of Russian foreign policy in the future.




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Rueter, C. (2018, March 2) The Truth about the Russian Deaths in Syria. Spiegal Online. Retrieved from


No chances of Russian military base in Sudan. (2017, January 2015) Warsaw Institute. Retrieved from


Russia Revisits an Old Cold World Battleground. (2018, January 16) Real Clear Defense.  Retrieved from


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Jojart, K., Racz, A. (2017, May 10) Contemporary Russian Military Thinking on Conflicts in the 21st Century: Beyond the Gerasimov Doctrine. Paper presented at Conflicts in the Gray Zone: A Challenge to adopt, Budapest, Hungary. Abstract Retrieved from


Mathews, O. (2018, January 26) Putin’s Secret Army Waged War in Syria-Where Will They Fight Next? Newsweek. Retrieved from

About the Author(s)

S.A. Cavanagh is an independent analyst. Mr. Cavanagh served in the Canadian regular forces as an Infantryman.  He holds Diplomas from Humber and Loyalist Colleges and education Certificates from Humber and Durham Colleges.