Wagner special: New report on its activities in Africa; new burial site discovered; investigations into debacle in Syria and its internal security

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This week's main stories:

  • New Global Initiative report examines Wagner operations in Africa
  • BBC identifies new burial site apparently used by Wagner in Ukraine
  • Dosye publishes two in-depth investigations into Wagner
New Global Initiative report examines Wagner operations in Africa

Myriad researchers and think tanks have produced in-depth reports and analyses of the Wagner private military company (PMC) over the last year. The quality of these varies quite considerably: As with any ‘hot’ topic, the signal-to-noise ratio is quite low, with considerable recycling of information and limited value added. A report published last week by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, however, is a valuable addition, providing a good overview of Wagner’s activities across Africa (Global Initiative, 16 February).


The report is entitled “The Grey Zone: Russia’s military, mercenary and criminal engagement in Africa.” I won’t go into too much detail on the 92-page document here, since you can read it yourself — it’s available in English and French. Nevertheless, it has a few strengths that are worth highlighting. First, it does a good job bringing together the array of reporting on the group across different countries. While much of the information is already known, this makes it a valuable resource for anyone looking to gain a big-picture understanding of the group. Second, there are some useful titbits in their that are lesser known. Wagner’s activities in Kenya and Cameroon, for example, have received hardly any media coverage — in contrast to their much more widely acknowledged operations in places like the Central African Republic. Third, the report distinguishes between military/mercenary, economic, and political spheres of activity and shows how Wagner have developed a different profile in each of the countries they are operating in. The result is a much more nuanced picture than that which emerges from a lot of reporting.


This last point, however, does also point to a significant analytic challenge that has been mentioned previously in this newsletter: What exactly is Wagner? The report quite explicitly brackets a whole range of companies providing very different services, all linked to Wagner owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin. On the one hand, this makes analytic sense: There is a clear logic to considering the relations between these entities, as part of a broader ecosystem. On the other hand, it muddies the analytic waters considerably. The reasons why a state may employ violent entrepreneurs, i.e. PMCs, may be fundamentally different to the reasons why they seek help for influence operations. The legal basis of their operations, the nature of their activities, and the impact they may have on conflicts will all be different for PMCs than for other types of economic or political actors. Different policies are needed to hold PMCs to account or dissuade states from employing them. Bundling everything under the rubric of “Wagner” obscures as much as it reveals — particularly when considering cases where the military component isn’t even present. By way of comparison, think about how distorted our understanding of Russian foreign policy would be if we labelled everything “the Russian Foreign Ministry.” If we want to consider the ecosystem, it would be more useful to consider the privatisation or outsourcing of Russian foreign policy on a broader scale — including not only these linked non-PMC actors, but also the other Russian PMCs that are active on the continent and beyond.

BBC identifies new burial site apparently used by Wagner in Ukraine

BBC Russian Service has reported on the discovery of a burial site near Luhansk apparently being used by Wagner (BBC Russian Service, 15 February).


According to the BBC investigation, the site consists of 42 fresh graves that no one visits, and whose residents are unknown to the people living in the neighbouring village. The BBC managed to find information on 37 people corresponding to the grave markers — one of whom is Belarusian, one Uzbekistani, and the remainder Russian. It found court records that appeared to match 20 of them, and all should still be serving their sentences. The relatives of some of those killed had not been told of the deaths.


This is just the latest evidence of the high losses that Wagner is suffering in Ukraine — and of how expendable its prison recruits are. In January, a New York Times investigation noted the increased size of another burial site used by Wagner in Krasnodar Kray (New York Times, 24 January). More recently, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that burials at the site are continuing daily at the site, and “the overwhelming majority of those buried in the cemetery had been convicted of violent crimes” (RFE/RL, 11 February). The BBC report also referenced a third site used by Wagner, in the village of Fryanovo, near Moscow.

Dosye publishes two in-depth investigations into Wagner

Mikhail Khodorkovskiy’s Dosye (Dossier Center) published two in-depth investigations into Wagner this week. Both are authored by Denis Korotkov, a journalist who has been tracking Wagner since at least 2014 and who used to work for St Petersburg-based news outlet Fontanka.ru. They are based primarily on documents given to Die Welt -- with which Dosye collaborates -- by unknown individuals who claimed to be hackers.


The first report looks at how Wagner suffered almost 80 dead and hundreds injured in a February 2018 US military operation near Deir al-Zour, Syria (Dosye, 18 February). The incident occurred as Wagner advanced on US-backed Kurdish forces. It attracted considerable attention at the time because it brought Russian nationals into direct conflict with the US military and, to all intents and purposes, it appears that the Russian military allowed the US airstrikes to hit Wagner (War on the Rocks, 5 July 2018). Korotkov’s report adds lots of detail around casualty numbers and who precisely was killed in the incident. The incident shows how the plausible deniability offered by the use of PMCs is a two-way street: Neither Russia nor the US were compelled to respond in the way they would have been had those fighters been formally part of the Russian army.


The second investigation looks at the work of Wagner’s “special section,” which is responsible for internal security and discipline within the organisation. The report profiles various individuals linked to the department, as well as detailing several investigations into violations. The report is based on Dosye’s archive material and the aforementioned documents given to Die Welt (Dosye, 20 February).


Both articles may be a little bit inside baseball to be useful to most people, but they do add additional details for those tracking the group in-depth.

Other stories of interest
  • The Federal Security Service (FSB) in Rostov-on-the-Don detain a citizen of Ukraine, whom they accuse of membership of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment. Azov is designated as a terrorist organisation in Russia (Caucasian Knot, 15 February).
  • Ingushetian doctor accused of passing pistol and ammunition to a member of the Islamic State. He has been under house arrest since March 2022, when he was accused of aiding an insurgent (Kavkaz Realii, 16 February).
  • Prigozhin blames Russian military bureaucracy for inability to capture Bakhmut in Ukraine (The Moscow Times, 17 February).
  • Separately, Prigozhin has accused the Russian military of trying to destroy Wagner by refusing to supply it with weapons and aviation transport (Kavkaz Realii, 21 February).
  • The Federal Security Service (FSB) claim that they have prevented an Islamic State attack using an improvised explosive device on a chemical factory in Kaluga Oblast. The would-be terrorists, who were killed in the operation, allegedly planned to flee to Syria afterwards (RAPSI, 17 February).
  • Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov announces that Kirgiz Musikhanov has returned to fight in Ukraine as a commander of a unit of Akhmat-Spetsnaz. Musikhanov had previously fought in Ukraine and been exchanged with Russia (Caucasian Knot, 20 February).
  • Kadyrov praises the impact of Wagner and claims he will set up his own PMC after he retires as Chechen Head (Caucasian Knot, 19 February).

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