Threatologist Eurasia 6 July 2023

6 July 2023: Exploring the significance of Putin’s admission of Wagner funding — and its limits

Russian President Vladimir Putin has admitted that the Russian state has been the sole financier of the Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner. His comments may make it easier to demonstrate the Russian state’s legal responsibility for significant human rights violations committed by Wagner — but they may not be legally decisive.

This post starts with an important caveat: I am a political scientist, not a legal scholar. Nevertheless, this post is based on scholarly debates around legal accountability, and I would contend that the question of holding PMCs accountable for significant human rights violations is too important to be siloed off into legal scholarship.

What Putin said

On 27 June, Putin stated that “all of the funding the Wagner Group received came from the state — from the Defence Ministry, from the state budget, we fully financed this group. Between May 2022 and May 2023 alone, the Wagner Group received 86.262 billion rubles for salaries and incentive payments” [1]. Russian business daily Vedomosti also cited a Defence Ministry source as claiming that Wagner has received 1.7 trillion rubles since 2014 [19].


There was a degree of ambiguity in Putin’s statement, in so far as he did not say definitively that Wagner has always received all of its funding from the Russian state. Nevertheless, the comments marked a departure from the previous official position that has sought to present Wagner as an independent actor. For example, in September 2021, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded to reports that Mali was considering employing Wagner by claiming “we have nothing to do with this,” framing it as an agreement between the Malian state and a corporate actor [2]. As recently as April 2023, Lavrov — this time commenting on events in Sudan and responding directly to a question about its accountability to the Russian state — was still insisting that “Wagner is a private military company” [3].


Putin’s recent comments came at a meeting with personnel from the Defence Ministry, one of a flurry of public appearances following the suppression of Wagner’s “armed rebellion” against the Russian authorities (see Threatologist Eurasia 27 June special and 29 June edition). They were clearly intended to remind the dog which hand feeds it, and the threat of investigation into Wagner owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s tax affairs was hardly subtle. The real significance of Putin’s statement, however, arguably lay elsewhere.

What is the legal position of PMCs?

PMCs are illegal under Russian law. This remains the case despite Wagner operating openly in Russia, and despite the numerous legislative proposals to regulate their activities that have been discussed many times in this newsletter.


However, the international legal framework governing PMCs, and the applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL) to them, is also ambiguous. 


There appears to be little doubt about their status when it comes to jus ad bellum, or when states can use force. International law scholars Lindsey Cameron and Vincent Chetail conclude unambiguously that “a state may not do through private military and/or security companies (PMSCs) what it may not do with its own armed forces” [4:10]. In other words, Russia cannot use Wagner to circumvent restrictions on the use of force.


Where confusion arises is in relation to the conduct of participants in armed conflict, or jus in bello, and whether legal mechanisms for addressing violations apply to PMCs. Prohibitions against the use of mercenaries do not clearly apply, particularly where the PMC ‘employee’ is a national of a party to a conflict — as would be the case for Russian citizens fighting with Wagner in Ukraine [5]. Whether PMC members qualify as combatants or civilians, and who has legal responsibility for and jurisdiction over them are all unresolved questions [6]. Cameron and Chetail contend that individual PMC members are undoubtedly bound by IHL irrespective of the status of the PMCs themselves, and that states also bear a duty of due diligence to investigate violations [4]. Nevertheless, ambiguity over responsibility, plausible deniability, and the difficulty of deciding which laws are applicable all contribute to the attractiveness of PMCs. Efforts to address these concerns and clarify the role and status of PMCs has resulted in the development of an intergovernmental document, commonly known as the Montreux Document, but Russia has refused to participate in its development.


These are not abstract issues. Wagner has been repeatedly implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious human rights violations, including in Ukraine [10] and Central African Republic [7]. However, it should be noted that the status and legal frameworks governing Wagner will be different depending on the country of operation and the nature of the armed conflict there [5].

Do Putin’s comments make it easier to hold the Russian state accountable for crimes committed by Wagner?

At first glance, the answer to this question appears to be a definitive yes. If the Russian state has been the sole financier of Wagner, then the group is de facto a branch of the Russian state. If that funding has been channeled through the Defence Ministry, then it is difficult to plausibly maintain that Wagner is independent of the Russian armed forces. 


Of course, Putin’s comments do not tell us anything fundamentally new, in so far as there has never been much doubt about Wagner’s close relationship to the state and the military. But there is a significant gap in the strength of evidence required for something to be analytically convincing or sway the court of public opinion, and that required to prove something in a court of law. The evidentiary bar for the latter is — and should be — much higher.


The work of Cameron and Chetail is again relevant here. They argue that “the responsibility of states for the acts of private military and/or security companies (PMSCs) is not contingent on the official incorporation of a PMSC into the official state structure. In international law, states are responsible for the official acts of their organs and agents, but they may also be held responsible for the acts of private persons or entities when they have delegated certain tasks to them or when private persons act ‘on the instructions of or under the direction and control of’ a state” [4:134]. 


Putin’s statements arguably remove from the table the question of whether there is a direct link between the state and Wagner. They appear to make it clear that Russia controls the group.


Alas, were things so simple, we probably wouldn’t need lawyers or legal scholars. In November 2022, the Hague District Court considered the question of the responsibility of the Russian armed forces for the actions of rebels in the Donetsk People’s Republic, and specifically the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in 2014. In a controversial judgement, the court concluded that rebels were under the “overall control” of the Russian armed forces, but this did not mean that they operated under a “command responsible to Russia.” As Winston Williams and Jennifer Maddocks argue, the court determined that “equipping, financing, and assisting with planning are not enough to establish responsible command” — and thus state responsibility for the specific acts committed by those rebels [5].


Putin’s comments — alongside other evidence of coordination between Wagner and the Russian Defence Ministry — certainly won’t harm efforts to demonstrate Russia’s legal responsibility for human rights violations committed by Wagner. One of the criticisms levelled at that recent judgement was the weight given to Russian official statements [5], so further statements might have changed their conclusion. 


Nevertheless, it can’t be taken for granted that they would have, or that Putin’s statements would have a decisive impact when presented before another court. What is required for that is further research into the command and control structures of Wagner.


What does seems clear, however, is that those pursuing legal accountability will leverage them. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression in the Hague, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin insisted that Putin’s comments were “like direct evidence” that Wagner is an illegal arm of the Russian army [8]. We can therefore expect the comments to feature in future efforts to secure accountability, even if we cannot be sure how important they will be.

Other stories of interest
  • The Southern District Military Court sentenced a Stavropol Kray resident to ten and a half years for membership of the Islamic State (IS). The man was already in prison on drug charges [9].
  • Investigators in Rostov-on-the-Don have opened a criminal case against three former prisoners for member of the banned extremist organisation Arestantskoye ugolovnoye edinstvo (Prisoners’ Criminal Unity) [10].
  • A court has sentenced a Chechen native to 20 years in prison for participating in the invasion of Dagestan in 1999, led by Shamil Basayev and Emir Khattab [11].
  • Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) have detained a Russian citizen on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack on Crimean Head Sergey Aksenov [12].
  • Confirming reports from Russian media outlets covered in last week’s Threatologist Eurasia, the BBC found that Wagner’s recruitment offices across Russia were still operating [13]. Novaya Gazeta similarly reported on the ongoing operation of the offices [16].
  • The US Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on four companies and one individual connected with Wagner and Prigozhin [14].
  • Cyble Research and Intelligence Labs claim that Wagner has been deploying ransomware that encourages users to join the group — rather than demanding a ransom [15].
  • Meduza reports on how Russian state media coverage of Wagner has changed since its armed uprising and is now challenging the “myth” of the group’s effectiveness that it helped create [17].
  • A unit commander from the Akhmat special forces has been killed fighting in Ukraine, according to Akhmat’s overall commander [18].
Source list

1. President of Russia. 27 June 2023. Встреча с военнослужащими Министерства обороны.

2. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. 26 September 2021. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s news conference to sum up the high-level meetings week at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, New York, September 25, 2021.

3. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. 26 April 2023. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s news conference following his visit to the United States within the framework of Russia’s presidency of the UN Security Council, New York, April 25, 2023.

4. Lindsey Cameron and Vincent Chetail. 2013. Privatizing War: Private Military and Security Companies under Public International Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5. Winston Williams and Jennifer Maddocks. 23 February 2023. Ukraine Symposium — The Wagner Group: Status and Accountability. Lieber Institute West Point.

6. James Pattison. 2008. Just War Theory and the Privatization of Military Force. Ethics & International Affairs, 22:2, pp. 143-162.

7. Pauline Bax. 3 December 2021. Russia’s Influence in the Central African Republic. International Crisis Group.

8. Reuters. 3 July 2023. Putin's comment on funding Wagner shows link to Ukraine -prosecutor.

9. Caucasian Knot. 28 June 2023. Заключенный со Ставрополья получил новый срок за присягу ИГ.

10. Kavkaz Realii. 30 June 2023. Трех бывших заключенных в Ростове заподозрили в участии в экстремистской организации в колонии.

11. Kavkaz Realii. 30 June 2023. Уроженца Чечни приговорили к 20 годам колонии за нападение на российских военных в 1999 году.

12. RAPSI. 3 July 2023. ФСБ задержала россиянина, готовившего теракт против главы Крыма Аксенова.

13. BBC News. 29 June 2023. Wagner still recruiting despite mutiny, BBC finds.

14. US Department of the Treasury. 27 June 2023. Treasury Sanctions Illicit Gold Companies Funding Wagner Forces and Wagner Group Facilitator.

15. Cyble. 27 June 2023. Unveiling Wagner Group’s Cyber-Recruitment.

16. Novaya Gazeta. 30 June 2023ю Дружный коллектив, готовность к мятежу.

17. Meduza. 1 July 2023. Первый канал раньше: захват Бахмута — «событие исторического масштаба». Первый канал после мятежа Пригожина: Бахмут — «не самый важный для фронта» город.

18. Caucasian Knot. 3 July 2023. Командир отряда спецназа "Ахмат" убит на Украине.

19. Kommersant. 4 July 2023. «Ведомости»: поддержка ЧВК «Вагнер» с 2014 года превысила среднегодовые расходы на перевооружение. (original Vedomosti report is behind a paywall).

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