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Wagner model in Arab Region essentially relies on profiting from military conflicts and societal distress, benefitting a select financial elite.
This article was translated from Arabic.
Russia’s private military company, Wagner Group, has gained significant global attention for its prominent role in the fighting on behalf of the Russian government in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.
During these battles, the group operated as a formidable militia, boasting ample manpower to establish a substantial front, thanks to the resources of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Though frequently labeled as mercenaries in Western media, the group and its fighters lack any clear ideological or principled backgrounds or loyalties.
Amid the conflict in Bakhmut, the company’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close ties to Putin, gained notoriety for delivering speeches that openly criticized prominent Russian officials. Some interpreted these speeches as a sign of escalating disagreements within Putin’s inner circle, while others viewed them as evidence of Prigozhin’s influence within Russia and the level of freedom he enjoyed in terms of mobility, initiative, and media exposure.
For years, this militia has taken advantage of the suffering and security instability in three countries to infiltrate them militarily and politically. In doing so, it has gained dubious benefits on behalf of Russian businessmen.
By examining Wagner’s operations in these countries, we can now understand the group’s business model, both economically and in terms of security. We can also determine the type of interests it serves within the inner financial circle close to Putin in Russia.
Cover operations in Syria
The Wagner Group officially intervened in Syria in 2015, following Putin’s decision to militarily support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At that time, it was estimated that the group had hired approximately 3,000 fighters, many of whom were recruited from pro-Moscow militias that had recently fought in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region. These fighters were deployed to Syria just a few months later.
It became apparent at that time that Putin sought to replicate the experience of Blackwater, the infamous American firm that was used as a private security company in Iraq to carry out violent tasks after the American invasion.
Similarly, the Russian Wagner Group employed its fighters as paid contractors to avoid direct accountability of the Russian government for their actions in Syria.
In this manner, Putin has benefited from having a military group capable of executing covert operations and commercial deals that he does not wish to involve the Russian army indirectly. Furthermore, he has utilized the group to conduct limited ground military operations without incurring casualties to the Russian army, which could spark public outrage.
As long as the deaths of Wagner contractors are not recorded in the Russian Ministry of Defense, they will not be considered practical human losses that require open and transparent declaration. It is important to note that a significant proportion of these fighters were originally not Russian nationals.
Since the beginning of its intervention in Syria, Wagner has sought to take control of the oil and gas fields.
Concurrently, Russia has coerced the Syrian government to grant investment opportunities for these fields to a group of Russian oil companies that are owned by individuals with close ties to Putin. As part of this agreement, Wagner has been granted a portion of the profits made from the extraction of oil in exchange for its provision of security operations to maintain control over these fields.
Russian energy companies, partnering with Wagner, have gained control over contracts to invest in oil and gas fields located in areas such as Badia al-Bukamal, Deir ez-Zor’s countryside, Raqqa and Homs, along with all the marine areas adjoining the Syrian coast.
Furthermore, these companies have utilized Wagner to negotiate security agreements with local militias and clans outside the control of the Syrian government. These agreements are aimed at securing the areas adjacent to oil and gas fields.
On occasion, Russian companies and the Wagner Group carried out investment operations through shell companies whose ownership was shared by Syrian businessmen with ties to Bashar al-Assad. This was done in exchange for attracting local fighters to safeguard oil facilities.
Wagner Group’s activities expanded to encompass the control of phosphate fields in Syria’s Palmyra region. They invested in the fields through a partnership with the Russian company Soyuz Naftegaz, with contracts extending for 50 years.
With the expansion of its activities beyond Syria, the Wagner Group has taken advantage of the dire living conditions in Syria to recruit thousands of Syrians and deploy them to work in operations outside the country, particularly in Libya. The group has utilized local front companies to advertise on social media and conduct interviews before sorting the fighters based on their assigned tasks.
In 2021, Syrian media reported the deaths of three Syrians who were working for Wagner Group on security missions in Libya.
The struggle over Libya’s oil
Wagner Group made its debut on the Libyan battlefield in 2018, joining the Libyan National Army, commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, during their assault on the eastern Libyan strongholds of Islamic militias.
Shortly thereafter, Wagner’s forces participated in Haftar’s attack to seize control of western Libya, following his meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Since then, the presence of the Wagner Group in eastern Libya has been tied to its alliance with Haftar and their agreements to invest in the region’s oil fields.
Wagner is believed to have around 3,000 fighters under its command in Libya, mainly consisting of Slavs, Belarusians and individuals from independent regions of Ukraine and Syria. Notably, the group’s forces in Libya include specialists in various fields, such as snipers, gunners, explosives experts, anti-aircraft operators and drone operators among others.
This suggests that the group has leveraged its experience in Syria to enhance its operational capabilities in Libya. Additionally, since 2020, the Russian Ministry of Defense has provided the Wagner Group with a range of heavy equipment, including air defense vehicles, radars, helicopters and drones.
Wagner’s actions in Libya were marked by a highly pragmatic approach toward dealing with the various militias. Alongside its close ties to Haftar, the group worked in tandem with Sudanese Janjaweed militias during the fighting in Sirte, Libya, against the Government of National Accord.
Moreover, Wagner coordinated with the Chadian Front for Change and Accord, which was based near its locations in the southern part of the country. To bolster its presence in Libya, the group also enlisted the aid of Syrian fighters, who brought with them combat experience and Arabic language skills that could be utilized in communication with local Libyan forces.
Similar to its actions in Syria, Wagner capitalized on its military presence in Libya to pave the way for Russian companies and businessmen close to Putin to invest in the country’s oil fields. Additionally, the group leveraged its military presence and influence over Haftar’s forces to force the closure of numerous oil and gas fields at various stages. This tactic was used to exert pressure on European countries that were dependent on the imports of these fields.
Libya and its oil and gas fields have become a battleground between Russia and the United States. Russia is seeking to invest and maintain a military presence there through its militias.
At the same time, the United States aims to strengthen the presence of its oil companies in Libya to curtail Russian expansion. In 2023, the United States intensified its efforts to pressure the expulsion of the Wagner militia from Libya as part of its ongoing struggle with Russia for control over energy sources.
The acquisition of gold in Sudan
Wagner Group’s association with the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces commenced in Libya, where the Russian militia fought alongside Sudanese troops in the conflicts that erupted in Sirte. At the same time, since 2017, the Wagner Group has been establishing a cluster of security firms in Sudan, operating under various aliases to safeguard and secure gold mining areas for investors close to the Kremlin.
From then on, the group has been intensifying its ties with Sudanese military personnel and the Rapid Support Forces, to secure advantages such as weapons supplies, gold exports and commercial ventures that evade Western sanctions. It is worth noting that Sudan ranks third in gold production in Africa, with an estimated annual output of over 90 tons of gold, equivalent to approximately $5 billion.
Russia has been increasing its gold reserves for years, as a means of reducing its dependence on financial reserves that could be affected by Western sanctions. This helps to explain the Wagner Group’s interest in establishing a presence for Russian investment companies that are interested in investing in Sudan’s gold mines.
Currently, Wagner appears to be leveraging the contradictions that have arisen during the conflict between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces. Despite having an excellent relationship with the Rapid Support Forces, the group seems hesitant to take sides and support one party over the other, possibly due to the fear of losing its presence in Sudan if it backs the losing side.
As a result, Wagner is keeping its lines open with both parties and has even offered to mediate in resolving and ending the armed conflict. Through this strategy, Wagner aims to exploit these contradictions, benefit from the ongoing conflict, and play a more significant political role.
To sum up, Wagner Group’s activities in Syria, Libya and Sudan are similar in that they involve providing security and military support to expand opportunities for Russian investment companies. As a private company, the group is able to engage in ambiguous deals with local militias without directly involving the Russian government.
The most concerning aspect of Wagner’s operations is the exploitation of impoverished social groups, recruiting them for dangerous military battles and taking advantage of other marginalized communities in these environments.
The Wagner model essentially relies on profiting from military conflicts and societal distress, benefitting a select financial elite.