This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.
Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situational report about the war in Ukraine.
1. Prigozhin’s Shadow Army
Western analysts tend to assess the Wagner Private Military Company through a Cold War–era lens, hearkening back to the days when Soviet leaders dispatched military advisory missions to Egypt and Syria. Today, the Western intelligence community often considers Wagner’s presence in the Middle East and Africa to be yet another Russian military advisory effort in the third world. These assessments miss the mark.
The invasion of Ukraine has unveiled the truth about Wagner: it is not an organization that allows Russia to act abroad with plausible deniability, but a shadow army working in parallel with the Russian military.
An examination of its warfighting arsenal illustrates this clearly. In Ukraine, Wagner is operating an air deterrent consisting of Su-24M frontline bombers and Su-25 attack aircraft. Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s founder, attracts high-ranking officials from the Russian Aerospace Forces—even generals—to fly combat sorties.
Wagner’s capabilities have also grown to encompass newer and more advanced Russian weapons systems. In 2020, the US Department of Defense publicly revealed the presence of the SA-22 (Pantsir), a short-to-medium-range air defense system, in the hands of Wagner’s forward-deployed combat groups in Libya. Recently, sources spotted Wagner crews operating advanced T-90 main battle tanks and T-80BVMs. Wagner even recently employed incendiary munitions propelled from multiple-launch rocket systems on the Bakhmut frontier.
Its force generation efforts also signify advanced capabilities. According to official US estimates, Prigozhin has combat-deployed some 50,000 Wagnerites in Ukraine: 10,000 professional fighters and 40,000 freshly recruited convicts. In other words, the Wagner troop concentration in Ukraine equals roughly two-thirds of NATO nations’ standing armed forces.
While Wagner’s recruitment prowess in Russian prisons has attracted attention, the mercenary army’s ability to incorporate paramilitaries from Ukraine’s separatist entities is also noteworthy. Prigozhin uses the most reliable leverage—money—to draw fighters from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Open-source intelligence shows that while fighters from these regions can make up to $240 a month serving in local paramilitary groups, Wagner’s professional fighters make $1,300 a month during their training phase and $1,900 a month during their combat deployment. While serving in action, Wagnerites make $960 per week, with a death benefit for a fallen fighter’s family between $32,000 and $48,000.
Perhaps most troubling, Wagner has been establishing a global arms procurement network of impressive reach, extending even as far as Pyongyang. No evidence currently suggests Prigozhin’s crew has gotten its hands on Iranian weapons, but one cannot discount the possibility. While claims of Hezbollah involvement in Ukraine are as yet unsubstantiated, it is known that Wagner has developed cooperation channels with Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria—burgeoning ties that are worth monitoring.
2. Wagner’s Global Operations
Wagner has cornered the market on mercenaries from high-risk combat zones. Africa sets a notorious example in this respect. According US Africa Command’s Africa Defense Forum, Prigozhin has established a recruitment pipeline into several African nations’ jails, reflecting a practice he mastered in Russia.
Wagner’s Africa agenda reinforces Moscow’s plans there. Many governments on the continent have already chosen to delegate state security responsibilities to the private army. Wagner’s active involvement in the Libyan Civil War marked a milestone in this regard, revealing Prigozhin’s ambitions and Moscow’s willingness to use the group in distant hotspots. At present, Wagner’s Africa operations center on the Sahel, where mounting Islamist insurgencies place overwhelming pressure on national governments, creating a security vacuum Prigozhin is all too willing to fill.
Worse, Wagner has established a broad network of lucrative opportunities in Africa. Prigozhin has started a business model based on providing security in return for mine and port concessions administered by Wagner-related companies and their affiliates like Lobaye Invest, M Invest, and Meroe Gold. Wagner paramilitaries have not refrained from killing local protestors and journalists to protect these precious resources.
The revenues from these shady transactions fund Prigozhin’s power plays in Russia and his global military ambitions. In the Central African Republic and Sudan, for example, Wagner has invested in billions of dollars’ worth of gold and diamond mining projects. The group also runs a trade business in the Cameroon port of Douala.
Wagner also boasts a growing arsenal of disruptive weapons systems with asymmetric tactical impact, such as MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) and ATGM (anti-tank guided missiles). Moreover, the group is now running its own drone operator and drone warfare training program. These efforts can prove extremely dangerous in asymmetric threat landscapes, low-intensity conflicts, and insurgencies.
When the dust settles in Ukraine, the Wagner Group will allocate more personnel for its Africa missions. Prigozhin’s shadow army will likely be the top security concern for US Africa Command if it is not already so.
3. Wagner’s Power Play in Russia
While fighting a war in Ukraine, Prigozhin has been pursuing a political power play in Moscow, to wit: his recent public humiliation of the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, and the defense minister, Sergei Shoigu. Prigozhin threatened to withdraw his troops from Bakhmut if he was not provided with the amount of ammunition he requested, starting a camera-ready political brawl with the Russian military leadership. While his move seemed initially to have delivered results, recent press reports have noted that Prigozhin was warned that he and his fighters would be designated as traitors to the motherland if they should retreat from their positions.
So far, Prigozhin has not challenged the Russian political elite head-on, instead choosing to prey on the weakened members of the Russian military leadership while aligning sotto voce with younger-generation hardliners such as Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. In the meantime, Wagner has established a defense technology center in St. Petersburg. Open-source intelligence suggests that the center is diligently hiring drone operators and technical staff for designing and using unmanned systems. This suggests what Prigozhin has in mind for post-war Russia: a top role in the defense apparatus.
4. A Russian Hezbollah in the Making?
Many have speculated that the Russian elite has used the Wagner Group for plausible deniability, to conceal its footprint in global conflicts. Yet seeing Wagner through this lens alone is as problematic as seeing it through the paradigm of the Cold War. With its political agenda, independent combat operations edge, burgeoning warfighting arsenal, and quasi-military ventures, perhaps the closest geopolitical analog to Prigozhin’s private army is Hezbollah.
While Wagner has taken losses, its fighters are gaining experience in a broad spectrum of military tasks, from air-ground roles to urban warfighting and even mechanized maneuver warfare. More important, Prigozhin is establishing alliances within the Russian military, cultivating close ties with the Russian Aerospace Forces’ hardline chief, General Sergei Surovikin, and the airborne troops (VDV) commander, General Mikhail Teplinsky. These men are likely to grow in importance as Shoigu and Gerasimov fall from grace.
Wagner no doubt plays an important role in the current conflict in Ukraine. The role it might play in the postwar Russian Federation—particularly if the war comes to a conclusion following a decisive Ukrainian counteroffensive—could be even more important to determining the future of the post-Soviet sphere.