The true history of the Wagner Group

  • Themes: Russia

A new book, published in Russian, delves into the history and operations of the Wagner Group and its role in modern Russia.

Flowers and a sledgehammer, one of the symbols of the Wagner Group, at a spontaneous memorial in memory of Yevgeny Prigozhin in Saint Petersburg, 2023. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo
Flowers and a sledgehammer, one of the symbols of the Wagner Group, at a spontaneous memorial in memory of Yevgeny Prigozhin in Saint Petersburg, 2023. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Ilya Barabanov and Denis Korotkov, ‘Nash Biznes – Smert’: Polnaya Istoriya ChVK ‘Vagner’ i Ee Osnovatelya Evgeniya Prigozhina [‘Our Business is Death’: a Full History of the Wagner PMC and its Founder Evgeny Prigozhin], Meduza, €22

On 23 June 2023, Russians and Russia watchers all over the world held their breath as Evgeny Prigozhin launched his march on Moscow. A former petty thief turned ‘Putin’s chef’ turned shady gangster – who had meddled in Africa and the Middle East, interfered in the US elections and amassed a fabulous wealth of decidedly disreputable origin – Prigozhin briefly commanded the attention of the world as his troops captured Rostov-on-the-Don and then, generally unimpeded, made a daring move on Moscow.

The unexpected mutiny fizzled out within hours. Prigozhin precipitously called off his ‘march of justice’ and – relying on the good services of the Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko – presently retreated to Belarus, which promised to host the demoralised remnants of Prigozhin’s private army, the infamous Wagner Group. Two months later, the hapless adventurer was blown out of the sky on a flight from Moscow to St Petersburg, unquestionably on Putin’s orders. Prigozhin’s business empire was quietly dismantled, leaving behind a tinge of bewilderment and a long list of unanswered questions.

In their new history of Wagner – ‘Nash Biznes – Smert’ (a reference to a motto on one of Wagner’s arm patches: ‘Our business is death, and the business is going well’) – Russian journalists Ilya Barabanov and Denis Korotkov set out to untangle the rise and fall of Prigozhin’s entire nefarious enterprise. The book is a gripping page-turner. Even those of us who had closely followed the Wagner Group’s exploits for many years will read it with enormous interest. This is not just because the authors write so well (though they do). It’s because the book draws on actual Wagner documents and the testimony of those who had worked for this organisation. And what a story they tell.

Consider the biography of one of Wagner’s founders, Dmitry Utkin (who died in the airplane explosion with Prigozhin). Utkin’s pro-Nazi views were known to observers, but it is still revealing to read his letters to Prigozhin, which he signed with a ‘Heil!’ and the Siegrune (SS) in lieu of his name (an unusual proclivity for would-be ‘denazifiers’ of Ukraine).

Nevertheless, the authors make clear that the Wagner Group did not have an ideology, and that among those who fought for Prigozhin, the vast majority were motivated simply by a desire to ‘earn money through war’. Excerpts from Wagner’s personnel records (extensively cited by the authors) point to recruits’ dismal poverty and previous military service (usually in Chechnya). Wagner paid their mercenaries 250,000 rubles (currently just over $2,600) a month: not all that much by Western standards, but a small fortune by the standards of the deprived Russian hinterlands.

Meanwhile, Prigozhin made a killing. Once again drawing on his company’s records, the authors show what he gained through contracts in countries such as Syria and Sudan. In the former case, Prigozhin made a deal with the Syrian authorities that entailed the capture of oil and gas fields from ISIS in return for a 25 per cent share of production. In the latter case, Prigozhin’s business structures obtained access to the country’s gold deposits, from which he syphoned off billions of dollars. Similar interests underpinned Wagner’s involvement in the Central African Republic.

Still, the profit motive was not always evident, at least not in the generally recognised sense. Wagner’s involvement in the Libyan civil war on the side of the rebel commander Khalifa Haftar was one such investment in a highly uncertain future. Barabanov and Korotkov reproduce analytical reports on Libya written for Prigozhin, highlighting Haftar’s fickleness and unreliability and predicting that even if he won, he would ‘not be loyal towards Russia’. For all the efforts of Wagner’s mercenaries (and there were thousands operating in Libya at the height of the civil war), it is not clear what, if anything, Prigozhin gained from this operation. It seems that on some occasions he was motivated less by money than by the idea of doing favours for the Kremlin in the expectation that these favours could one day be turned to financial advantage.

Readers may recall the gruesome execution of the former Wagnerite Evgeny Nuzhin with a sledgehammer in November 2022. The episode spoke volumes of the unrestrained violence and the unspeakable brutality that the Wagner Group was well known for. The authors cover this and many similar episodes of torture and murder. They also provide documents showing how the company dealt with allegations of human rights abuse by its personnel. One report is particularly striking. An internal Wagner investigation of the 2017 murder of a Syrian army deserter, Muhammad Taha Ismail Alabdullah (who was beaten with sledgehammers before being beheaded and set alight) highlighted a grave concern for how the video of the murder was leaked out – though certainly not for the murder itself.

Barabanov and Korotkov also reveal the identities, passport photos, and backgrounds of the killers of Alabdullah, including one 27-year-old former policeman Stanislav Dychko. These snapshots offer troubling insights into contemporary Russia, with its lamentably generous supply of youthful dychkos willing to torture, rape, mutilate, and murder (if paid in cash). The book reads like a diagnosis of a painful and probably fatal illness, of which Wagner is perhaps just one symptom, and not even the worst.

The authors leave many questioned unanswered. Some of these may never be answered, including, most importantly this: why did Evgeny Prigozhin launch his fateful mutiny, and why did he back down? Barabanov and Korotkov argue in favour of what was (and remains) the most plausible explanation: that Putin’s seeming backing of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov in their long-running feud with Prigozhin left the latter without options. Prigozhin risked losing Wagner – his most profitable asset – to the Ministry of Defence, and decided to gamble all on the prospect of forcing Putin to reconsider. Then he simply lost his nerve. But nor did Putin win from the confrontation with his former client: ‘all observers noted that the president looked weak, and the ease with which the Wagnerites captured a city of a million people, and advanced into the depth of the country, showed that the authorities are in fact helpless before a military force even rudimentarily organised’. This does not augur particularly well for Putin’s future.

While writing this book, the authors were repeatedly threatened by the Wagner Group and sued by Prigozhin. In the end, they fled Russia like so many for whom February 2022 became a point of no return. Yet the story that they were able to piece together allows a rare view into the very inner sanctum of Putin’s system, which nurtured the likes of Prigozhin and his murderous enterprise. Even if ‘Putin’s chef’ finally ran afoul of the Kremlin, there are many others like him that feed off and into a system which thrives on war and imperialism. Prigozhin may be gone, but the business of death is still going well. As the authors put it, ‘the sledgehammer remains’.


Sergey Radchenko