During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference, Ilya Azar of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta asked him about his relationship with Evgeny Prigozhin, a businessman who has been tied to both the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg -- aka the “Troll factory” -- and the so-called “private military company” called the Wagner Group.
Putin distanced himself from Prigozhin, and feigned ignorance about Wagner, stressing that what is important is that it operate “within the law.” The problem, however, is not only that the Wagner Group operates outside Russian law, but that it has never operated within it, and it is not a real PMC at all, but rather a mercenary unit created with the help of the Russian Defense Ministry.
Polygraph.info made many of these points in February 2018, when Wagner garnered worldwide attention after scores of its fighters in Syria, along with local militiamen, attacked U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Deir Ez-Zor and were decisively routed by American aircraft and artillery. With Putin’s latest spin, a recap of some of that earlier coverage is in order.
As for the Wagner Group’s legal status, its predecessor was a Hong Kong-registered company known as the Slavonic Corps, which had as its “client” another offshore-registered company known as Moran Security Group. Although it is registered outside of Russia, the Moran Security Group advertises itself as a private security company specializing mainly in maritime security for cargo ships. This kind of activity is not considered “mercenary activities” under Russian criminal law, and private security firms are legal in Russia. This, incidentally, is what Putin was most likely referring to during his December 20 press conference, when he referred to the “labor market” for private security and the “almost one million” Russian citizens who work in it.
The Slavonic Corps, however, crossed the line when it began operating in Syria in 2013. One of the Corps members who participated in this mission was a former Russian Special Forces soldier named Dmitry Utkin, who would later acquire the alias “Wagner,” supposedly for his keen interest in Third Reich military history and aesthetics. But when Utkin returned to Russia from Syria, he and two of the Slavonic Corps’ executives were arrested by the FSB for violating Russian law on mercenary activities. Utkin, however, reappeared in 2014 in Ukraine, along with the so-called “private military company” Wagner Group. The term “private military company” is suspect in Wagner’s case, given the evidence that it was actually set up by the Russian Defense Ministry and still coordinates closely with the Russian state.
The company was initially supplied with modern Russian military equipment, the New Yorker magazine wrote in February about reports that some Wagner personnel were transported to Syria on Russian military aircraft and evidence emerged that some of the mercenary soldiers received state medals.
Shortly after the Deir Ez-Zor incident, Russian lawmakers began talking about creating legislation to legalize private military companies in Russia. However, no such law was passed. In fact, the Russian state-owned media outlet Sputnik stated in an article on the subject: “Private military companies are unathorized (sic) in Russia as there is no legislation regulating their activities. The issue, however, became urgent in recent months over rumors about alleged involvement of the so-called PMC Wagner in hostilities in Syria.”
In other words, Wagner has never been “within the law” in Russia, as Putin speaks of it.
Putin’s suggestion that the Prosecutor General’s Office should look into Wagner led to another interesting revelation. After Putin’s statement, a representative from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office told Interfax that they had never received any request to look into the entity “PMC Wagner.”
The independent Russian news site Meduza quickly found evidence that this was untrue. According to journalist Ilya Rozhdestvensky, after he wrote about the company for the Russian news outlet RBC in 2016, someone asked the Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate PMC Wagner for possibly violating the law against mercenary activity based on the material Rozhdestvensky gathered for his RBC article. Meduza confirmed that the request was received by the Prosecutor General’s Office sometime during August-September 2016, before being passed on to the Moscow Prosecutor’s office on October 12 that same year. In December 2016, Rozhdestvensky and all the other authors who worked on the RBC article were informed that the Russian Interior Ministry was investigating them for possible “extremism” and “inciting hatred” in connection with the article. One official asked him why they had written the article on Wagner, but the case subsequently went no further. According to Rozhdestvensky, the authorities said nothing about an investigation into PMC Wagner’s activities, and he hasn’t heard anything more from them since then.
Considering the evidence on Wagner's beginnings, on activities in Ukraine and, more recently in Syria, our judgment is that Putin's comment on the issue at his annual news conference was false.