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The Wagner Group is Entering Its Terrorism Era

The Wagner Group is Entering Its Terrorism Era
22nd November 2023 Fahad Mirza
In Insights


The private military company (PMC) the Wagner Group has long been the secret weapon of the Kremlin. Despite denying its existence for years, the Russian government has relied on Wagner fighters to secure its interests in Crimea, Syria, and several African countries. The Wagner Group has also been a key supplemental fighting force for Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. However, the future of the Wagner Group has become increasingly uncertain since its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, led a group of his fighters to march towards Moscow over grievances with the Russian defence minister. Two months later, both Prigozhin and Wagner’s battlefield commander, Dmitry Utkin, were likely assassinated

While the Wagner Group has never been officially designated as an extremist organisation, it treads an interesting line between various designations. The United States currently labels PMC Wagner as a ‘transnational criminal organisation’, but there is a growing movement on Capitol Hill to brand the group as a foreign terrorist organisation. The UK and France have both already labeled Wagner as a terrorist organisation and there is mounting pressure in Germany for the EU to follow suit.

Over the past decade, the Wagner Group has expanded beyond being a mercenary company used to carry out operations the Russian government wishes to distance itself from. Experts note that there is no singular entity known as ‘The Wagner Group’; rather, it is a sprawling network of shell companies and shadowy operatives whose services range from all-out warfare to troll factories. For this discussion, ‘The Wagner Group’, ‘PMC Wagner’, and ‘Wagner’ refer to this network.   

In this Insight, rather than deliberate on appropriate policy labels, I argue that following Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny and subsequent death, the remnants of the Wagner Group are likely to splinter into an organisation that more closely resembles a traditional terrorist group. This new entity would operate independently from the Kremlin, pursue its own political goals, find funding, and recruit its own members.

To support this prediction, this Insight will; 

  1. Recount the Wagner Group’s prior involvement in conflicts worldwide to show its tactics have always involved brutality and that they have been able to profit off its operations independent of the funding it received from Russia. 
  2. Analyse its disinformation campaigns as part of its hybrid warfare strategy to show they have experience manipulating media and maximising the reach of its propaganda.
  3. Examine its membership to show how it differs from other private military companies.


Wagner first appeared as an entity in 2014 during Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In that conflict, operatives wore unmarked uniforms and assisted separatist forces. While the annexation of Crimea was relatively non-violent, Wagner’s subsequent involvement in helping pro-Russian forces in the Donbas region of Ukraine destabilise government forces led to significant casualties. From 2014 to 2021, the estimated civilian casualty count was 3,404. The group has also been accused of intentionally killing civilians in Libya, Mali, and several other conflict zones including in Ukraine during the 2022 Russian invasion.

There appears to be a particular consistent pattern in Wagner’s activities in Africa; it provides security and/or combat training for government forces against rebel groups, often engaging in war crimes in the process. In exchange, Wagner either gets paid directly or gains control of self-sustaining pre-established businesses, usually in mining or energy, as payment. These long-term economic investments have resulted in billions of dollars in revenue for Wagner, leading to the establishment of several shell companies and other financial holding systems to circumvent international sanctions. Having these funding sources separate from the Russian government ensures that the Wagner Group’s ability to operate is not dependent upon the Kremlin. This is significant because any terrorist entity that splits off from Wagner in the future can fund itself through these means.    


Most of Wagner’s mercenaries initially came from Russia’s special forces and other elite units. In its early days, the group was thought to number about 5,000, though as the Russian invasion of Ukraine continued and Wagner fighters were being lost, Prigozhin recruited 50,000 convicts from Russian prisons to replenish Wagner’s forces. Prisoners who agreed to join Wagner were promised freedom after completing a six-month contract. Western military officials say these ex-convicts formed the bulk of Wagner’s force in Ukraine at the height of its operations in early 2023.  

Many of the men recruited from prison are violent repeat offenders and have already reoffended since returning home from their service with Wagner. These offences include robberies, car theft, sexual assault and murder. In Kaliningrad, a man was arrested for the sexual assault of an 8-year-old girl after taking her from her mother, to whom he had bragged about his prison time and his Wagner service in Ukraine. These men are not being given the tools they need to properly reenter society; they are instead offered a chance for their violent crimes to be forgotten by agreeing to commit more violence. As discussed before, Wagner forces often spend their tours of duty committing war crimes and other atrocities on innocent civilians. To ask someone to seamlessly reintegrate into society after experiencing that is a near-impossible task.  

Additionally, over the last year, the Russian government has been forcing Wagner fighters to sign contracts to join the Russian army for significantly less pay and autonomy and fewer benefits in an attempt to get the group under control. This came after several instances of public criticism from Prigozhin that ultimately boiled over into the mutiny. For many, joining the Russian military represents a substantial downgrade from the compensation and benefits Wagner fighters had become accustomed to. Some reports indicate that between May 2022 and May 2023, contractors could earn as much as $10,000 per month. In contrast, as of March 2023, Russian military personnel made an average of $2,535 monthly. Additionally, Wagner typically offered ex-convicts six-month contracts, after which they were free to return home. This privilege is not extended to regular soldiers, who cannot terminate their contracts as long as Putin’s mobilisation decree remains in effect.

Finally, it’s important to note that, unlike many mercenary groups whose primary motivation is financial profit, the Wagner Group does seem to have a political ideology that helps drive its goals. Wagner was named for its cofounder Dmitry Utkin’s military call sign, Wagner. This call sign is a reference to Richard Wagner, the favourite composer of German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Utkin was a Nazi sympathiser with close ties to the white supremacist and ultra-nationalist organisation the Night Wolves. The Night Wolves are a motorcycle club in Russia known for their far-right and anti-Semitic political views that seek to ignite ethnic divides, incite hate against minorities, and promote the Kremlin. The Wagner Group seems to closely align with the political beliefs of the Night Wolves with both groups having members who fought alongside pro-Russian rebels in Crimea in 2014. This is significant because a future splinter group from Wagner would most likely espouse these far-right and xenophobic political ideas. A group of former mercenaries with far-right political ideology would most likely carry out acts of violence on minority communities and other groups typically targeted by far-right extremists.    


As stated before, the Wagner Group is more than just soldiers for hire. It was confirmed earlier this year by Yevgeniy Prigozhin himself, that in addition to being the head of Wagner, he also founded the Internet Research Agency (IRA)The IRA is a shadowy company based in St. Petersburg which has carried out Russian information warfare operations by employing fake social media accounts and other forms of disinformation to exploit social divisions around the world. Together with the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC), another Prigozhin-linked company, they have been engaged for over half a decade in a series of disinformation campaigns aimed at igniting social conflicts and undermining support for democracy worldwide. 

Disinformation has been a low-cost and highly effective part of Wagner’s hybrid warfare strategy that synergises online information manipulation with offline violence. Wagner and other disinformation actors employ a host of tactics in their campaigns – one of the most common of which is to amplify online content that helps promote a narrative in line with their strategic goals. 


For example, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the IRA was part of an effort to paint the Ukrainian government as fascists and/or neo-Nazis to justify the annexation. They then promoted similar narratives when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 to justify the invasion and deflect from their brutality against the Ukrainians. The narrative was a success –  even some members of the US Congress were found parroting the Russian propaganda.   

In another example, after armed men suspected to be Wagner fighters killed nine Chinese nationals at a gold mine in the Central African Republic earlier this year, a video circulated online claiming France had secretly ordered the attack and planned to frame the Wagner Group. The French Foreign Ministry said their media monitoring unit quickly traced the video to a cluster of Facebook and Twitter accounts linked to Wagner. Still, the narrative had already helped stoke anti-French sentiment throughout West Africa. These examples show Wagner has a pattern of using disinformation and other forms of information manipulation in conjunction with its on-the-ground operations to synergise its efforts and further Russian interests. This type of hybrid warfare appears to be Wagner’s go-to strategy and has allowed it to dominate both the online and offline space. A future splinter group of Wagner would most likely employ this strategy and look to bolster its offline terrorist activities with online information manipulation. For example, one team of this splinter group could carry out a bombing on a specific target, then another team could employ disinformation methods to manipulate the online discourse to maximise the propaganda impact of the bombing. 

Disseminating messages has always been a major objective for terrorist groups. Often, the reason terrorist attacks are carried out on well-populated civilian targets is to maximise media coverage of the attack and get more people to hear what their messages are. The next generation of terrorist groups will be able to manipulate social media using disinformation tactics and shape the narrative around attacks to suit their goals. A splinter group of Wagner would excel in this area.   


The Wagner Group has a history of brutality and war crimes. It has the capacity to self-finance, it has experience in manipulating narratives to appear sympathetic and a membership composed of violent repeat criminal offenders who lack the means to return to their homes peacefully. Its far-right xenophobic ideology encourages violence and a belief in a Russian-centric world order. With its leaders dead and the Russian government planning to strip the remaining members of their unique status by forcing them to join the main Russian military, it is not only possible but likely that in the coming years, at least some portion of Wagner will splinter into an independent terrorist organisation. This group will likely continue to carry out operations similar to its current activities, but perhaps with an increased focus on self-serving operations, particularly those in African regions where actions have already been far less dictated by the Russian government.  

While national security forces can combat groups like Wagner in the offline space, social media companies have a responsibility to combat these groups online. However, the past few years have seen a sharp decline in social media companies’ willingness to combat disinformation. Researchers at NewsGuard found that when searching for prominent news topics on TikTok, almost 20% of the videos presented as search results contained misinformation. Meta and other major tech companies have gutted their teams dedicated to promoting accurate information online, and X, formerly Twitter, has seen a flood of disinformation about many topics including the recent Israel-Palestine conflict. Thanks to X’s revamped policies that allow anyone to pay to be verified, as well as large-scale layoffs in their Trust and Safety teams, the platform seems uninterested in even attempting to combat disinformation. 

Additionally, there have been a number of lawsuits filed against the US government for communicating with social media companies over disinformation that violated company policies. The goal of these lawsuits was to curtail any effort by the federal government to combat disinformation claiming these efforts were ‘censorship’. Regardless of these claims, social media and other tech companies must work with governments to properly combat hybrid threats like Wagner. There are no clear-cut answers when it comes to fighting online extremism and disinformation, but social media companies need to have dedicated teams to protect their users. Those teams also need the resources to effectively track and take down mis/disinformation. Additionally, they should work proactively with governments worldwide to synergise their efforts in stopping disinformation actors.

The next generation of terrorists will utilise technology in novel ways and the Wagner Group has already shown that it is capable of manipulating information to bolster its military operations. Disinformation is a whole-of-society problem that requires a whole-of-society approach. 

Fahad Mirza is a freelance author and contributing research analyst for the Human Rights Research Center. In his previous role, he worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency to combat foreign influence operations and disinformation. His research focuses on disinformation, extremism, and political violence.