The lessons-learned doctrine from the war in Ukraine is yet to be written, but the conflict has clearly demonstrated how paramilitary forces, such as Russia’s Wagner Private Military Company (better known simply as the Wagner Group) can reinforce state militaries.
Of course, proxies and non-state partnerships have influenced the contours of conflicts in the Middle East for many years. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has led the curve via its relationships with Shia militia groups in Iraq and across the Levant.
Yet the IRGC is more than a fighting force. Despite sanctions on its commercial affiliates, most notably Khatam al-Anbia, it is a financially self-sustaining military. Beyond this, the IRGC created a systemic model of establishing a presence in vulnerable states and regions, and followed with front and shell companies for funding and sanctions circumvention. And the Wagner Group appears to be following a similar path. Moreover, Wagner serves as a tool of foreign policy for Moscow, just as the IRGC does for Iran.
There are key differences to be sure. The IRGC was created by and is recognized as a military institution of the Iranian regime. The Wagner Group is a private military company, owned by one man—Yevgeny Prigozhin. And while it works in tandem with the Russian defense forces, it also competes with them for resources and funding. Yet while Prigozhin is the owner, the group is believed to be loosely managed by Russia’s Ministry of Defense and the GRU, its military intelligence office.
Just as the IRGC’s operations have spread from Iran to Syria and beyond, so have Wagner Group operations extended from Ukraine through much of Africa. The use of self-sustaining fighting groups appeals to certain states, because they allow them to impose greater losses and costs on their enemies and alter global order. This model is gradually becoming the norm in warfare and international relations.
The IRGC Model
The dark alliance between Russia and Iran is a study with multiple variables. It ranges from military-to-military coordination in Syria (to keep Bashar al-Assad in power) to arming Russian forces with Iranian drones to fight Ukraine. The scope of cooperation is determined by the necessities of the conflict.
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The Iranian Artesh has always been considered the conventional state military. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran ushered in an era of regional change and domestic turmoil that called for a force that could temper anti-regime ambitions. The IRGC was born from this state of affairs. Gradually, this export arm of the Islamic Revolution transitioned into a major player in Iran’s economy, politics, and even foreign affairs. But it was a series of crises that catapulted the IRGC to self-sufficiency and political dominance.
The Iran-Iraq War was a pivotal moment not just for the region, but for Iran to reevaluate its priorities and define its defense doctrine. The IRGC-owned Khatam al-Anbia was established to rebuild the country following the war. It became the leading engineering and construction company in Iran, which continually wins multi-billion-dollar contracts from the state because of the lack of competition. It was beyond domestic control; the IRGC expanded abroad and exploited vacuums.
Following the 2003 Iraq war, U.S. political maneuvering with the new government in Baghdad left open pockets of opportunity ripe for Iranian influence. This influence expanded vastly from 2013–2017; while the United States was focused on combating the Islamic State, the IRGC Qods Force created parameters for Iranian staying power in both Iraq and Syria.
This was accomplished largely through the efforts of former IRGC-QF commander General Qasem Soleimani, who cultivated a variety of lethal Shia militia groups that were both nationalist, but loyal to him personally. This facilitated a political, economic, and military power grab along the Shia crescent. Front and shell companies have been weaved into the IRGC defense doctrine. Once a presence is established, a range of regionally based companies facilitate the IRGC’s illicit activities.
Likewise, Russia’s war in Ukraine is serving a comparable purpose for the Wagner Group. A private military company is not the same as a state-run military, but there is nothing inherently unique about the Wagner Group that separates its activities from those of Iran’s IRGC. Prigozhin is seizing an opportunity to vault the Wagner Group to greater prominence. Much like Khatam al-Anbia, the financial arm of the Revolutionary Guard, Prigozhin’s Concord Management has signed lucrative contracts in Russia and abroad thanks to his relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The Wagner Group is believed to have been heavily involved with the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Wagner mercenaries are also believed to have fought on behalf of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in Ukraine in 2015, as well as having a footprint in Donbas and being active in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Wagner fighters were deployed to Syria in 2014 and 2015 to help Assad remain in power. Wagner struggled against U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) in 2018 in the battle for Deir ez-Zor province. But with lessons learned, they have since increased the areas under their control in Syria and are now more influential than Iran in that country. The group has now expanded its operations to the African continent, particularly across Sub-Saharan Africa. Libya was a gateway into this venture, in part because of Wagner's mild successes with Khalifa Haftar.
Filling vacuums is part of the IRGC model. They had success in parts of South America, but its ascension in Iraq serves as the standard. Sub-Saharan Africa is becoming the Wagner Group’s Iraq. Wagner fighters appear to be most heavily present in Mali, allegedly conducting counterinsurgency operations at the behest of the Malian government. Wagner’s commercial operations are reportedly tapping into Mali’s rich natural resources to illicitly fund their activities.
The Central African Republic is the latest African country to be experiencing Wagner’s influence. Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency, a troll farm, has been spreading pro-Russian disinformation there. Wagner recruiters are now reportedly following up by actively recruiting prisoners there to fight in Ukraine. To the west, Burkina Faso is being increasingly pressured by Mali to embrace Wagner’s services to help forge bilateral ties with Russia. Elsewhere, Wagner personnel are present following Russia and Cameroon’s signing of a defense agreement in April 2022. Wagner operations are also active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically through front companies that support influence operations.
The Role of Sanctions
The Iranian regime has expertly circumvented U.S. and international sanctions for over four decades. We should assume that Moscow is Tehran’s apprentice in evading sanctions. This Russia-Iran cooperation is merely one of convenience for Moscow; there are other relationships that are far more significant as Russia is pushed further out of the global markets.
When used correctly, sanctions are an effective foreign policy tool. For instance, Iran’s Khatam al-Anbia, through its various financial holdings and virtual monopoly on Iranian construction bids, is a highly lucrative source of funding for the IRGC. When the U.S. sanctioned its engineering subsidiary, it proved one of the most effective sanctions to hit the IRGC. Since then, sanctions against other subsidiaries have increased, but so too has the IRGC’s creativity in sustaining this model.
The Wagner Group is slowly experiencing similar economic straits. Prigozhin was designated in 2014 for his ties to the conflict in Ukraine and again in 2015 for his links to malicious cyber activities. Concord Management and Consulting, Prigozhin’s leading company, was sanctioned in 2017 for ties to the war in eastern Ukraine. With Concord sanctioned, Prigozhin is doubtless using other front companies and subsidiaries to bankroll his military operations. When these are discovered and exposed, sanctions will presumably follow. In 2021, the EU, led by France, sanctioned the Wagner Group for its activities in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, which includes human rights abuses.
Working in tandem with both defense and intelligence forces, Wagner affiliates are actively engaging in disinformation campaigns to influence foreign elections. Sanctions are starting to roll on these operations, too. Perhaps the most significant designations came in 2018 (for U.S. and foreign government election interference) and again in 2022 (when cited for U.S. election interference by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control). Relatedly, in February 2022, Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency was added to European Union sanctions for running disinformation campaigns to manipulate public opinion.
But though the United States and the rest of the international community have ramped up sanctions against Wagner, challenges remain. Washington should pivot resources toward affiliated individuals and entities, with a special emphasis on the likelihood of front and shell companies tied to Prigozhin and Wagner, to ensure a sustained campaign of aggressive sanctions enforcement that will ultimately lead to broader sanctions implementations. In 2022, a significant increase in pressure was added to Wagner with the designation by multiple countries, including the United States, as an international criminal organization.
The feud between Prigozhin and Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu—who has support from the chief of staff of the Russian military—led to setbacks in weapons and funding for Wagner. But as the invasion of Ukraine floundered in 2022, the need for the group’s services and cooperation grew. This has led to a more robust relationship with the GRU. Wagner forces are gradually blending into Russia’s defense doctrine, which was recently updated to reflect changes in both tactical and operational doctrines, closely mirroring the Wagners.
But the make-up of the Wagner forces is distinct from Russian forces. Wagner's military recruiters draw largely from prisons. As of this writing, roughly 50,000 Wagner fighters are in Ukraine: 10,000 are “traditional” mercenary contractors, while 40,000 are convicts. Wagner publicly ended this practice on February 8 of this year.
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The Treasury Department’s designation of the Wagner’s as a “transnational criminal organization” (TCO) is a significant step toward exposing greater Wagner atrocities. Transnational criminal organizations threaten U.S. interests through diversified criminal activities. Violence and corruption are at the heart of TCOs and how they conduct their illicit activities.
It is an open question as to whether or not Wagner is trying to outshine and even outlast the Russian state military. Continued sanctions hurt, and continuing exposures of direct ties to the Kremlin make it easier to impose more effective sanctions. It’s improbable that Wagner will create a shadow government as the IRGC have done in Iran, but they can become self-sustaining to such a degree as to offer Moscow parallel militaries to achieve its geostrategic ambitions counter to NATO and abroad in the most vulnerable parts of Africa. While the Kremlin writ large is not altogether supportive of Wagner (or Prigozhin for that matter), the group has Putin’s support—unless Putin changes his perspective on his old friend.
A Future of Private Military Groups?
Institutions like the IRGC and Wagner are tools of foreign policy by their respective states. Ever opportunistic, these states look to expand their influence in global hotspots where the United States is minimally present, taking advantage of the fact that Washington is focused is on higher-priority issues elsewhere. When a foothold is established, front and shell companies are propped up to enable illicit activities and evade sanctions. In the Wagner case, African countries are strategic access points for a regional presence that could assist Moscow’s economy through the impact and re-export of globally banned items due to sanctions. While Iraq was a political and military access point for Iran’s IRGC, African countries offer commercial activities that support Moscow, and could potentially lengthen the war in Ukraine.
For years, Prigozhin and his group went unnoticed, wreaking havoc in unstable environments while eluding the attention of the international community. Then, again, the world didn’t see the rise of the IRGC coming either. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, it’s essential to set our sights on Wagner before it becomes too powerful to scale back.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/feature/wagner-group-and-irgc-rise-self-sustaining-military-proxies-206297