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Putin’s Dogs of War

Like the war in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s previous imperial adventures in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, the emergence of the Wagner Group is consistent with Russia’s political development under Vladimir Putin. The regime rests on the corrupt control of privatized capital, and Wagner embodies the two trends that have come to define it.

ATLANTA – For Russians, the name Wagner no longer calls to mind the famous nineteenth-century composer of Der Ring des Nibelungen – at least not directly. Instead, Russians associate the name with the Wagner Group, a company of mercenaries that has committed some of the worst atrocities in Ukraine (and elsewhere). The Wagner Group is now so bound up with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions that it fancies itself as a rival to the Russian army – an institution that the group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, openly mocks for its myriad failures in Ukraine.

The Wagner Group has its origins in the “Slavonic Corps,” a Russian private mercenary unit that was formed in 2013 as part of Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war. In those days, its battlefield effectiveness was so poor that when it encountered the Islamic State, it was crushed and forced to retreat to Russia. But soon thereafter, members of the group were recruited to serve as the “little green men” who invaded and helped annex Crimea in 2014.

That was the year Prigozhin formally incorporated the Wagner Group, deriving its name from the call-sign of one of its commanders, former GRU Lieutenant-Colonel Dmitry Utkin. Rumor has it that Utkin himself chose the name as an homage to Hitler’s admiration for Richard Wagner. In any case, the “Slavonic Corps” was rebranded as “Private Military Company Wagner” (“ВЧК Вагнер”) in time for the group to participate in the opening assault on Ukraine.