Russia’s Wagner Group: An opportunity for post-Brexit Britain | Isabel Sawkins and Josephine Freund

On November 15, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that the foreign ministers of the European Union agreed to impose sanctions on the Wagner Group. This has come amidst repeated alarm stemming from France over the private military company’s harmful exploits in Africa, especially in the Central African Republic. Recently, there has been increasing fear over their intervention in the unstable  Sahel region in Africa, notorious for its vulnerability to jihadist attacks and socio-political conflict. While the sanctions are a tangible step which will hopefully slow these militias in their endeavors, EU representatives have used rhetoric that openly conflates the Russian government with the actions of the private militia. This highlights a problematic oversimplification of the issue, stemming from an unnuanced understanding of the inner workings of the Russian political system.

For the last seven years, there have been numerous reports of the actions of mercenary groups throughout war-torn and fragile regions of Eastern Europe, South America, Africa, and the Middle East. The common denominator that linked these militant groups was Wagner, a private military contractor. The militias affiliated with the Wagner Group have been linked, on several occasions, to grave military misconduct, engaging in actions such as unjust killing of local populations, looting, and more.

But how strong is this link between the various militia organisations and Wagner? It seems that they are often merely enabled by the group. This makes it even more difficult to ensure that sanctioning the Wagner Group would even stop these militias at all, since there is no concrete, central authority.

Several people have expressed concern over the Wagner Group’s close allegiance to Russian President, Vladimir Putin; indeed, it is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a “convict-turned-billionaire” caterer and ally of Putin. This discovery fueled accusations against the Kremlin, claiming that the group was really just advancing Russia’s military aspirations. But the issue with this assumption is that while Russia might not be taking steps to actively stop the Wagner Group’s exploits, accusing the Kremlin as a whole of being responsible for the actions of the Wagner Group is not necessarily productive, nor just.

While Prigozhin is an ally of Putin and the mercenaries are primarily of Russian nationality with nationalistic tendencies, the federal system in the Russian Federation runs so that wealthy individuals such as Prigozhin are able to function as they please. The patronal aspect of the inner-workings of Russia value “co-ordination among nationwide networks of actual acquaintances that typically cut across political parties, firms, nongovernmental organizations, and even the state,” and therefore are difficult to pin to one actor or motive. Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov insisted that there was no link between the Kremlin and the atrocities and that while the Wagner Group is a Russian company, that does not mean collusion.

In the post-Brexit era, the UK has the opportunity to forge a new path for its foreign policy. Instead of further antagonising Russia with accusatory rhetoric, it might be more productive to hold Russia to its word and help crack down on this group. Russia’s denial of connection to the Wagner Group gives the UK a chance to push Russia on the issue: if that is the case then Russia should help aid the crackdown on rogue militias. The UK can play an important role in this process, offering guidance and support when required by the Kremlin.

Instead of the usual standoff accusations, we argue that it would be useful for the West to have more honest conversations in Russia with those who are not necessarily in political positions, but who exert great control internationally due to their financial standing and/or organisational and personal links. Putin is not a puppet master and it is important to remember that there are other individuals steering the ship of Russia and its international influence. Engaging with them is critical in order to break down these stereotypes, as well as to ensure proper and meaningful change in Russian society and its engagement with the West.

Isabel Sawkins is a Research Fellow for the Henry Jackson Society. Josephine Freund is currently an intern with the Henry Jackson Society.

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