Violence-Oriented Right-Wing Extremist Actors in Russia: Wagner Group – Part 1

May 1, 2024
Matus Trubac  —  Research Intern

During the past decade and a half, extremist non-state actors in Russia have become a central element of the violent transnational right-wing extremist milieu. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and particularly its re-invasion of the country in 2022 have afforded these actors more opportunities to operate and increase their influence. This blog is the fourteenth in a series in which CEP highlights some of the key actors, and analyzes their extremist ideology, modus operandi, and transnational role.

This two-part entry focuses on the Wagner Group’s activities before and after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death, with an emphasis on extremist elements within the organization. In early 2024, the company was reportedly renamed to “Africa Corps.” However, since this two-part entry focuses on the time prior to the company’s renaming, it will be referred to as Wagner Group throughout.

The Wagner Group emerged indirectly from preceding Russian private military companies (PMCs), some of which were active in Syria as early as 2013. During this period, Russia began experimenting with PMCs, which it soon found were useful tools for exercising influence abroad while maintaining plausible deniability and keeping casualty figures undisclosed. Wagner’s origins may be traced to the Slavonic Corps, an earlier PMC registered in Hong Kong in 2013 by Vadim Rudolfovich Gusev and Yevgeniy Sidorov, two members of the  private security company the Moran Security Group. Gusev and Sidorov set up the Slavonic Corps to recruit fighters for a contract with the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The Slavonic Corps counted many Slavic neo-pagans in their ranks, including Dmitry Utkin, a veteran of both Chechen wars and a former GRU commander. Upon returning to Russia, Utkin became involved in the creation of Wagner.

It is not clear what specific role Utkin played in Wagner’s founding, although it is likely that he served as the organizational leader, while oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin acted as the owner and financier. Prigozhin, a former convict, earned a fortune securing catering contracts with the Russian government and established the Concord Company Group, an umbrella company that managed both his catering businesses and Wagner. A subsidiary of the group, Concord Management, funded the pro-Russian online propaganda group known as Russia’s Internet Research Agency. This places Wagner alongside other non-state actors analyzed in this series who are involved in disseminating Russian online propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation.

The Wagner Group was named after Utkin’s call sign, allegedly an homage to Adolf Hitler’s adoration of the work of German composer Richard Wagner. Although, according to British journalist Luke Harding, Utkin chose the name because Wagner’s music is featured in Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now. However, Utkin did not hide his extremist right-wing ideology and admiration of National Socialism. He had multiple Nazi tattoos, including “a swastika, a Nazi eagle, and SS lightning bolts,” and openly expressed his neo-Nazi views. Furthermore, just like in the Slavonic Corps, many Wagner fighters espoused neo-Nazi, neo-pagan ideology and left behind neo-Nazi graffiti and hate symbols in areas they fought in, such as Libya. On December 9, 2016, Utkin attended a Kremlin reception, where he was invited as a holder of the Cavalier of the Order of Courage. Utkin was photographed alongside Vladimir Putin, adding to the many examples provided by this blog series that demonstrate how the Russian government cooperates with extremist militants. Furthermore, Wagner allegedly included fighters affiliated with the neo-Nazi paramilitary group Rusich, as well as a contingent of Serbian fighters.

However, it is important to note that available information indicates that most fighters likely do not join Wagner for ideological reasons. Wagner's rank and file predominantly hail from Russia’s poorer regions and prisons. Wagner recruited the largest number of prisoners in 2023, with an estimated 40,000 fighters coming from Russia’s prisons. While Wagner offered inmates a pardon in exchange for six months of service in Ukraine, the Russian government has since changed its policy and now offers only probation. According to the RAND Corporation, Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine between May 2022 and May 2023 were offered up to $10,000 per month, although the average salary between 2015 and 2019 was 180,000 rubles ($2,900 at the time). On the other hand, Wagner recruits heavily from Russia’s right-wing extremist community, likely because within this milieu, individuals are more likely to join militias or mercenary groups.

Wagner first appeared publicly in 2014, helping Russia with the annexation of Crimea and later carrying out assassinations and limited operations in eastern Ukraine. Subsequently, the group expanded its operations into the Middle East and Africa. Wagner was allegedly registered as a company in Argentina due to Russia’s legal ban on PMCs, and has since opened offices in St. Petersburg and Hong Kong, similar to the Slavonic Corps. Wagner has also allegedly maintained a physical presence in many more countries, including Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eswatini, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Lesotho, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe, in addition to Belarus and Ukraine.

After the Russian military’s setbacks in Ukraine, Prigozhin, similar to other paramilitary leaders such as Igor Girkin or Alexey Milchakov, was critical of the Russian government. Prigozhin’s critique became bolder over time and he even challenged the Kremlin’s official narrative over the war. In strong contrast to discourse propagated by extremists such as Alexey Milchakov, Prigozhin argued that NATO was not planning to attack Russia and that Putin did not attack Ukraine to demilitarize or denazify it. Instead, Prigozhin argued that the war was started for the material benefit of Russia’s government elites and oligarchs. He further claimed that the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) ordered a missile strike on a Wagner camp—though this claim was rejected by the Kremlin, and neither Meduza nor the Institute for the Study of War were able to confirm the veracity of Prigozhin’s claim.

Prior to his open rebellion against the Russian government in June 2023, Prigozhin embarked on a propaganda campaign against Putin on various social media platforms, gaining the attention and support of Russia’s ultranationalist military blogger (milblogger) community. Some of the milbloggers argued that Prigozhin should replace Sergei Shoigu as defense minister. While Prigozhin’s critique resonated with Russia’s ultranationalist community, his decision to rebel was not motivated by an extremist ideology. Available information indicates that it is more likely that Prigozhin’s actions were a bid for increased political influence, rather than to promote any particular ideology. The rebellion was likely part of a battle in Putin’s inner circle between Wagner and the MoD, which led to Prigozhin’s fall from grace in March 2023. In turn, Russian nationalists spread negative information about Wagner, highlighting its cannon fodder tactics, high casualty rates, mistreatment of soldiers, poor morale, war crimes, and the costly Bakhmut offensive. Prigozhin’s position became even more precarious after Putin publicly sided with the MoD and decided that all volunteer detachments must sign agreements with the defense ministry and thereby be placed under the direct control of the Russian government.

Prigozhin’s critique ultimately resulted in a failed uprising. Wagner soldiers were welcomed by many Russian citizens in Rostov-on-Don, who were also critical of the Kremlin’s inefficient military conduct. Prigozhin’s rebellion was also supported by some citizens in Moscow. The rebellion, while unsuccessful, demonstrates that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has allowed paramilitary non-state actors with direct or indirect links to extremist movements to significantly increase their power and influence within Russia. Prigozhin was able to appeal to a segment of the Russian population that supported the war but was critical of the Russian government.

Both Prigozhin and Utkin ultimately died in a plane crash on August 23, 2023. The failed rebellion was a divisive topic even among Russia’s ultranationalists, with some disappointed by the initial mercy Putin showed the Wagner leader. However, delaying Prigozhin’s death allowed Putin to ensure a smooth transfer of power of the group’s forces from Prigozhin to the Russian government. How this transition happened is explored in part two of this series.

Since Prigozhin’s failed uprising, the Kremlin has clamped down on the autonomy of Russia’s paramilitary groups. Still, the effect this has had on the numbers and strength of fighters espousing extremist ideologies is not yet fully known. While such groups currently do not pose a threat to the Kremlin, this may change if they or the Russian populace perceive the outcome of the war as unfavorable. The war in Ukraine means that these groups continue to receive combat experience, military training, fighting equipment, foreign recruits, and engage in transnational cooperation with European counterparts. These factors collectively pose a new security threat for Europe that it must be ready for.

Since the failed uprising, Wagner seems to have reoriented itself toward Africa. While less prominent in Ukraine, it remains true that Wagner is an avenue for fighters holding extremist views to gain combat experience and establish connections, including transnationally. The second part of this two-part entry will focus on Wagner’s activities after Prigozhin’s death, with a particular focus on its operations in Africa.

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Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.


On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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