Here's Why Russia's Wagner Group Is Worse Than You Think | Opinion

The world's attention has turned again to the Wagner Group, the notorious Russian-based organization led by oligarch and convicted felon Yevgeny Prigozhin, in part because it played a pivotal role in capturing the eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar.

Since its formation in 2014, the Wagner Group, originally organized as a private military company, has significantly expanded its reach. Its roots were firmly planted in Ukraine when it worked with the Russian military in the illegal annexation of Crimea. The Wagner Group's actions in Ukraine are no doubt worthy of the world's opprobrium. Yet, national security policymakers must not lose sight of the group's—and, by extension, Prigozhin's—grander ambitions.

The Wagner Group's expansionism in Africa, its role in spreading disinformation, its brazen disregard for human rights, its desire to become a leading technology hub, and its worldwide recruitment tactics require a much stronger, quicker, response by the U.S. government and its allies.

The Wagner Group's Logo
A woman passes by a mural depicting the logo of Russia's mercenary Wagner Group in Belgrade, Serbia, on Jan. 20. OLIVER BUNIC/AFP via Getty Images

In fact, a forthcoming study by the research center where I work—Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.—we may be reaching an important tipping point. That study has found that the Wagner Group is becoming increasingly popular among Russians.

Interestingly, Wagner's popularity in Russia spiked prior to Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, according to the report. In July 2021, the Russian public's positive sentiment towards the Wagner Group significantly increased—this happens to be the same month in which Russian President Vladimir Putin authored a letter that said, "Russians and Ukrainians were one people — a single whole." Putin's words ultimately would serve as a pretext for the invasion.

Further, given Prigozhin's involvement in disinformation operations, it should hardly come as a surprise that the Russian public started paying more attention to the Wagner Group over Russian social media platforms such as VKontakte. Prigozhin was positioned to seed the ground for increasing Wagner's visibility.

In 2016, he entered the American consciousness for his role in interfering with the U.S. 2016 election by funding Russia's Internet Research Agency that released an army of bots and online trolls to try to manipulate the American electorate. For these misdeeds, Prigozhin later would be sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Prigozhin has diversified his playbook by adding pages that focus on financing. In Africa, the Wagner Group has been enlisted by several governments, among them Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mali. Wagner's offer to these governments: mafia-like protection.

As a reward for these security guarantees and the propping up of tin-pot dictators and military hardliners in Africa, the Wagner Group allegedly harvests timber, acquires diamonds, and pilfers gold. Untold millions of dollars in commodities and precious gems reportedly have been stolen from people across Africa. The economic benefit of such exploitation is considerable, especially since Putin's Russia is under significant economic strain because of sanctions.

There can be little doubt that the Wagner Group provides Russia an important financial lifeline due to its ability to acquire African-based resources that are immune to sanctions since they are not passing through formal financial systems.

Another turn of the page takes us to Wagner Group's inward focus and interest in creating a technological corridor in St. Petersburg. It is no secret that Russia's war in Ukraine has resulted in the flight of military-aged men from Russia. With that exodus, Russia has been plagued by a brain-drain. Coupled with intense sanctions, this has made it difficult for Russia to import components crucial to tech development. Again, Prigozhin has stepped in to fill the void by establishing a technology center with an aim of cultivating expertise to stem the loss of talent and access to tech. In December, the Wagner Group sponsored a "hackathon" to inaugurate its center and identify talent that could further diversify Wagner's capabilities.

A review of Prigozhin's playbook would not be complete without examining the Wagner Group's recruitment tactics. While the technology center in St. Petersburg is aimed at increasing the group's—and Russia's—cyber capabilities, the group continues to expand its conventional capabilities in Ukraine.

Doing so has taken Prigozhin to interesting places. There have been reports that the group has culled not only Russian prisons for recruits but also has looked externally to recruit Syrians, Afghans, and Serbians to join the fight. Indeed, recently U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet, voiced concerns to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic regarding Wagner's recruitment of Serbians.

The Wagner Group's global footprint is significant, and its boots are stained with blood. Where the group has operated, a long list of atrocities have followed it. This is the case in Ukraine, but also throughout Africa and Syria where Wagner's actions have left a wake of destruction. The group's ability to finance itself, expand its technological prowess, and calibrate its disinformation operations requires a whole-of-society response.

The Biden administration, and the world, must do much more. The United States and its allies must acknowledge that Prigozhin's Wagner Group is a terrorist group, criminal, propagandist, and an abuser of human rights. It is time to label it as all as these things—first by designating the group as a terrorist organization.

Jason Blazakis is a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). From 2008-2018, he served as the director of the Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office at the Bureau of Counterterrorism with the United States Department of State.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.