Wagner Group and Russian Hybrid War: Expectations and Limits

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The physical elimination of Evgeni Prigozhin and the commandment of the Wagner Group opens the question of the further use of mercenaries, not only in Ukraine but in wider regional context. Designed as a non-conventional solution of ‘delicate’ tasks abroad, Wagner and its leader turned into a ‘delicate’ question of Russian internal politics....

The physical elimination of Evgeni Prigozhin and the commandment of the Wagner Group opens the question of the further use of mercenaries, not only in Ukraine but in wider regional context. Designed as a non-conventional solution of ‘delicate’ tasks abroad, Wagner and its leader turned into a ‘delicate’ question of Russian internal politics.

Russia’s war in Ukraine represents an attempt to reestablish Kremlin’s zone of influence in Eastern Europe or at least to stop the expansion of the Western one towards Russian core territory. The Kremlin perceives the War in Ukraine as a part of its major clash with the West and thus, apart from its kinetic intervention against Kiev, tries to stay active on another fronts, hoping that at least some of them will bring victory. One of them is Belarus, where the Wagner Group was dislocated after the aborted coup in June.

Until now, except from Ukraine, those are fronts of the hybrid war and thus the presence and possible activity of Wagner Group in Belarus does not constitute a direct military threat to Europe in terms of its classical understanding. Russia has strategically lost its war in Ukraine (no single strategic aim presented by Kremlin at the beginning has been reached and with every month of this war Moscow seems to move away from the optimal status quo even farer) and thus tries to compensate the fiasco of its conventional forces by intensification of the hybrid ones. That’s why, the nearer Moscow is in its acceptance of cease-fire negotiations with Ukraine and an official renunciation of the official aims of the post-imperial Reconquista, the more it will make-up its failure by asymmetric means. Those are, for example: the use of environmental warfare by blowing-up the the Kahovka dam, the grain blackmail, the maritime blockade and destruction of Ukraine port capacity, the next phase of a migratory assault on Polish and Lithuanian border, the deployment of nuclear forces in Belarus, and, recently, by moving there the Wagner Group. This situation, theoretically leaves an important role for the mercenaries to be used as a semi-official tool of Russian foreign policy or at least as a part of its negotiating position (Russia may try to ‘sell’ the deactivation of the Belorussian hybrid front for some gains on the Ukrainian one).

But its presence and pathetic declarations of “taking the Suwałki corridor“ or “going for a walk to Warsaw or Rzeszów (the last name refers to the south-eastern Polish town which is the main logistical hub for Ukraine’s military support) has propagandist objectives rather than military ones. It’s a part of Russian information war not the kinetic one. Technically, the Wagner Group is no kind of enemy for the Polish Armed Forces and any attempt to cross the border, not to say to effectuate an activity on Polish territory would end in its immediate annihilation (that’s why it didn’t and will never happen). The presence of Wagner in Belarus is a result of factors that have very little to do with Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine or Belarus itself, being a product of internal dynamics of Russian political cycle.

Firstly, after the aborted military coup, the extremally frightened Putin and his entourage had to move Wagner away from Moscow, before being able to eliminate or subordinate its commandment, but at the same time, they couldn’t harm the fragile stability of intra-Kremlin groups of influence. And here, the Belorussian option presented the most convenient solution, at least until the Kremlin feels strong enough to take revenge on Prigozhin personally (which already happened) and suppress the opposition of his sympathizers inside the armed forces (which, seemingly is actually happening with the dismissal of general Sergey Surovikin).

Secondly, the most evident Russian strategic failure in Ukraine is, the stronger is the propagandist need of keeping the image of Russian might existing and actual. The whole world may see how weak and humiliated it is, but inside, it has to remain active, strong and frightening. The closest and more inevitable the cease-fire in Ukraine is, the more Russian propaganda needs what is called ‘informative reasons’ – some facts that will make it possible to present to the internal auditorium the situation of a durable strategic collapse as a temporary tactical maneuver.

From the point of view of Russians, of whom, according to sociological surveys, 80% support the ‘special operation’, it is important to give sense to what happened during last 18 months, that is to say to cover the truth (Russia is weak, poor, instable, isolated and humiliated) by the imperial image. And, if European or American politicians fear the intrusion of the Wagner Group (at least they say so and this is what Russian tv channels can show), it means, that Russia still remains dangerous for its ‘main opponent’ (the USA) and what it calls its ‘chain dogs’ (Poland, Lithuania etc.). But this, once again, is an instrument of forming the internal situation in Russia and not its external (international) environment.
Last year, Russia tried to change the international reality around its borders by military means and as a result, the overall conclusion is that it would have better didn’t. If the professional army didn’t manage to maintain the image of the imperial glory, it is hardly imaginable, the pensioners from Wagner will, especially with their loyalty put into question. The elimination of Prigozhin and the expected extermination of its other members demonstrates, that from the point of view of the Kremlin, giving Wagner real military potential is more risky internally than it may be beneficial abroad.
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