Human rights groups also took notice of Wagner and accused his staff of committing war crimes wherever they were deployed. But for Putin’s purposes, the mercenaries were deniable and profitable.
The Wagner group does not employ a public affairs officer to detail its missions. Its employees are prohibited from giving interviews. As such, the Kremlin can still issue a standard shrug indicating they had no knowledge of their presence in a war zone. But most believe there is no daylight between Wagner and the Kremlin. John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, said: “Wagner Group operations are designed to provide Moscow with plausible denial, but the opposite is true. They work closely with the GRU, the foreign spy service SVR and the FSB, the post-Soviet KGB. They are irrefutable organs of the Russian state. Their denial is purely implausible.
Wagner puts boots on the ground wherever natural resources and pro-Putin regimes with shaky security situations need extra tactical muscle. Wagner’s units fought against government forces in Libya. They have deployed to the Central African Republic, Sudan and Madagascar. Wagner has even been detected in the Americas, in oil-rich Venezuela, supporting the narco-regime of President Nicolás Maduro. Wherever they are sent, civilians are tortured, raped and murdered. Moscow denies this, but in the age of smartphones it is impossible to hide the hard evidence that Russian nationals are involved in horrific atrocities.
The same goes for the only conventional battle that took place between Wagner’s agents and the US military. On February 7, 2018, around 600 Wagner fighters, supported by tanks and artillery, attacked a Syrian Democratic Forces position near Deir Al-Zor in the eastern part of the desert near the Iraqi border. The SDF contingent, mostly Kurdish fighters, was reinforced by elements of the United States Joint Special Operations Command, including Delta operators. AC-130 gunships unleashed airborne fire support thousands of feet above the desert to aid the Americans and Kurds. What wasn’t cleared by air was left to the Delta operators to deal with on the ground. Over 300 Wagner Group fighters were reportedly killed in the lopsided battle. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis would tell Congress, “I have ordered their annihilation.