Recently, a UK report on Russia’s Wagner Group has once again restarted calls for the UK government to designate Wagner as a terrorist organization. This follows the Lithuanian parliament’s unanimous proclamation of the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization in March and, a month later, the French parliament’s unanimous adoption of a nonbinding resolution calling on the EU to designate Wagner as a terrorist organization. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed such initiatives, urging that “every manifestation of terrorism must be destroyed, and every terrorist must be convicted.” Given the brazen atrocities Wagner has committed in Ukraine and elsewhere, the calls to further sanction the group are definitely understandable. However, the Wagner Group hardly qualifies as a terrorist organization. Rather, it is the Kremlin’s quasi-state agent of influence and should be treated as such. Not all entities that commit atrocities and crimes against humanity are terrorist groups and designating them would be a dangerous slippery slope.
First of all, terrorist organizations engage in acts of violence for a political purpose. They are nonstate actors that often challenge state legitimacy and use terrorist attacks as an asymmetric means to fight against the usually militarily superior government forces. For example, al-Qaeda is a transnational nonstate organization that treats the United States as its main enemy and uses terrorist violence in the name of a declared goal to expel the US presence from Muslim lands. The Islamic State in turn is more focused on the “near enemy”—namely, what it considers to be apostate regimes in the Muslim world—and has used terrorist violence to establish and protect its version of the Islamic caliphate in place of such regimes. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, another group designated as a foreign terrorist organization, has used terrorism to challenge the Sinhala rule in Sri Lanka with the objective to establish an independent Tamil state.
The Wagner Group, on the other hand, does not pursue a coherent political agenda of its own. Its operations have ranged from security assistance to political advising to military action, all of which have been tailored to various objectives the Kremlin sets out, not those determined by the group itself. For example, in Ukraine Wagner was clandestinely involved in the takeover of Crimea before moving to support Russia’s activities in the Donbas. The Group’s head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, eventually acknowledged that his Wagner Group of “Russian patriots” was active in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to protect Russia’s interests as early as 2014. In Syria, Wagner deployed to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad while the Russian government denied any responsibility over what it characterized as private citizens who chose to fight in foreign countries. In Sudan, Wagner arrived to prop up the regime of Omar al-Bashir, and in Mali Wagner came in the wake of the French withdrawal to provide counterterrorist assistance. The group’s objectives have varied based on location, reflecting Moscow’s geostrategic interests in each specific place. There is very little evidence that in any of these places the Wagner Group has pursued a political agenda separate from that of the Kremlin. It has served as a shadowy structure carrying out the Kremlin’s foreign policy rather than a nonstate organization that uses terrorism for political ends.
Second, terrorist organizations thrive on publicity. In fact, the very use of terrorist attacks is meant to draw public attention to the political agenda of the organization and to provoke governments to react and sometimes overreact to such displays of violence. Iconically, the world’s reaction to September 11 was exactly what al-Qaeda aimed for with this high-profile terrorist attack meant to reach worldwide audiences. Some terrorist organizations try to legitimize their displays of violence through claiming minimal civilian casualties—as the Irish Republican Army did by telephoning warnings before some of its bomb attacks. Others, like the Islamic State, make their terrorist attacks as gory as possible and aim to kill maximum numbers of “infidels.” Inevitably, though, as Brian Jenkins famously put it, all terrorist organizations “want a lot of people watching.” Terrorist organizations claim attacks through their social media channels, praise suicide bombers in their official publications, and often use past terrorist attacks in their recruitment propaganda to draw in new members.
In contrast, the Wagner Group was conceived as a secretive organization that has largely operated outside the public purview up until 2022. Prigozhin worked with Russia’s Ministry of Defense to design Wagner as a quasi-state agent of influence to covertly advance Russia’s foreign policy objectives while allowing for plausible deniability for the Russian government. As a result, much of Wagner’s work has been shrouded in secrecy with no claims of attacks or declarations of ownership. Up to 2022 Prigozhin consistently denied connections to the group and until 2023 Wagner did not officially exist on paper. Prigozhin has sued Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins for libel for publicizing Wagner’s activities. Three Russian journalists investigating Wagner’s involvement in the Central African Republic were mysteriously murdered. Thus, for almost a decade Wagner has eschewed taking responsibility for its actions and has shied away from claiming any political objectives.
Only recently did Yevgeny Prigozhin emerge from the shadows. After the 2022 invasion of Ukraine Prigozhin released public videos that featured him recruiting inmates in Russian prisons to go fight in Ukraine. More coverage followed with Wagner’s onslaught on Ukrainian towns like Soledar and Bakhmut. But such publicity was not to claim Wagner’s actions and connect the group to some broader political goal. Instead, Prigozhin has been using Wagner as his trump card in a bid for political influence. Touting Wagner as his own private force, Prigozhin has been able to make some inflammatory statements about Russia’s Ministry of Defense and has even dared criticize President Vladimir Putin himself. He has boldly used the group to demonstrate his own power. In the group’s recent mutiny attempt, Prigozhin positioned Wagner as his personal fighting force capable of competing with Russia’s military, which is different from a terrorist organization fighting for a political ideology.
Which brings us to the third difference—the presence of ideological motivation in terrorist recruitment. Terrorist organizations attract all sorts of members, including those who seek opportunities for easy enrichment. However, most members of terrorist groups do not join for money. For example, thousands of individuals from all over the world headed to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State because they felt it was their sense of duty to migrate to the caliphate, not because they wanted to get paid. In fact, many of them raised their own funds to travel and brought money for the organization.
This is not the case with Wagner. Wagner members do not join for ideological reasons. They join for money. Wagner pays salaries that are much higher than the average Russian salary of around $555 per month. The core of the group was formed by former military and GRU (Russia’s military intelligence) officers who joined Wagner for better salaries. Recruits for Ukraine in 2014–2015 received 80,000 rubles (around $836) and contractors who went to Syria got 150,000 rubles per month (around $1,567). Starting in 2022, Wagner’s vacancy announcements promised to pay 240,000 rubles a month (around $2,507). The newest, and the most numerous, wave of Wagner recruits comes from prisons. But again, official pardon and money have been the motivating factors for prisoners to join, not ideological radicalization common in terrorist recruitment in detention facilities. Wagner membership is a job, not an ideological calling.
The lack of a coherent political agenda independent from the Russian state, the secretive nature of its violence, and its recruitment based on monetary contracts explain why Wagner is not a terrorist organization. A natural next question is: Do these differences matter? If the Wagner Group commits atrocities, why shouldn’t we designate it a terrorist organization anyway?
The use of terrorist designations for entities that do not qualify is a dangerous slippery slope. We have already seen how some countries have used counterterrorist legislation to delegitimize certain groups. Notoriously, Turkey has used its counterterrorist provisions to jail hundreds of oppositional journalists. China has persecuted its Uyghur population under the guise of a terrorist threat. Russia has liberally applied the terrorist label to critics of its war in Ukraine. In order to discourage such misapplications of counterterrorist provisions we need to remain consistent about our own application of the terrorist label.
Further, designating Wagner would complicate ways we deal with our partners, especially in Africa. There is a technical aspect that would make it difficult for us to conduct business with African regimes that have interacted with Wagner if the group were to be designated as a terrorist organization. More importantly, there is a symbolic aspect of labeling a group that came in as an alternative to Western actors as a terrorist organization. In places like Mali or Central African Republic, governments invited Wagner in the wake of French disengagement, which was accompanied by a wave of anti-French and anticolonial sentiments. Throwing a terrorist designation into the mix would further complicate our foreign policy efforts in Africa.
Finally, the United States has already designated Wagner as a transnational criminal organization, a much more appropriate designation. The US Treasury Department has also successfully sanctioned Prigozhin and many of his Wagner partners. There are intelligence and information operations that can be conducted to undermine the group’s effectiveness and influence without designating it a terrorist organization. These are exactly the efforts we should continue with to counter an irregular warfare tool of the Russian government instead of relying on a highly visible but problematic terrorist designation.
Elena Pokalova is a professor at the National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs and the author of “The Wagner Group in Africa: Russia’s Quasi-State Agent of Influence,” published in July 2023 in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Information agency BelTA, via Wikimedia Commons