Vladimir Putin “puts Wagner and the Russian army in competition for results”
Peer de Jong is a former colonel in the Troupes de Marine, graduate of war school and doctor of political science.
TV5MONDE: Are there tensions between the Wagner paramilitary company and the Russian army? What kind are they?
Peer de Jong: Very difficult to judge. When Wagner was created, in 2014, he was a product of the Russian intelligence agency, the GRU (editor’s note: General Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation is the military intelligence service of Russia) and the so-called National Guard.
The military system promoted Wagner in 2014 with the Donbass war. This lasted until the war in Syria. Relations then corrected between the paramilitaries and the Russian army. Soldiers began to take offense at Wagner’s rise after capturing Palmyra and Deir el-Zor, two Syrian cities, in 2016-2017. Vladimir Putin went on to praise the private company, which had suffered heavy losses but managed to conquer the cities. The Kremlin has honored them. This is what disrupts the pre-existing relationship between Russia’s military security systems and intelligence services and Wagner.
This story of tension is also a personal affair, between Sergueï Choïgou, Minister of Defense of Russia and Evgueni Prigojine, general manager of the paramilitary company Wagner.Peer de Jong, former Troupes de Marine colonel, war school diploma and doctor of political science
Since this period, we have witnessed a kind of rivalry, as seen today, between the two structures. Wagner was gaining momentum. It has 50,000 people, which is a huge number. These forces have become second-rate forces, special actions, but also first-rate since today Wagner is directly involved in Donbass in contact with the Ukrainian army. Once again, this kind of judgment ended up embarrassing the military.
This story of tension is also a personal one, with Sergueï Choïgou, the Russian Minister of Defense and with Evgueni Prigojine, general director of the paramilitary company Wagner. The second competition played out between these two men, the power struggle, especially with Vladimir Putin.
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TV5MONDE: Exactly how many men did Wagner have?
Peer de Jong: On January 20, 2023, the White House announced two things: it would criminalize Wagner’s actions, thereby becoming a criminal structure. In his interview, a spokesperson for the White House also said that Wagner was valued at 50,000. Roughly speaking, this represents 10,000 people on African soil, and 40,000 dedicated to Ukraine, distributed both on Russian soil and on Ukrainian soil at the same time.
Wagner represents 10% of the Russian army stationed in Ukraine.
Peer de Jong, former Troupes de Marine colonel, war school diploma and doctor of political science
TV5MONDE: We sometimes get the impression, in the media coverage, that Wagner has a bigger strike force than the Russian army. Is that the case?
Peer de Jong: I roughly estimate the Russian army presence in Ukraine at 500,000. Therefore, Wagner represents 10% of the Russian army stationed in Ukraine. The Russian army represents more men in reality. The number of reserve troops is estimated at 1.5 million. It is huge, its ratio with Wagner is completely different.
However, Wagner was a military and political force. It has become a private structure which today, and this is quite remarkable, has the attribution of the use of the force of law. The power of this law is theoretically held by the police and the army. A private company, led by a managing director, that buys the guns and pays the people, therefore disposes of them. This hasn’t been seen in years.
I think the last action of this kind took place in 1921, when the German Freikorps returned from the Baltic. They’ve created an assault section, SA. This SA became a political force which later transformed into SS, a political military force. This is the transformation we are witnessing with Wagner.
Wagner had no means. It has men and simple individual weapons. They have no tanks, no planes…Peer de Jong, former Troupes de Marine colonel, war school diploma and doctor of political science
TV5MONDE: What does Wagner weigh in terms of resources?
Peer de Jong: Wagner had no means. It has men and simple individual weapons. They have no tanks, no planes… Which may happen tomorrow. Today, everything that supports artillery, armor, intelligence, ultimately all logistics, is done by the Russian army. The latter now supports Wagner’s action. The paramilitaries cannot function without it. Not the day after tomorrow Wagner will be at the level of the Russian army.
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TV5MONDE: Does Wagner’s status as a private company allow its personnel to adopt practices that on the ground would be reprehensible to the Russian army?
Peer de Jong: Wagner is a mercenary, a militia, who places himself completely outside the law. Wagner’s behavior today is truly criminal and we can assume that the Russian army would not have done the same. However, the crimes in Boucha were committed by Russian soldiers. Therefore, criminal behavior is not limited to Wagner. Wagner is less a criminal entity than any Russian soldier.
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The big difference between the two armies is the recruitment system. Today, we consider that more than half of Wagner’s men were released from prison. This is the problem. Thugs, gangsters are equipped with guns and have the ability to do whatever they want with them.
That doesn’t make Wagner a bad business unit. Thinking that they are just gangsters and robbers is wrong. If that was all, they wouldn’t be able to take Soledar. This is a unit where you have a framework, a way of commanding and a lot of aggressiveness. They were not at all as barefoot as one might think.
Vladimir Putin put Wagner and the Russian army in competition for results. That is why Wagner really needed to prove that he had captured the Ukrainian city of Soledar.Peer de Jong, former Troupes de Marine colonel, war school diploma and doctor of political science
TV5MONDE: Has Vladimir Putin officially recognized Wagner’s private paramilitary company?
Peer de Jong: Vladimir Putin decorated Dmitri Utkin with the Order of Courage (editor’s note: co-founder of Wagner, in 2014, former member of GRU, General Directorate of Military Intelligence of Russia, dismissed in 2016). It was an acknowledgment of Wagner’s power, of the fact that it was operational.
Yevgeny Prigojine also has the right to criticize the Russian army. He has repeatedly said about the Russian army that it is not fast enough, operational, etc. By saying this, he immediately attacked Sergei Shoigu, Minister of Defense of Russia and Valery Gerasimov, who belongs to the Shoigu system. This position, Vladimir Putin does not deny. This meant that he had accepted this competition.
When Berlin was about to be recaptured in 1945, Stalin created a rivalry between Georgy Zhukov and the other generals. One went south, the other east. The principle is as follows: the best of the two wins. This is a Soviet technique, where an emulation is created between two characters, two structures. This is what Vladimir Putin is doing now. He showed that he is today’s Stalin, in his behavior, the way he looked at Russia.
Even if the respective means were unequal, it placed Wagner and the Russian army in competition for results. That is why Wagner really needed to prove that he had captured the Ukrainian city of Soledar. When the paramilitaries announced this, the Russians immediately denied this, saying the town had not been completely taken. But Evgueni Prigojine was there, photographed in the salt mine… Today we can consider Soledar taken, even if the Ukrainians might not accept it. Unofficially, it’s Wagner’s work, there’s no denying it. The Russian army doesn’t talk about it too much anymore because it has to work.
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TV5MONDE: How are Wagner’s troops distributed on the field? How could they win the battle by being outnumbered by the Russian army?
Peer de Jong: Wagner can only act on one site at a time. If tomorrow, an attack was launched on Zaporijjia by the Ukrainians, it would be the Russian troops who would be there. Wagner was able to strengthen a second time. But it only operates on the forehead. The infantry and infantry sections are represented by Wagner and are currently on the front line between Bakhmout and Soledar.