The Wagnerization of Political Order fighter in Syria

On August 23rd, 2023, a sudden explosion ripped through the private Embraer jet of Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Russian mercenary organization Wagner Group. The blast severed its left wing, and the jet immediately entered a lethal tailspin. Just moments later, Prigozhin and his most important lieutenants were dead. Many speculate that it was an assassination by the Russian government in response to his failed rebellion against Moscow a few months before. At the funeral of the mercenary leader and his second-in-command, a poem by Joseph Brodsky was displayed in eulogy. The call went: “Are you my son or are you my God?” The response went: “Dead or alive…it makes no difference.” The spirit of Wagner flew on.

Those who read Prigozhin’s biography are often surprised that this sort of man could have formed a mercenary organization strong enough to challenge its own government. He began his career as a brazen petty thief in Russia’s chaotic 1990s and then became a penal colony zek. Between his release and his oligarch days, he did a stint as a hotdog salesman. He made his real fortune by staking bets on commercial properties, like grocery stores and casinos. It was at a restaurant he owned in St. Petersburg that he first met Vladimir Putin, who at the time was hosting U.S. President George Bush.

During the early 2010s, the Russian government began experimenting with private-public partnerships in military affairs. Prigozhin, who was already providing rations for the army, founded Wagner Group in 2013. The private military company mainly saw action in Libya, Syria, and several African countries, where it fought ISIS and orchestrated coups. After the war in Ukraine began, Wagner debuted with an effective offensive near Popasna. In preparation for the siege of Bakhmut, Prigozhin personally flew to prisons across Russia, assembling an assault force of 50,000 prisoners to spearhead the assault. Eventually, longstanding disputes with senior officials in the Russian army and dissatisfaction over how the war was being run in Moscow reached a boiling point. Prigozhin embarked on a “March for Justice” to Moscow to capture its military leadership and seek an audience with Putin. Its failure would eventually culminate in his death.

Prigozhin was the only type of person who could have founded an organization as unconventional as Wagner, which grew to be far more than a mercenary company at its peak. For a moment, it was an alternative cultural institution that operated a complex media empire, and it was even poised to supersede Russia’s army in influence. But throughout that time, it relied on the Russian state to provision its resources even as it grew increasingly autonomous from the state.

The same systemic chaos that made Prigozhin’s unconventional career possible also made Wagner itself possible. The Russian state’s inability to provide resources and coordination opened a window for him to carve out a fiefdom that could surpass the capacities of the state itself in its domain. These conditions are at an advanced stage in Russia, but they are not peculiar to it. “Wagnerization” may lie in the West’s future as well.

The Power Vertical

In the first year of the war, at the height of the media buzz about Prigozhin recruiting from penal colonies, I called up an old friend living in a part of Russia that sends a lot of men to the front. He had around a dozen friends and acquaintances who were in the army. While a few had been mobilized, the rest were volunteers who “would have fought for free.” It’s a common enough type in his circles.

He mentioned that some of them were considering leaving the army to join Wagner. When asked why, my friend said that the equipment, training, and provisions were better than those of the army itself, which is notoriously bad at meeting its own logistical standards. The Russian army felt like a big machine that could take in coherent instructions and competent personnel, and then spit out a complete mess. Wagner’s informal and personal structure meant problems could be addressed directly in real-time by Prigozhin’s lieutenants or by the man himself. Wagner paid better, and unlike the army, it always paid on time.

It makes sense that a private military company like Wagner would rise to prominence in a place like Russia. Emerging from the chaos of the 1990s, the country’s new elite was mostly comprised of entrepreneurs willing to get their hands dirty to acquire economic resources and political power. Mercenary companies exist in the West, too, but are usually the projects of ex-soldiers. Prigozhin founded Wagner with no military experience.

In retrospect, the lack of military background was probably an asset for his success. Career military men are often unused to building power in the civilian world, which limits their imagination when it comes to what else a semi-autonomous military company can do. Erik Prince, the most famous mercenary founder in recent U.S. history, ended his own military career early after deciding that his talents could be better used outside the U.S. Navy SEALs.

Prigozhin relied on his business sense, which led him to leverage his resources and political clout to form many other useful projects beneath the Wagner umbrella. After the beginning of the war, this enabled him to found the Wagner Center, a “start-up incubator” in St. Petersburg that provides free rent to founders and researchers aiming to benefit the state’s defense industry in some capacity. The campus is also a cultural center that hosts art exhibitions and Twitch streamers. Since the crackdown, its future is now uncertain.

Once it acquired a multipurpose headquarters, Wagner ceased to be only a mercenary outfit and started becoming a parapolitical organization. Across the developed world, these often take the form of dissident movements; European equivalents include the Italian neo-fascist group CasaPound, with its twenty-year squatting operation in the heart of Rome, and the gyms and bookstores of Azov Battalion, Wagner’s closest Ukrainian analog. While these organizations are capable of creating high cohesion by attracting people from radical political circles, military backgrounds, and subcultures to their ranks, that’s exactly what causes them to fail electorally when they morph into parliamentary parties.

By sourcing his weaponry from the Kremlin while maintaining his own separate recruiting pipeline from the Russian army, Prigozhin grew increasingly autonomous from the state even as he remained subsidized by it. This is the essence of Wagnerization: using the power of state patronage to feed and legitimize your own corporate body until it can exist independently from it.

The Wagner Center took the mercenary company out of the PMC domain and made it the armed wing of an NGO. This is because it situated Wagner in the cultural sphere as it expanded its media operations. People became familiar with Prigozhin’s pugnacious Telegram voice messages that criticized the anemic Russian war effort, Wagner’s feature-length movies, and a temple for fallen soldiers replete with relics taken from the PMC’s time in Syria as if it was the Knights Templar. This is why people in Rostov were cheering them on in the aftermath of their “March for Justice.” Being useful to the government is what provided a group like Wagner its autonomy, and that autonomy eventually made it popular—and dangerous.

While any mercenary company can be used to create plausible deniability when securing oil wells or mines in distant places, the discreet nature of these groups is precisely what makes them prone to expanding into activities beyond their initial purpose—a trait they share with intelligence agencies and criminal enterprises. They may even interface with each other; in Libya, Wagner at one point was in talks with its U.S. counterpart Blackwater to procure weapons.

Wagner has been neutralized in Russia for now. But Putin and his allies will need to rely on alternative mobilization measures akin to Wagner to continue the war. The complexity of mobilization and industrial war, the overlap in rights and responsibilities between many bureaucratic fiefdoms within the state, and Russia’s entrenched corruption make that necessary. The Russian oil and gas magnate Gazprom Neft, for example, has formed its own security wing, and photos have circulated of its members volunteering in Ukraine. Similar groups have been formed by Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. Wagner was just the bleeding edge of the Kremlin’s increasing reliance on such organizations. As the mandate of state-adjacent corporations increases to fulfill increasingly complex tasks, the form they take on will make it increasingly fraught for the state to police them.

Wagner arose in the profoundly deactivated, inert political environment of Putin’s Russia. These are the conditions under which independent actors gain leverage over a state whose institutions are hollowed out and atrophied. But the outsourcing of state capacity to semi-autonomous organizations is just an advanced version of a dynamic that is beginning to occur in the West, too.

Wagnerization, Not Balkanization

The failure of domestic institutions is becoming more noticeable in the U.S, too. Even if state capacity in coordinating services seems to have declined since the 1970s, the funding of infrastructure projects, schools, policing, and military technology has kept increasing. Over 50 percent of all American taxes fund welfare and healthcare programs that massively underdeliver relative to the amount of resources put in. Much of the U.S. economy originates from some kind of dole or another.

Administrative and regulatory costs prevent timely, cost-effective success, and it is not likely this situation can be fixed through anything short of a “refounding moment” similar in scope to the New Deal. But this would require a high degree of political capital that no single faction in the U.S. possesses. Much like in Russia, the ruling political cliques of the United States formed decades ago.

Meanwhile, the actual power of the state to police social dissent has never been greater, and it is common for social policies that originate in the state to percolate into the corporate sphere through carrot-and-stick measures or “nudging.” The political violence that was common in the 1970s or even the 1950s is basically unheard of today, even if domestic terror threats are commonly invoked as a national security priority. The power of the state to protect its own interests remains unchanged; it is merely the services it provides that have declined.

In the U.S., private-sector responses already occur. Expanded projects like executive health programs that bypass the regular healthcare system or community-wide private security are not logistically hard. It isn’t unimaginable that someday, entire structures outside the U.S. government will emerge to provision more complex needs like education, mass healthcare, and even defense. At this larger scale, private bureaucracies and contractors can become increasingly autonomous and vertically integrated while maintaining a working relationship with the powers that be.

In high-functioning societies, enterprising people are able to do their work within established institutions. But as the vast material flows of state power stall up and become lethargic, state institutions tend to balkanize into many fiefdoms ripe for innovative parapolitical strategy. While an “American Prigozhin” may be out of the question for now, the key question for the U.S. is who is capable of redirecting these flows.

There are two vectors of proto-Wagnerization that currently exist in the U.S. political landscape: an aspiring entrepreneurial elite and a sprawling network of government agencies that enforce the rule of law.

After the end of the Cold War, the technological innovation that traditionally occurred in government-supported labs shifted toward private industry. In the U.S., the most recent advances in fields sensitive to national security, like artificial intelligence and spaceflight, have come from startups. This means that the founders behind these projects maintain some degree of leverage over the state, and sometimes not in a small way.

The story of Elon Musk’s deployment of Starlink to Ukraine is a recent example. Musk’s satellite network provided Ukraine’s military with secure communications, making its war effort possible. But the billionaire still has the final say on whether Starlink is used at all, and because the U.S. government has no matching capabilities of its own, at times it will have to cooperate with the foreign policy of Elon Musk. This came into play recently when Musk denied service to a Ukrainian attack on Crimea that would have relied on Starlink for its success.

The personality traits underlying the actions of founders like Musk are usually quite similar: disenchantment with the state paired with their own ambitious ideological vision. Insofar as greed motivates such people, it is to burn cash for a greater project. Sometimes their interests and those of the state will converge for a limited window of time. In that case, private individuals or organizations can serve as vehicles to launder state interests, or at least the interests of factions within it.

In 2019, the Trump administration announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, alarming State Department circles intent on warding off Russian and Iranian influence in the region. In order to circumvent Trump’s order, they sought to grant wildcat American miners access to Syrian oil fields, as their business activity would justify the presence of U.S. troops. U.S. foreign policy became a battleground for several opposed power centers within the U.S. government. Although the miners were ultimately unsuccessful, this was largely due to a change in administration back in Washington.

The U.S. government’s ability to coordinate domestic messaging and policy during crisis moments is also running into problems. In 2020, when a collection of cities announced that they would not cooperate with the federal government in enforcing immigration laws, the Trump administration responded by deploying a heavily-armed border response team, BORTAC, to enforce crackdowns in sanctuary cities.

More politically-charged mobilizations were to follow. Later that year, during the Black Lives Matter protests and the siege of a federal courthouse in Portland, members of BORTAC were given the clear to round up suspected rioters without identifying themselves, before handing them off to overwhelmed local police. While the mayor of the city described it as an “unconstitutional occupation,” as a show of force deploying a Border Patrol unit in Oregon didn’t matter—there was an emergency that needed to be taken care of.

On the surface, a federal agency deployed to enforce a mandate or protect a federal building seems in legal order. But on the ground, each incident like this reveals cracks in the coherence and unitary authority of the U.S. government itself. Because these actions are almost always in the context of politically polarized emergencies, they cause fissures between different branches of government at the very moments when unified messaging and operations are most important. When these breaks in discipline occur with no serious repercussions, it becomes more likely that they will continue in the future.

If this dynamic continues to intensify, it will create a patchwork of organizations—and of powerful individuals within them—nakedly pursuing their own political strategies and ambitions. These are the conditions that could bring about American Wagnerization. In this scenario, political patronage and power relations between the strongest patrons become more important and openly acknowledged than the legal technicalities of the state. In the case of Wagner, the relationship with Putin and his allies mattered far more than formal Russian law, under which private military companies were actually illegal.

In such a landscape, the battles between different factions grow to resemble a turf war, not a civic process, and the strict distinction between state and non-state organizations disappears. The motivations and interests of the power brokers begin to matter far more than the vehicles through which they are expressed, and they operate with no reference to the collective public or state interests that were previously invoked to justify political action. This is a semi-feudal dynamic, where power is more naked and more personal than a strong modern state could ever tolerate.

Wagnerized institutions are capable of mobilizing men on the streets, brainwashing or bribing their way into covert political power, and administering their own territory according to their own rules. The optimal strategy in these conditions is one of political arbitrage: finding unusual solutions to common problems, even if it means breaking taboos about the public-private distinction. Any wealth such groups amass is a byproduct of their political power.

A certain degree of Wagnerization may even be a more healthy outcome for the American political fabric than further stagnation. Prigozhin’s “March For Justice” isn’t a desirable end state, but it is far from the only possibility. Political fiefdoms can also arise in periods when a state undergoes aggressive institutional renewal. The FDR years, for example, saw Vannevar Bush carve out bureaucratic strongholds like the Office of Scientific Research and Development to great effect, giving him the ability to run initiatives like the Manhattan Project.

At this stage, Wagnerization remains an early hypothesis about the political future, not an established fact. But it is a far more likely scenario than the reinvigoration of America’s vanished civic body, a second civil war, a “national divorce,” or territorial balkanization. The U.S. may be polarized and organizationally dysfunctional, but the ruling regime is still extremely powerful and has no realistic competitors or usurpers. In such an environment, the most useful political strategy is to carve out spaces of power and control rather than pursuing formal separatism, large-scale conflict, or attempting reform of the entire structure. This spurs the process of Wagnerization.

Those who control powerful institutions and the loyalty of large numbers of people in chaotic times will be well-poised to impose their own political narratives and ideologies, something Prigozhin began to do through his media work. Wagnerization is made up of a thousand miniature refoundings of the civic order. However, as the Prigozhin example shows, start-up governance will be uniquely vulnerable to its own leadership. Like actual startups, the fate of any political faction is determined by the carrying force of the leader’s boldness, disagreeability, and overconfidence. The right gambles can result in huge gains, while the wrong one can bring complete destruction.

Alexander Gelland is Contributing Editor at Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @alexgelland.