Even though many outlets have moved on different topics, the fallout from the Wagner Group’s attempted rebellion is still relevant and unclear. Ever since the Wagner Group stood down, it appears they have still been given respect by the Kremlin. This follows the Wagner PMC leader Yevgeny Prigohzin meeting with Putin along with 35 of Wagner’s top commanders, Prigohzin being seen freely moving through St. Petersburg, and the alleged rumors that the Chief of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov has been deposed of his role of supervising Russias invasion into Ukraine.
Another important mystery is the whereabouts of several high-ranking Russian officials in the military, namely Commander-in-Chief of Russia’s Aerospace Forces Sergey Surovikin. Nobody has confirmed his arrest, but he has not been seen in public since the coup attempt and recently missed his wife’s birthday.
However, in the information blackout, it is important to look at the root cause of the conflict. Many outlets speculate it is Prigohzin’s personal frustration with the Russian MoD for not supplying ample ammunition to Wagner’s forces, but Wagner had grievances with the Russian MoD before the war began. Before assisting in invading Ukraine, Wagner was primarily known for its operations within Africa, and its operations within Syria. While Wagner’s deployments are painted as successes, it is much murkier in reality. In fact, much of Wagner’s grievances towards the MoD stem from Syria.
The date was March 15 2011. The Arab Spring was in full swing, calling for the resignation of many different leaders across the Middle East. This most notably resulted in the resignation of Egypt’s strongman President Hosni Mubarak as well as the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
There were also many protests against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, whose father previously ruled Syria since the latter part of the 20th Century. He faced opposition over his brutal reign over Syria, which saw little economic progress and a lack of freedom. The protests were met in turn with violence in an attempt to suppress them, but this then caused a full-fledged civil war in Syria between Assad and rebel groups, many of whom were Islamist. The rebel group’s primary backer was Turkey and Qatar, but the West also called for Assad’s removal (although they wanted a peaceful transition to power).
The civil war was at a standstill for a while, until September 30, 2015, when Russia decided to throw their troops in the fray and give Assad a much-needed boost. The support of Russian naval and air power helped pummel the rebels, with a slew of atrocities and human rights violations being recorded in the ensuing suppression. After turning the city to rubble, the Syrian Government was clearly in the lead after capturing all of the important city of Aleppo.
Wagner’s Early Role in Syria
Russia continued its presence in Syria, with a large component of the security being from the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, named after the German musician Richard Wagner (who was one of Hitler’s favorite musicians). This is also why the Wagner gGroup commonly refers to their members as “Musicians.” The Russian Ministry of Defense tried to pretend Wagner was not in Syria as private military companies are illegal in Russia, even though it was proven Wagner was in Syria after a rebel attack on one of their bases resulted in at least three and no more than nine Wagnerites being killed (the actual casualty number is still unclear).
Wagner’s primary interest, however was money. The New York Times reported that in 2017 the Kremlin established a policy that companies (through the help of PMC’s) that seized mines and oil and gas wells would get the oil and mining rights for that site. Two Russian companies took Russia up on this offer and employed Wagner to conduct security of their sites. By August 2017, it was reported that up to 7,000 Wagnerites were operating in Syria.
Wagner was given the role of doing what the Russian military was afraid to do; directly fight ISIS.
This started in 2017 during the “Palmyra Offensives” which involved wrestling control of the strategically placed city of Tadmur in central Syria. Wagner acted largely as cannon fodder but also helped the Syrian Army with artillery fire corrections, acted as advisors, and also used and provided heavy weaponry. The Palmyra offensives would be a success, and ISIS was continuing to lose ground in Syria, but Wagner would face much heavier casualties in the second offensive, largely due to the ramped-up use of ISIS suicide bombers and Wagner not being provided enough arms.
Wagner was given praise for its actions, but the honeymoon period of public perception would be stifled by Wagner’s war crimes being discovered.
In the early days of July in 2017 a video circulated of Wagnerities mutilating a body near Palmyra. It was claimed the victim was an operative of ISIS, but it later turned out to be Muhammad Abdullah al-Ismail, a Syrian Army soldier who was forcibly arrested and conscripted into the army. He later attempted desertion when Wagner captured and tortured him to death. In the video of his execution, a human head could be seen. The Russian MoD did not press action against the Wagnerities despite the real soldier’s identity being discovered, and a lawsuit from human rights organizations did not change anything. The main consequence was the disgust of Wagner from many, and Wagner’s founder Dmitry Utkin was sanctioned by the European Union for allegedly approving the execution.
Despite the bad publicity, many in Syria and Russia still approved of Wagner’s actions, including General Sergey Surovikin. Surovikin was gifted the role of being the Commander of the Armed Forces in Syria, a role he was credited with executing well. One characteristic of Surovokin was his particular liking of Wagner. Surovikin even became an honorary Wagner member in 2017. Surovikin’s successes led to his being promoted to Commander of the Aerospace Forces in 2017, a role he did not want.
Despite Surovokin and several other high-ranking Russian MoD officials approving of Wagner, they were still given minimal support. One issue for Wagner was the consistent lack of support from the Russian Air Force, which often times failed to provide adequete air support.
All of the misgivings that Wagner and the MoD reached a boiling point in 2018.
“On February 7, 2018, one of the biggest open military clashes between Russia and the US in the last century took place. There were and are many rumors and even legends about it, but until now, it has not been talked about openly” – The Wagner-affiliated Grey Zone Telegram Channel.
For years, the Russian perspective and Wagner’s perspective of the Battle of Al Khasham was still unclear, but an insider take from Wagner soldiers on the ground has recently debuted this year (before the coup attempt). However, much of the chaos in the region came before Russia even entered the conflict. However it is still important to look at the battles history and what exactly led to the battle from occurring, which was a windy turn of events that culiminated for years.
In 2012 amid the fight against Assad, key infrastructure facilities became more lucrative, with oil and gas wells being a major point of contention.
Much of Syria’s oil wells are in the sparsely populated eastern governorates, and the rebels desperately wanted a foothold on the country’s output which was obtaining 200,000 barrels of oil worth every day.
In 2012 the Free Syrian Army (rebels) launched attacks on the few remaining outposts the Syrian Armed Forces controlled. This was easy for the FSA as all the main roads were under their control. This led to several battles for the outposts, many of which were located near oil wells. In November of 2012, the SAF vacated more positions, and the eastern governorates became heavily controlled by the rebels.
Most of the focus was on the governorate of Deir ez-Zor. The rebels controlled around 2/3 of the governorate by the start of 2013. Assads forces maintained strongholds, including roughly half of the regional capital of Deir ez-Zor (rebel group controlled the other half). This standstill continued until 2014 when a new threat arose, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq-ISIS).
In the spring of 2014, ISIL moved into several oil sites in the region and took over a large swath of villages. Eventually, it was reported that ISIL controlled everything but Deir ez-Zor itself and the nearly military airport. ISIL led an oppressive campaign, with ethnic cleansing being common.
ISIL would control practically the entire countryside until a new force came in, the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF is a coalition of ethnic minorities in north and eastern Syria, with a large percentage comprising of Kurdish, Arab, Chechen and Armenian forces. The SDF was provided a huge boost by the U.S., helping their offensive to recapture ISIL-held territory. There is controversy within NATO regarding the group as there have been some links between the SDF and the PKK (a Kurdish nationalist group that supports a part of Turkey becoming a Kurdish state, infuriating Turkey – a NATO member). This has led to friction, with 2023 even seeing U.S. military personnel nearby a Turkish-delivered airstrike on SDF forces.
With minimal NATO support, the U.S. was the primary backer of the SDF and helped them score several victories. Russia was also in Syria at this point and led a large offensive that helped Assad’s army capture all of Deir ez-Zor on November 3rd 2017, and capture ISIL’s last stronghold two weeks later. The city recapture was in large part from Wagner who did most of the work on the ground, with the MoD providing air support and some level of ground support. ISIL attempted an insurgency the next year, but it was quashed (mainly by the SDF).
With ISIL gone, the main forces in the region were the U.S.-backed SDF, and the Russia-backed SAF. However, in 2017, the U.S. announced its intention to continue to weaken the SAF in an attempt to gain leverage from the Syrian Government into concessions at the Geneva Talks that year. A key proponent of the continued action was President Donald Trump’s Secretary of State at the time, Rex Tillerson.
A key infrastructure facility was the Conoco Oil Fields. The site was interesting as ISIL vacated the site without a huge battle. Both sides vied for control, but the SDF had gotten the upper hand in securing the site. This not only displeased Assad, but it also displeased Russia, who wanted to profit from the oil. This particular infuriated Prigohzin, who on February 22nd, 2018, had a call intercepted by the U.S. between him and senior Syrian officials saying he was given the go-ahead for a “fast and strong” move by an unnamed Russian minister, and it was only the Syrian Government holding up the operation. The Syrian Government would go on to give Prighozin the green light to attack while he simultaneously was indicted by a grand jury in the District of Columbia for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. This may have given Prigohzin an extra push to go all-out with the attack.
On the night of February 7, 2018, a force of roughly 500 soldiers attacked the Conoco Oil Field. Many of the fighters were Wagnerites, but there was also a large amount of militiaman from local groups sympathetic to Iran and forces from the Syrian Army (Assad’s). According to the Wagner report on Telegram the plan was to storm the facility so the SDF would be overwhelmed and Wagner would be close enough that the U.S. would not be able to perform airstrikes without risking damage to the site. Furthermore the soldier said, “Our air defence and air force (Russian Air Force) were to provide support and cover, at least that was what the side of these same “allied forces” declared.”
The report added after, “Just before midnight of February 7-8, the detachments began their mission. Equipment and infantry went in. The artillery started to work.”
The attack began with a barrage of artillery on the SDF’s base, but the shells all missed the headquarters. The attacking force was also provided with lower-tier Russian tanks and mortars.
This led to an immediate call between the U.S. and the Russian liaison officer of Deir ez-Zor, who gave a different tone than Wagner thought. The officer assured the U.S. that Russia had no knowledge of the attack and that not a single Russian soldier was stationed there. This was a continuation of Russia using unofficial soldiers to carry out difficult tasks, such as the “little green men” who were alleged to be disaffected Ukrainians in Crimea, but it later turned out to contain many Russian intelligence officers and elite “Spetsnaz” members of the Russian Armed Forces. Just like in Crimea, by Wagner fighting instead of the Russian military, Russia could and did decide to take no responsibility for the attack.
After the assurances were given to the SDF that no Russian soldiers were involved in the attack, the coalition went all-out with an array of helicopters, fighter jets, B-52 bombers, and gunships from the air and attacked the ground forces via HIMARS (a medium-range multiple-launch rocket system).
There also seemed to be confusion among Wagner members with the new report saying, “Suddenly the column of the 5th assault squadron was hit from the sky and nobody even understood from where. In classic style, the enemy boxed in the column, destroying the leading and trailing vehicles. Why the column then lined up and stood up – I do not know.”
After MQ-9 Reaper Drones inspected the Wagner;s air defense (or lack of it) Apache attack helicopters swooped in and obliterated the attacking forces.
The SDF also worked to trap the forces with the Wagner combatant saying, “They set up a carousel around those trying to move back to the second line and simply shot at them with guided and unguided weapons as well as machine guns.”
The soldier would attest that F-16 fighter jets and an AC-130 flying gunship finished them off. In these moments it became apparent that Wagner was not going to emerge victorious, and that the discussed plan did not occur.
The fighting would go on for roughly four hours until the storming of the facility came to a halt. There were some sporadic airstrikes but the most intense fighting has ceased, mainly because the attacking force had been wiped out. The true casualty figures are unknown for the attacking side, but the Syrian Government claims fifty casualties, the U.S. claims around a hundred casualties, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recorded sixty-eight casualties. In addition Russian reports circulated that roughly 200 soldiers were wounded, but that number is even murkier.
“The guys from the Karpaty detachment would later tell us that in the morning you could find melted sand and gun barrels bent under the heat of combustion” the telegram report said.
The report also added that a Wagner, “Ural [truck] was simply squashed together like a chocolate bar crushed in a fist.”
Was Wagner Betrayed?
While the SAF column was being destroyed there was an active Russian aviation fleet just a few kilometers away. It was understood by Wagner that the Russian Air Force would provide them air support, with the base nearby being where the Russian aviation would take off from.
This did not occur, with the Telegram channel alleging, “It is said that a couple of pilots tried to get permission to take off, but they were refused. True or not, there is such a rumor.”
While that is a rumor, it is a fact thew Russian Air Force provided no support with active support or even passive support (providing intelligence to troops on the ground).
An issue for the attacking column was their movements was already known, with the U.S. watching the column from a surveillance drone from twenty kilometers away. With the U.S. avoiding an ambush the main advantage the SAF-column would have was eradicated. The advanced preparation for the invading forces combined with the U.S. pressing the Russian MoD likely resulted in the MoD trying to absolve responsibility by denying they were involved.
Another issue was the attack’s logistics. The battle took place at night and the invading forces were not provided with high-quality night vision equipment. The path was also difficult, with many roads being damaged and obstacles being scattered about. This provided the SDF even more time in not only preparing but also attacking.
In addition to the Grey Zone report, Yevegeny Prigohzin also unleashed a rant against Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu regarding the battle. Prigohzin reiterated the Telegram’s claims of Russia having prior knowledge of the attack, and mentioned how the U.S. requested the Russian MoD to remove their units from the areas before a retaliatory attack, in to which the MoD replied they had no Russian soldiers there. Prigohzin also said that the MoD complied with a U.S. request to shut down all air defense systems, giving coalition forces complete air superiority in the battle.
As for the response from Russia there was largely static. Despite Wagner training on Russian military bases, being provided weaponry by the Russian MoD, and as Putin later admitted being financed by the Russian Government the MoD was firm in doubling down about their lack of involvement.
Many Russian officials did not provide a comment, with one of the most prominent officials discussing the matter being no more than a member of the Duma (parliament).
“The actions of the U.S. coalition do not comply with legal norms, beyond all doubt it is aggression,” Franz Klintsevich was quoted as saying.
The incident started the rift of mistrust between Wagner and the MoD that would spiral into the March of Justice. This rift would get deprioritized when the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, with attention being diverted to more urgent matters. However the war in Ukraine would reignite this fire.
Off the bat Yevgeny Prigohzins tone on the war was different than most other officials in Russia. He was notable for making more realistic statements about the state of the war, with him admitting defeat (even overexagerating their defeat at times). He also did the rare step of praising President Zelensky with him last fall saying, “Although he is the president of a country hostile to Russia at the moment, Zelensky is a strong, confident, pragmatic, and nice guy.”
Wagner gained notriety by assisting in the Russian capture of Donbas cities such as Severedonetsk and Popasna. This earned Prigohzin goodwill with Putin, which helped ebb concerns by Shoigu of Prigohzin. Wagner;s victories also helped cement it’s good standing with General Surovikin, who was in charge of the “special military operation” for the beginning portions of the battle for Bakhmut. When Surovikin was dismissed, Wagner lost clout within the MoD as Gerasimov was much less supportive of Wagner than his predecessor.
Despite this, Wagner’s long-fought victory for the city of Bakhmut helped Wagner get discussed as one of the best-performing Russian units. After Bakhmut things would change, with the battle itself starting it.
A key theme throughout the battle for Bakhmut was Wagner’s “lack” of supplies, with Prigohzin frequently making public pleas for more ammunition for Wagner forces.
These videos reached a boiling point in May when Prigohzin filmed himself at night in a Wagner cemetery with him proceeding to scream in an expletive-laced rant against the Russian Defense Ministry.
“You scumbags are sitting in expensive clubs; your children are enjoying life and making YouTube videos,” he continued. “You think you are the masters of this life and that you have the right to control their lives. You think that if you have ammunition depots then you have the right to them.”
After this video surfaced Prigohzin announced Wagner was provided ample ammunition. He also appeared to be medning ties with his adversaries, with a meeting between him and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadryov helping thaw out bad blood between them.
That would change after Bakhmut. The MoD got increasingly alarmed with Prigohzin and saw him as a liability. Despite the MoDs mistrust Wagner still had the backing of Putin and many members of the Russian military. Nevertheless these plans pressed forward, with the MoD forcing all PMC’s to sign contracts with the Russian MoD. This infuriated Prigohzin who ramped up his rhetoric once more.
This may of been the straw that broke the camel’s back, with Prigohzin releasing a video of him behind a likely-staged scene of an attack on a Wagner base from the, “rear.” He continued that there would be retribution, and it was reported shortly after a Wagner convoy was pressing towards Russia.
It was reported the same day by Wagner sources that Shoigu was in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don to work to have the Wagner PMC cease to exist, but no official evidence has circulated about this.
It is still unknown what the Wagner Group’s true intentions were. The plan was allegedly to kidnap Shoigu and Gerasimov and work to have Wagner have a bigger say at the Ministry of Defense. It is even rumored Prigohzin wanted a position within the MoD, and that he expected minimal resistance for the plan.
It is becoming more apparent that a good portion of the ammunition Prigohzin demanded for Bakhmnut turned out to go to secret piles that Wagner could lose for a later event. This was not largely reported, with the MoD only believing the equipment would go to fighting Ukranian forces. It is largely assumed Wagners’ convoy had some equipment and ammunition that was provided for them in Bakhmut.
It has been reported that the Russian FSB knew about the plot around 48-hours beforehand and made prepartions, thwarting the element of surprise. That adds to the complexity of the situation as it was reported Wagner faced no resistance crossing the border or marching to Rostov, only facing sporadic air assaults.
It is also unclear why Wagner members including Prigohzin are still free to move around Moscow, and why no high-profile arrests have been made. A rumor circulated online of August 5th being the date Wagner returns to Ukraine, but this is just a rumor.
Nevertheless this was a conflict that was born before Ukraine, with Wagner members having strong grievances about what happened at Al Khasham. The battle is also important to study as it was the only time Russian forces and U.S. forces directly battled in decades.