Those who have followed the news from Russia’s War against Ukraine, will be familiar by now with the name of a special Russian military unit, involved in the most atrocious war crimes – the Wagner Group (Gruppa Wagnera, its Russian name).
The Wagner Group was founded by a former member of the Spetsnaz (special unit) of the Russian Military Secret Service (GRU), Dmitriy Valeryevich Utkin. It is a paramilitary organization which first appeared in the Ukraine in 2014, participating in the annexation of the Crimea and the fighting of the separatists in the Donbas and Luhansk regions. After 24 February 2022, during the first days of Russia’s full-fledged war against Ukraine, some 400 members of the Wagner group are said to have tried to kill President Volodymyr Zelensky and Kiev’s Major Vitali Klitschko, both the symbols of Ukraine’s resistance.
The group has also been involved in Russia’s campaign in Syria since 2015, where it engaged in supporting the Assad regime in its civil war against opposing factions as well as against the ‘Islamic State’ (IS). In 2021 the International Federation for Human Rights helped to file a suit against Wagner Group fighters, alleging they were responsible for a “murder committed with extreme cruelty”, committed in 2017. In Libya the Group violated the UN arms embargo by laying land mines and improvised explosive devices in civilian areas in and around the capital Tripoli.
The Wagner Group also engaged in various other African countries. Several non-governmental organizations accused the Group of severe human rights abuses in Mali. Other deployments have been reported from the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Madagascar. On 29 July 2018 three Russian journalists from St. Petersburg during their ‘private’ mission to investigate the involvement of the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic were killed. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the Russian and local authorities to conduct a thorough investigation – of no avail. There are good reasons to believe that this was a thoroughly planned and executed contract killing. (The local car driver managed to escape the assault unharmed, while the three Russians were killed from numerous bullets.)
Today the Group has a strength of some 50,000 relatively highly paid mercenaries. Its weapons supplies are said to have been bought, amongst others, from North Korea.
The Wagner Group’s mission has always been to support embattled leaders to keep them in power, while at the same time making money by getting access to precious raw materials (diamonds, gold, oil, gas etc.) and thereby gaining and securing political influence for Russia’s leader.
In September 2022, after years of denial, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close links to Putin, claimed that he had founded this paramilitary unit. Prigozhin, a convicted criminal, became acquainted with Putin in the early 1990’s in St. Petersburg. As the owner of several restaurants, where the Russian President repeatedly dined with illustrious Western guests, including the Presidents of the USA (Bush Jr.) and France (Chirac), he gained the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’. During the last decade Prigozhin’s Wagner Group has gained the status as a special unit to fulfil the Russian President’s most demanding wishes.
Why does this Russian paramilitary group carry the name of the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-83)? The link – incredible but true – is Adolf Hitler and his SS (‘Schutzstaffel’ or ‘Protective Echelon’), founded in 1925, which acted as his personal body guard and later executed the ‘Führer’s’ goal to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population. The photo of Dmitry Utkin, reproduced above, shows the insignia of the SS on his body, as well as the ‘Imperial Eagle’, the badge of the ‘Reichswehr’, Hitler’s army. Obviously, Utkin is an admirer of the German fascist leader and his creation of the most atrocious military unit, the SS.
But still, why the name of Wagner?
This composer, who created famous operas like the ‘Flying Dutchman’, ‘Lohengrin’, and ‘The Ring’, was also a writer. In his ‘Jewry in Music’ (‘Das Judenthum in der Musik’), published first anonymously (1850), he explained his hatred against the “Jewish race” and concluded his pamphlet with a veiled call for their “extermination”. Hitler since his early years in Linz (Austria) was an ardent admirer of Wagner’s operas, but not only of the music and scenic presentation, but also of their hidden content. Wagner not only wanted to create music but also to instil his fierce nationalistic and violent anti-semitic feelings in his German audience.
One can only speculate what moved a Russian Secret Service member to adopt the name of this German composer, but it seems obvious: hyper nationalism and the fantasies of extermination of enemies. Could antisemitism also be a reason? It should be noted that, both President Zelensky and Major Klitschko are of Jewish heritage. As far as is known to this writer, the Russian propaganda has never mentioned this aspect. Yet, since the pogroms of the late 1890s and particularly during Stalin’s rule, anti-semitism has been a significant feature of the Soviet-Russian society.
Putin’s ‘chef’, Prigozhin, adopted the model of Hitler’s SS to serve his master most effectively. Therefore, it would not be far-fetched to equate Prigozhin with Heinrich Himmler, and to call Putin the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler.