While Putin's Russia is often portrayed as a strong state with a highly professionalized military, in recent years Russia has also increasingly used informal, semi-state security forces both at home and abroad. This paper is an in-depth case-study, using primarily Russian Sources, of Russia's use of the Wagner Group and its antecedents (from 2012-2018) in Nigeria, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. The goal is to understand why Russia has made the choice to use this group without legalizing its existence or role. Four possibilities are explored: that Russia is acting like any other strong state using private military companies; that Russia is following the historical-institutional path of its Cossack past; that Putin is coup-proofing; and that the Russian state is falling hostage to private criminal interests that distort its security operations. Understanding the Wagner group is interesting for comparative academic studies of private military companies (PMCs), because Wagner doesn't fit well any existing PMC category of template in the literature. It's also crucial for U.S. and allied policy analysts attempting to attribute "Russian" actions in foreign theaters.
Kimberly Marten is a professor and the chair of the political science department at Barnard College (where she held the 5-year term Ann Whitney Olin Professorship from 2013-18), and directs the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. She is a frequent media commentator, and appeared on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. She earned her undergraduate degree at Harvard and Ph.D. at Stanford. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.