Putin Admits to Funding the Wagner Group: Implications for Russia’s State Responsibility

The Russian State paid more than 86 billion rubles, which is almost one billion dollars, to the Wagner Group from May 2022 to May 2023. President Putin added that he wants everyone to know and understand that the Russian State fully funded the maintenance of the entire Wagner Group, denying any knowledge or involvement in it years later.

If the previous stance of the Kremlin towards PMC is considered in the light of Putin’s revelation, it can only be fully appreciated. When members of the Wagner Group, a PMC, were attacked by U.S. Forces in Syria in February 2018, Moscow denied all knowledge of their activities. Later that year, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that there were no PMCs in Russia. In response to a UN Human Rights Council report alleging Wagner’s involvement in the commission of war crimes in the Central African Republic, Russia denied any association with Russian citizens acting under private contracts and denied any involvement in the war crimes.

Putin acknowledged that various payments have been made to Wagner personnel and their families from Russia’s federal budget. Additionally, for the first time since Wagner’s establishment, Putin admitted that the Kremlin fully funds and supplies the PMC to support this claim. As a result, President Putin now asserts that Prigozhin lied about the Wagner Group’s independence from the Kremlin and the absence of State compensation for Wagner’s personnel. Moscow has initiated an information campaign to restore Putin’s authority and discredit Yevgeny Prigozhin in response to the Wagner Group’s brief rebellion on June 23-24, indicating a shift in the Kremlin’s narrative.

The analysis of how Putin’s announcement of a change in light may now be attributed to the conduct of Wagner Group, which considers the breach of LOAC on the grounds of its personnel across the globe. This announcement has legal implications, particularly on Russia’s responsibility for the many armed violations of LOAC committed by Wagner’s armed personnel. It remains to be seen whether this admission will assist the Kremlin in portraying Prigozhin as a liar or whether it will succeed in destroying his reputation. However, the announcement’s impact on Russia’s reputation and the attempts of the Kremlin to portray Prigozhin as a liar will depend on how it is perceived.

Is the Wagner Group an official entity of the Russian government?

At the time of writing, it remains uncertain what the future holds for the group Wagner following their short-lived mutiny. Reports indicate that fighters who previously had the choice to join the Russian army or flee to Belarus will now become part of the State organs as the Ministry of Defense of Russia, meaning they will enter into contracts with them. Additionally, it is indicated that the PMC will be disbanded.

After Putin’s declaration, we have gained additional information regarding that actual connection. Section 4 of the Articles on State Responsibility (ASR) by the International Law Commission asserts that a non-governmental entity can be considered a State organ depending on its actual connection with the State, rather than its classification under national law. Although Russia’s national legislation does not designate the Wagner Group as a State organ, despite the acknowledged substantial assistance provided by the Kremlin to the Private Military Company (PMC), the inquiry persists as to whether the Wagner Group meets the criteria to be considered a Russian State organ.

The recent announcement by Putin indicating that Group Wagner, the military operations conducted by Russia, is completely dependent on the Kremlin for supplies and funding, is significant because it is the first time Russia acknowledges the high degree of dependence of Group Wagner. In the judgment of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Group Wagner can be equated to “organs of the State” and, ultimately, they are merely instruments provided by the State, as stated in the ICJ’s recent decision on the case of the Bosnian Genocide (para. 391-394). The ICJ considers this de facto status as an organ of the State.

The State is ascribable to the behavior of all its members when functioning in their official role, signifying that the Wagner Group meets the criteria as a de facto State entity of Russia. Nevertheless, prudence is necessary prior to reaching a level of prudence being necessary.

The State Organ, known as Group Wagner, could be solely responsible for Russia’s conduct if the State de facto assigns them the relevant time commitment. It is likely that the existence of the group, and the extent of Russia’s dependence on it, would need to be considered when determining whether specific international law violations were committed at that time. Although it is likely that the PMC had a high degree of dependence on Russia for its entire existence, it is important to note that Group Wagner first emerged in 2014. In his statement, Putin referred to the funding of the PMC only since May 2022, which is referred to as the first reference.

Russia’s Group Wagner is not entirely accurate in characterizing it as completely dependent. For example, the government of Mali reportedly pays $10 million per month to support its operations in Africa, and the group also receives funding from other countries. Reports indicate that Group Wagner is not fully funded by Russia, as it draws funding from various sources, including business operations led by its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Despite the Kremlin’s narrative, the Second is now promoting it.

Based on this, it was not stated that their conduct was attributable to the State, and it was not meant that they were totally dependent on Serbia. Instead, leaders of the Bosnian Serbs had some qualified independence, but lacked real autonomy and were not considered mere instruments of the State. The ICJ concluded that the Bosnian Serbs were not de facto organs of the State, noting the exceptional nature of this status. The ICJ also referred to the requirement of complete dependence, but not only to the strict control by the State. The ICJ did not only refer to the requirement of complete dependence for the strict control by the State, but also the activities of the entity. The ICJ formulated the Third test to establish the stringent status of de facto organs of the State.

There is strong evidence to suggest that recent rebellion, operated by the Wagner Group, demonstrates its capacity for independent action and identity. However, relationships between Russian officials and the Wagner Group remain clouded in ambiguity, and it is abundantly clear that the group does not act under the control of the Kremlin. Even Putin now admits to providing considerable support to the PMC, despite the group’s proclaimed independence and autonomy. Stronger observations can be made regarding the Wagner Group’s behavior.

The Wagner Group is widely considered to be an unofficial State entity in Russia. Thus, any court or tribunal examining the situation would likely determine that the group’s affiliation with the State is not definite. The extent to which the court follows the ICJ’s ruling on the Bosnian Genocide would depend on this evaluation. The court would face challenges in concluding that the Wagner Group operates both with complete dependence on Russia and under the State’s strict control if it strictly applies the ICJ’s criteria. However, other factors, such as Russia’s involvement in establishing the PMC, its role in shaping the group’s strategy, and the crucial support it provides to Wagner’s operations through the Kremlin, could carry significant weight when considering the broader relationship. Perhaps, if the court were to apply the ICJ’s criteria with some flexibility, it could determine that despite the PMC’s significant autonomy, the Wagner Group functions as merely a tool of the Russian State, effectively making it a de facto organ of the State.

The relationship between the entity that operates the Wagner Group and the locations where it operates varies depending on the factual relationship. However, in Ukraine, the element that may qualify as a de facto State organ is likely to be viewed as separate entities that can be PMC’s. For example, in Africa, it may be harder to satisfy the test due to independent funding sources for PMC’s. Unlike PMC’s, the fighters deployed in Ukraine by Wagner Group are not recruited from prisons and are commercially motivated.

Does the Wagner Group have the authorization to carry out governmental duties on behalf of Russia?

The legality of PMCs in Russia is questionable due to the provisions in the country’s constitution (Articles 13(5) and 71) and criminal code (Article 359). Therefore, it is uncertain whether the Wagner Group meets the additional condition of acting in accordance with domestic laws. The International Law Commission has established the rule of attribution, which includes this requirement. However, the tasks performed by the Wagner Group for Russia clearly have a governmental nature. Another way to attribute the actions of the Wagner Group to Russia is that the PMC was authorized to carry out governmental functions on behalf of the country (Article 5 ASR).

Assuming analysis, there is evidence that the State could satisfy the requirement law by providing significant funding to Group Wagner, as acknowledged publicly by Putin and in accordance with the links between the State and PMC.

The evidence existing clearly adds further weight to the fact that the activities of the group are authorized at the highest levels of the Russian government. In considering attribution, it could be taken into account that if other forms of State authorization were to better serve its purpose and object, the State’s authorization, which is not limited to Russia but also includes authorized private entities acting on its behalf informally, does not necessarily have to conform to my domestic law.

The Malian government may have potentially violated international law by allowing Wagner fighters to provide security assistance in Mali, similar to how Russia may have potentially violated international law by authorizing Wagner fighters to perform public functions on behalf of Russia. In some cases, these actions by Wagner fighters could be seen as contracts with other states or entities, aimed at promoting Russia’s strategic interests. However, if all the elements of this rule of attribution are satisfied, Russia could be held accountable for the actions of Wagner Group when they perform public functions on behalf of Russia.

Is the Wagner Group Operating Under the Guidance, Supervision or Influence of Russia?

If the conduct of the Wagner Group cannot be attributed to Russia based on the grounds of attribution, then the only appropriate basis for attribution is if specific acts that violate international law were performed under Russia’s control or direction and instructions, which were previously considered to have a narrower scope than the application of this rule to the State to which it is attributable (Article 8 ASR).

The recent admission by President Putin regarding the funding of Wagner Group is the most relevant issue related to the control of the group. This strengthens the conclusion that Russia provides substantial funding to the group and acknowledges significant links between the State and PMC. It is likely that the conduct of Wagner Group violates international law, and this is attributable to Russia. If the overall control test is applied with a looser standard, it can be concluded that the group’s conduct is likely a subject of considerable debate in terms of rule of law purposes.

The command relationships between the Russian military and Wagner’s leaders are shrouded in considerable uncertainty, which poses a challenge in meeting the stringent requirements of the effective control test established by the ICJ (Paramilitary Activities para. 115; Bosnian Genocide para. 396-406). This test sets a high standard, demanding evidence that State officials exerted a precise or tactical level of authority over actions that breach international law. Nevertheless, the more authoritative examination for this objective is the effective control test devised by the ICJ.

The analysis focuses on the effective control of the group and its limited relevance in providing funding to Russia. It is now admitting that Russia has significant funding in this specific context. This inquiry is because if it can be proven that Russian officials exercised command over PMC fighters in Bucha, Ukraine, and if Wagner’s alleged killing of civilians violates international law, then only would the threshold be satisfied. This example highlights the specific conduct that violates international law and the influence it has on the State’s effective control. Unlike the overall test of control, which looks at the broader relationship between entities.

The admission by Putin does little to strengthen the argument that Russia effectively controls Wagner, the non-state military group. Recent events vividly illustrate how Group Wagner, despite considerable autonomy, operates with generous funding from the Kremlin. However, it is likely that the state can exert greater control over the conduct of this non-state actor, as its resources and funding depend more on the state. In some cases, an elevated level of control by the state can indicate a higher degree of control over the non-state actor. Of course, this depends on the high level of control by the state.

A Glimpse into the Future.

Many questions remain regarding the Wagner Group and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s next steps. While portraying him as a liar, Prigozhin discredited his campaign by contrasting it with the actions of members of the Wagner Group, whom President Putin described as “Russian patriots” and stated that they will not be prosecuted for their attempted mutiny. Instead, they have the option to either return home to their families or go to Belarus, with the Russian Ministry of Defense signing contracts.

The arrival of Wagner’s suggests that Belarus is already preparing for Satellite imagery. Projections vary from one thousand eight to one, making it unclear how many fighters will choose to relocate at this stage. While assuming responsibility for these fighters, questions about the State’s disregard for international law and their usual employment of brutal methods in military operations will remain. Given the uncertainty surrounding the future relationships with both Russia and Belarus, these questions could become even more complex, especially regarding the status of Wagner Group in Belarus.

The fighters of PMC’s were ordered to report to the Russian air base in Latakia, and it was informed by the deputy foreign minister of Russia that the Wagner Group would no longer operate independently there, indicating that President Assad was informed of this. Reports from Syria, Belarus, or Ukraine indicate that there are additional questions regarding the future of those Wagner fighters located outside of Russia.

Despite the ongoing rebellion led by Wagner’s group, the Kremlin has announced that the fighters will continue to operate under the banner of Group Wagner, both in the Central African Republic and Mali, as well as in other parts of Africa. It remains to be seen whether these operations will continue, regardless of the outcome of the inquiries into the responsibility and impact of future atrocities committed by Group Wagner. In the unfortunate event that these inquiries result in a split or new offshoot, the likelihood of the members of Group Wagner continuing their operations remains high, with approximately five thousand PMC members.