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A New Rudy Scandal: FBI Agent Says Giuliani Was Co-opted by Russian Intelligence

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It was big news when Rudy Giuliani, once hailed as America’s Mayor, was indicted last month by a district attorney in Atlanta for allegedly being part of a criminal enterprise led by Donald Trump that sought to overturn the 2020 election results. Giuliani was back in headlines this week when he lost a defamation suit filed against him by two Georgia election workers whom he had falsely accused of ballot stuffing. Giuliani’s apparent impoverishment, caused by his massive legal bills, and even his alleged drinking have been fodder for reporters. But another major Giuliani development has drawn less attention: An FBI whistleblower filed a statement asserting that Giuliani “may have been compromised” by Russian intelligence while working as a lawyer and adviser to Trump during the 2020 campaign.

That contention is among a host of explosive assertions from Johnathan Buma, an FBI agent who also says that an investigation involving Giuliani’s activities was stymied within the bureau. 

In July, Buma sent the Senate Judiciary Committee a 22-page statement full of eye-popping allegations, and the document leaked and was first reported last month by Insider (after a conservative blogger had posted it online). According to Buma’s account, Giuliani was used as an asset by a Ukrainian oligarch tied to Russian intelligence and other Russian operatives for a disinformation operation that aimed to discredit Joe Biden and boost Trump in the 2020 presidential race. Moreover, Buma says he was the target of retaliation within the bureau for digging into this.

The FBI declined to comment on Buma’s claims.

Buma’s revelations may only be the start. A source familiar with his work tells Mother Jones that other potential FBI whistleblowers who participated in the investigation involving Giuliani have consulted the same lawyer as Buma and might meet with congressional investigators in coming weeks. That attorney, Scott Horton, declined to comment.

Giuliani faces a heap of legal and financial problems, including those felony charges in Georgia. He is also an uncharged co-conspirator in the federal case in which Trump was indicted for his efforts to retain power after losing the 2020 election. He has been sued by a former assistant for rape. And apparently Trump has not helped the supposedly broke Giuliani cover his legal bills, though the former president did agree to headline a fundraiser for Giuliani.

Still, Buma’s statement suggests that Giuliani has been lucky to avoid deeper trouble over his attempt during the 2020 race to deploy made-in-Ukraine disinformation to sully Joe Biden. 

It is widely known that Giuliani tried mightily to unearth and disseminate dirt on Biden in Ukraine—particularly regarding the unfounded allegation that as vice president Biden squashed an investigation of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company for which his son Hunter was a director. This smear campaign led to Trump’s first impeachment and resulted in a federal investigation into whether Giuliani violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Prosecutors ended that probe last year.

But Buma’s allegations that FBI and Justice Department officials blocked his efforts to investigate these Giuliani activities and the work of suspected Russian agents who may have influenced the former New York City mayor could spark a new dust-up on Capitol Hill. As Republicans keep trying to gin up a controversy over the Bidens, Burisma, and other matters, Buma’s statement reinforces the case that this supposed Biden-Ukraine scandal was egged on or orchestrated by Russian intelligence. And it contradicts the narrative pushed by Trump and his defenders that the FBI and Justice Department have been in cahoots with Democrats.

Giuliani’s role in Trump’s coup attempt and his string of public humiliations may overshadow the Ukrainian chapter in Giuliani’s downfall. But, according to Buma and various US intelligence findings, Giuliani apparently was a dupe—a useful idiot—for suspected Russian operatives and propagandists. And the bureau, Buma says, investigated this—until it didn’t.

Buma’s statement highlights Giuliani’s relationship with Pavel Fuks, a wealthy Ukrainian developer, who in 2017 hired Giuliani and paid him $300,000. Fuks once told the New York Times that he had retained Giuliani to lobby in the United States for the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where Fuks then lived. Giuliani has denied that he was paid to lobby for Kharkiv, insisting he only provided advice regarding security to the city. And Fuks has changed his tune. Through a spokesperson, he told Mother Jones that Giuliani’s work was limited to advising the city.

In his statement, Buma says that the FBI assessed Fuks to be a “co-opted asset” of Russian intelligence services, meaning a person who Russian intelligence used to advance its goals. Buma’s complaint does not name a specific Russian intelligence agency, but a person who spoke to agents involved in this investigation says that the FBI believes Fuks worked for the FSB, the successor to KGB. All this raises the possibility that Giuliani, a former Republican presidential candidate who became a close adviser to Trump, received a large payment directly from a Russian asset.

Buma alleges that Fuks has carried out various tasks for Russian spies, including laundering money for them. Fuks also reportedly paid locals to spray-paint swastikas around Kharkiv in the weeks before Russia’s invasion. Buma says Fuks did so to bolster Vladmir Putin’s claim that the invasion aimed to achieve the “de-Nazification of Ukraine.”

Fuks denies these claims. “Mr. Fuks has never cooperated with Russian intelligence,” his spokesperson says.

Buma maintains that his investigative work led to Customs and Border Patrol in 2017 revoking Fuks visa for travel to the United States and that the FBI assessed that Fuks constituted “a national security threat,” a finding that caused Fuks to be placed on an organized crime watch list. Buma also says that he sent the Treasury Department a recommendation that the United States sanction Fuks. To date, the US government has not done so.

Ukraine has sanctioned Fuks, and it is reportedly investigating him for fraud and tax evasion. Fuks now lives in London, according to recent media reports. 

In his statement, Buma says that he developed suspicions that Giuliani, through his relationship with Fuks, was “compromised by the RIS,” meaning the Russian Intelligence Services. That is a striking claim—an allegation that Russian spies may have obtained influence over a top adviser to the US president.

It’s a new piece of information to add to a pile of public indications that Giuliani left himself wide open to manipulation by Russian agents, while he was dredging Ukraine in search of derogatory information about Hunter and Joe Biden.

Giuliani has previously asserted that his work for Fuks ended before he joined Trump’s legal team in April 2018. And Fuks’ spokesperson also says that Fuks’ dealings with Giuliani finished in 2018. But Buma suggests that Fuks may have maintained an indirect connection to Giuliani by hiring in 2019 Andriy Telizhenko, a former low-level Ukrainian diplomatic official, to mount a public relations effort for him in the United States. Buma says that a source told him that Fuks retained Telizhenko to help him “establish contacts with US politicians.” Telizhenko went on to work with Giuliani, feeding him information on the Bidens.

Telizhenko, in a recent interview with Mother Jones, maintained that his work for Fuks and his contacts with Giuliani were unrelated. 

But Telizhenko’s interactions with Giuliani raise serious questions about whether this Trump adviser, wittingly or not, played. a part in a covert Russian operation to discredit Biden. In 2021, the Treasury Department sanctioned Telizhenko for promoting Russian “disinformation narratives that U.S. government officials have engaged in corrupt dealings in Ukraine.” Telizhenko denies advancing disinformation or aiding Russia. He says the sanctions resulted from an FBI informant making false claims about him.

Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine placed him in contact with several Ukrainians since sanctioned for allegedly assisting Russian disinformation efforts. The most prominent was Andriy Derkach, the son of a former KGB officer and then a Ukrainian legislator, who supplied Giuliani with unsubstantiated information about the Bidens’ supposed activities in Ukraine. After making a trip to Ukraine in the summer of 2020, Giuliani told the Washington Post that he kept in touch with Derkach  and called him “very helpful.”

Trump’s Treasury Department sanctioned Derkach in 2020, calling him an “active Russian agent for over a decade.” In March 2021, a declassified report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that Putin in 2020 signed off on a Russian intelligence effort to use proxies to feed prominent US individuals “influence narratives” aimed at hurting Biden’s campaign and helping Trump. The report cited Derkach, asserting that Putin “had purview” over his activities. Though the report did not name him, Giuliani was obviously one of the Americans the ODNI believed had been manipulated by the Russians. Last year, federal prosecutors hit Derkach with criminal charges for his alleged attempts to evade sanctions.

In his statement, Buma says he investigated Giuliani’s use of “funds he collected from political influencers to travel and conduct a series of interviews with former Ukrainian officials”—a reference to Giuliani’s campaign to gather opposition research on the Bidens. But he adds that “Giuliani was himself never considered a subject” of that part of his probe, which focused on “foreign organized crime figures and intelligence service assets or agents who chose to deal with him.”

Giuliani has admitted to meeting Ukrainians subsequently cited by the US government as Russian operatives. But he has defended his actions by arguing he had to deal with questionable people to seek information on what he has referred to as alleged Biden crimes. (No evidence has surfaced to prove Biden acted improperly in Ukraine to help his son.) 

Buma reveals in his statement that he also probed whether Russian operatives or assets were involved in a 2020 Giuliani effort to make a film about Hunter Biden’s business activities in Ukraine and elsewhere. As Mother Jones reported, the GOP activists behind this venture noted in legal documents that they were considering seeking foreign financing for the film. The anti-Biden film was to include commentary from Konstantin Kulyk, a former Ukrainian prosecutor who Treasury sanctioned in 2021 for working with Derkach to spread “fraudulent and unsubstantiated allegations” about Biden. That is, this project was to feature information from sources who the US government later deemed were connected to a disinformation campaign linked to Russian intelligence. 

Giuliani played a key role in trying to line up investors for the movie. His lawyer, Robert Costello, denied that Giuliani solicited money from foreign investors. The investors Giuliani did help find were two brothers, David and Kable Munger, who own a large blueberry producing company in California and have donated generously to GOP candidates. The movie never came close to being made, and people involved in the endeavor told Mother Jones the project was disorganized and incompetently managed.

The Mungers recently sued two GOP activists involved in producing the film, Tim Yale and George Dickson, along with a company they formed. Giuliani was not named as a defendant in the suit. The Mungers say that Giuliani helped persuade them to invest $1 million by saying that they would receive a share of the film’s profits. The brothers also claim that Yale and Dickson told them the movie would be “more profitable than Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.” Giuliani, Dickson, and Yale also said, according to the Mungers’ lawsuit, that they possessed “smoking guns” revealing Joe Biden was corrupt.

Giuliani and his colleagues possessed no such material. The Mungers allege that Dickson and Yale stole their investment. In a text message to Mother Jones, Yale insisted that the lawsuit is “total hogwash.” He declined to comment further. Dickson did not respond to requests for comment.

Giuliani, according to the lawsuit, was paid $300,000 for his participation in the film project. A lawyer and a spokesperson for Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment.

Buma’s disclosures spell new trouble for Giuliani. They further implicate him in a covert Russian operation to tilt the 2020 election toward Trump. They also raise the possibility that Giuliani was protected by FBI officials. (After the 2016 election, the Justice Department investigated whether Giuliani had improper contacts with FBI agents during that race regarding the bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton, and it found no evidence Giuliani had been leaked information.) Buma’s statement offers an investigative roadmap for inquiries that could soil Giuliani’s already tarnished reputation. But the down-and-out Giuliani may get lucky: With all the controversy and scandal swirling about him, there just may not be much room in the Giuliani coverage for the allegation that he was a puppet for Putin.

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C.I.A. Chief Says Wagner Mutiny Revived Questions About Putin’s Rule

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William J. Burns gave the most detailed public account yet by a U.S. official of the damage done to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia by last month’s uprising by the mercenary group.

A side view of William Burns seen on the right on Capitol Hill.

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William J. Burns, in Washington in March.Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In the most detailed public account yet given by a U.S. official, the director of the C.I.A. offered a biting assessment on Thursday of the damage done to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia by the mutiny of the Wagner mercenary group, saying the rebellion had revived questions about Mr. Putin’s judgment and his detachment from events.

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, an annual national security conference, William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, said that for much of the 36 hours of the rebellion last month, Russian security services, the military and decision makers “appeared to be adrift.”

“For a lot of Russians watching this, used to this image of Putin as the arbiter of order, the question was, ‘Does the emperor have no clothes?’” Mr. Burns said, adding, “Or, at least, ‘Why is it taking so long for him to get dressed?’”

Mr. Burns’s remarks on the Kremlin’s paralysis during the uprising carried out by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin and his mercenary group built on comments a day earlier from his British counterpart, Richard Moore, the chief of MI6, who said the rebellion showed cracks in Mr. Putin’s rule.

Mr. Burns said that while Mr. Prigozhin was making up some of the steps in the rebellion “as he went along,” his critique of the Russian military leadership, which he made in a series of increasingly pugnacious statements over months, was “hiding in plain sight.”

Mr. Prigozhin has also been bitterly critical of the Kremlin’s argument for the war against Ukraine. Mr. Burns said the Telegram channel where Mr. Prigozhin posted a video challenging Russia’s main argument for invading Ukraine was watched by a third of the Russian population.

“That video was the most scathing indictment of Putin’s rationale for war, of the conduct of the war, of the corruption at the core of Putin’s regime that I have heard from a Russian or a non-Russian,” Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Burns confirmed that the United States had some notice that the uprising might take place. He predicted that Mr. Putin would try to separate the Wagner forces from Mr. Prigozhin to preserve the combat prowess of the mercenary group, which has been important to Russia’s war effort.

Since the rebellion, and the deal that ended it, Mr. Prigozhin has been in Minsk in Belarus, but has also spent time in Russia, Mr. Burns said.

He said he would be surprised if Mr. Prigozhin ultimately “escapes further retribution.”

“What we are seeing is a very complicated dance between Prigozhin and Putin,” Mr. Burns said. “I think Putin is someone who generally thinks revenge is a dish best served cold, so he is going to try to settle the situation to the extent he can.”

Mr. Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who served in Moscow as the Russian president consolidated power nearly two decades ago, added that the Russian leader is “the ultimate apostle of payback.”

And, Mr. Burns suggested, it would not just be Mr. Prigozhin who faces repercussions.

U.S. officials have said privately that a senior Russian general, Sergei V. Surovikin, had advance knowledge of Mr. Prigozhin’s plans and may have supported the rebellion.

Asked if General Surovikin was free or detained, Mr. Burns said, “I don’t think he enjoys a lot of freedom right now.”

Julian E. Barnes is a national security reporter based in Washington, covering the intelligence agencies. Before joining The Times in 2018, he wrote about security matters for The Wall Street Journal. More about Julian E. Barnes

David E. Sanger is a White House and national security correspondent. In a 38-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.”  More about David E. Sanger

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Russian spy chief confirms call to CIA director after Wagner revolt

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Russia’s foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, has said that he and his CIA counterpart discussed the short-lived mutiny a week earlier by the Russian mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and “what to do with Ukraine” in a phone call late last month.

Sergei Naryshkin, head of the SVR foreign intelligence service, told Russia’s Tass new agency on Wednesday that Bill Burns had raised “the events of 24 June” – when fighters from the Wagner mercenary group took control of a southern Russian city and advanced towards Moscow before reaching a deal with the Kremlin to end the revolt.

But he said that for most of the call, lasting about an hour, “we considered and discussed what to do with Ukraine”.

The CIA declined to comment on his remarks.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported on 30 June that William Burns had called Naryshkin to assure the Kremlin that the United States had no role in the Wagner revolt.

Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia in February 2022, says other countries should not negotiate its future on its behalf, and the United States has repeatedly backed this principle, described as “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine”.

Burns and Naryshkin have maintained a line of communication since the start of the Ukraine war at a time when other direct contacts between Moscow and Washington are at a minimum, with relations at their lowest point since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Last November, the two spy chiefs held a rare face-to-face meeting in Ankara, after which US officials insisted that Burns was “not conducting negotiations of any kind” and “not discussing settlement of the war in Ukraine” – after a leak from the Kremlin in the aftermath of Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson.

On Wednesday Naryshkin told Tass that negotiations on the war would become possible at some point. The agency did not specify whether this was part of his conversation with Burns.

“It’s natural that negotiations will be possible sooner or later, because any conflict, including armed conflict, ends by negotiations, but the conditions for these still need to ripen,” Tass quoted him as saying.

Asked about the report, the Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters: “Today, someone like Naryshkin has no leverage over how this war will end.”

Podolyak said Russia was losing the war and there could be no negotiations with people like Naryshkin.

“This Russian elite perceives events completely inadequately, so there is nothing to talk about with them.”

Ukraine, which launched a long-expected counteroffensive last month, has said it will not enter talks at this point as this could effectively freeze the situation on the battlefield, where Russia has seized more than a sixth of its territory.

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Did U.S. media confirm that the CIA gave the Wagner Group US$6.2 billion?

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In Brief

Following the Wagner Group’s short-lived insurrection in Russia last month, several verified users of the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo claimed that the Russian mercenary army had accepted US$6.2 billion from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The users cited the Los Angeles Times as the source and circulated screenshots of the purported article in their posts. 

Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) found this claim to be false. The LA Times published no reports on a U.S. allocation of funds to the Wagner Group. 

Users on Weibo and Twitter circulated screenshots of an LA Times report that they claimed confirms the Wagner Group received $6.2 billion from the CIA. The original LA Times article does not mention the group, and the original lead picture has been changed to one showing Wagner’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. Photos taken from Weibo and the LA Times websites.[Text – top left] Breaking news confirms that the current large-scale revolt by Wagner accepted $6.2 billion from the CIA. [Text – bottom left] The Los Angeles Times: Wagner – the mercenary group staging the current revolt – is confirmed by Western media as taking $6.2 billion from the CIA. Beating the CIA at its own game, Putin and Prigozhin are both acting in order to net an easy $6.2 billion. [Middle] Screenshot of altered version of the LA Times article on Weibo [Text – Weibo post headline] The Los Angeles Times confirms that Breggogen dupes U.S. intelligence, netting $6.2 billion by feigning a revolt. [Right Side] Screenshot of original LA Times article

The article that has been circulating actually reports on a $6.2 billion surplus in U.S. military funds that is expected to be sent to Ukraine, and does not mention the Wagner Group. The Weibo posts include an erroneous Chinese-language translation of the original article’s English-language headline and a photo of the Wagner Group’s leader that is not present in the original report.

In Depth

As the war between Russia and Ukraine entered its 16th month, the Russian private military company Wagner Group on June 24 launched a brief armed rebellion against the Kremlin. Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin ended the mutiny the next day following mediation by Belarus.

The dramatic turn of events attracted global attention. In China, the term “Wagner” was Weibo’s top-trending topic on June 24–25, with related posts generating a range of comments and speculation.

Verified Weibo users with hundreds of thousands of followers each soon set off a public frenzy by claiming U.S. media was reporting that Wagner had accepted $6.2 billion from the CIA before staging the rebellion. Their posts included screenshots of an LA Times article as alleged evidence.

What did the LA Times actually report? 

AFCL found that these screenshots appeared to feature a doctored version of an LA Times article published on the newspaper’s website on June 21. The original article, headlined “Pentagon’s accounting error means an extra $6.2 billion in aid for Ukraine,” discusses an accounting mistake by the Pentagon that is expected to send an extra $6.2 billion in aid to Ukraine. The article is accompanied by a photo of U.S. Patriot missile launchers, and does not mention or show any images of the Wagner Group,  Prigozhin or the CIA. 

Indeed, a keyword search via Google for “Wagner” and “CIA” failed to find any U.S. media reports confirming rumors of a U.S. payment to the Wagner Group.

The altered version of the LA Times article spread by Weibo and Twitter users includes an erroneous Chinese translation of the headline: “The Los Angeles Times confirms that Breggogen [Prigozhin] dupes U.S. intelligence, netting $6.2 billion by feigning a revolt.” Below it, the article’s original headline and article, both in English, can be seen.  

The doctored version also includes a different lead photograph accompanying the story of Wagner Group leader Prigozhin dressed in military gear, which AFCL found to be a still image from a video released on March 3, 2023.    

Another netizen claimed in a separate post that billionaire businessman Elon Musk had also tweeted confirmation that Wagner had accepted money from the CIA.

However, the Twitter account referenced by the netizen is clearly labeled as a parody Musk account belonging to an anonymous user. Furthermore, the tweet itself only questions the $6.2 billion sent to Ukraine and makes no mention of the Wagner Group. 

A verified Weibo user retweeting posts from a parody account of Elon Musk belonging to an anonymous user. Screenshot from Weibo.

[Text] Musk gives the answer: Why did the U.S. send $6.2 billion to Ukraine? A few days ago, the U.S. conducted an audit which found that an additional $6.2 billion in aid had been sent to Ukraine. In a blink, the atmosphere on U.S. social media turned joyful. It’s reported that Prigozhin wanted $6.2 billion from the CIA in order to start the revolt. Thinking it was cash well spent, the CIA agreed immediately and sent a deposit along. After receiving it, Prigozhin immediately set his three armies in motion, first capturing Rostov-on-Don before.

Where did the extra billions in aid to Ukraine come from? 

The $6.2 billion in expected additional military aid to Ukraine results from an accounting error by the Pentagon. Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh explained in a June 20 news conference that the U.S. military had overestimated the cost of certain equipment and services promised to Ukraine over the last two years by using replacement cost value (the cost of replacing an item without accounting for depreciation) instead of net book value (the value of an asset less depreciation). She said the unexpected surplus would go into the pot of money used by the Pentagon for future stock drawdowns, such as for arming Ukraine.

Have U.S officials commented on the allegation? 

President Biden has denied any U.S. involvement in the Wagner mutiny, stating that the White House views the development as “part of a struggle within the Russian system.” He said the U.S. and its allies would not give Russian President Vladimir Putin any excuse to blame the West or NATO for the incident.

Prigozhin and the Wagner Group have been subject to a variety of sanctions by the U.S., European Union, and other countries, for their involvement in the current war against Ukraine and other alleged human rights violations. The Treasury Department issued a statement on June 27 noting that four companies in Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and the Central African Republic suspected of engaging in illegal gold transactions and providing funds to the Wagner Group would be sanctioned. U.S. State Department officials said these sanctions were unrelated to the June 24 rebellion.

The CIA declined to comment on the Chinese netizen reports that it had funded the Wagner Group, while the State Department responded to AFCL’s queries on the issue by forwarding a White House statement on Biden’s denial. 


AFCL found Chinese Internet rumors that the LA Times had confirmed a $6.2 billion transfer of CIA funds to the Wagner Group to be false. The U.S. newspaper did not publish any reports about this issue. Chinese netizens instead circulated a doctored LA Times article about $6.2 billion in expected additional aid to Ukraine—featuring a mistranslation of the original headline and an altered photo.   

Translated by Shen Ke.

Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) is a branch of RFA established to counter disinformation in today’s complex media environment. Our journalists publish both daily and special reports that aim to sharpen and deepen our readers’ understanding of public issues.

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Band of Brothers: The Wagner Group and the Russian State

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This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.

The Russian private military company Wagner Group may appear to be a conventional business company. However, its management and operations are deeply intertwined with the Russian military and intelligence community. The Russian government has found Wagner and other private military companies to be useful as a way to extend its influence overseas without the visibility and intrusiveness of state military forces. As a result, Wagner should be considered a proxy organization of the Russian state rather than a private company selling services on the open market.1

Historical and legal background of private military companies in Russia

The post-Cold War era brought a renaissance of private security companies (PSCs) and private military companies (PMCs). Both state and non-state actors have frequently relied on their services, as these companies are more flexible, cheaper, less accountable, and often a lot more capable than regular militaries. Conflicts of the 21st century, particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw PMCs getting involved on all levels, from providing logistical support to high-intensity operations.

Post-Soviet Russia followed the trend of privatization of state violence relatively late, mostly due to the internal resistance of the armed forces, as well as to economic hardships. While there are thousands of private security companies operating in the country, guarding infrastructure and providing VIP-protection services, private military companies still can not be established legally on the territory of the Russian Federation. Although certain legal loopholes, to be explained later, made it possible for a few companies resembling Western PMCs to operate in the 1990s, Russian private military companies gained worldwide attention only in the 2010s, as a result of their participation in the wars in Syria and Ukraine.

Russia builds on the Soviet Union’s long history of operating proxy forces abroad. For example, the so-called Soviet Volunteer Group was an air force detachment deployed to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. Nominally, all the pilots and technicians were volunteers, and Moscow officially denied any connection to them; in fact, they belonged to the Soviet Air Force. A few years later, during the Winter War against Finland, the Soviet Union used the puppet government of pro-Moscow Finnish politician, Otto Wille Kuusinen, as a cover for its attack on Finland. The 400,000-plus strong attacking force nominally belonged to the Kuusinen-government; however, this cover was so weak that Moscow abandoned it before the end of the war.

In the Cold War era, the Soviet Union sent thousands of military specialists under the cover of “advisors” to many conflicts worldwide, primarily the Middle East. Soviet advisors played an important role in modernizing the armed forces of Syria, Egypt, Libya, and a number of other states. In the 1990s, Russian “volunteers” participated in the separatist conflicts of Moldova and Georgia, while the Russian state officially denied its involvement in the conflicts and labelled them civil wars.

More recently, Russian military scholars have closely studied how the United States and its allies employed PSCs and PMCs in Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, Russia had direct, though sporadic, contacts with Western PSCs in Afghanistan. The arms trafficking network of Viktor Bout occasionally even cooperated with several PSCs while it provided logistical services to the U.S. forces in Iraq.

Private military companies as tools of influence

The Kremlin has developed its own view of PMCs. Instead of approaching the question from the budgetary perspective—namely that PMCs are more flexible and cheaper than the regular military—Russia perceives them mainly as political-military tools of state influence, which can be employed under the cover of plausible deniability. As pointed out by Anna Borshchevskaya, in 2009 several special operations units of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) were subordinated directly to Chief of Staff Nikolay Makarov. Though there is no direct evidence, these units were probably intended to become the personnel source for private military companies to be set up in the future. A year later, Makarov publicly spoke about the need to use private military companies “for delicate missions abroad.” The logic prevailed: in April 2012, when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was asked in the Russian Duma about whether he supported the idea of creating a network of Russian private military companies, he replied positively and emphasized that PMCs could be tools of influence abroad, allowing the realization of national interests without the direct involvement of the state. As examples, he noted that such companies could provide protection of important facilities, as well as training for foreign military personnel abroad. Plausible deniability played a key role in Russia’s considerations about setting up private military companies, based also on the rich historical experiences Moscow has.

Another motivation for using PMCs is that it permits the Russian state to hide personnel losses from the Russian public. As these formations are formally private companies, their losses do not count in the official Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reports of how many servicemen have died or been injured. Thus, Russian MoD reports about the lost voennosluzhashchie (servicemembers) never include losses suffered by Russian private military companies operating in the same operational theater. The same logic allows Russia to deny the involvement of its proxies in the conflicts, as PMC contractors do not count as voennosluzhashchie. This is significant because Russian PMC operatives often fight in the front lines and attack difficult positions, and so their losses are much higher than those of the regular military.

The legal background

The Russian constitution specifically stipulates that all matters of security and defense belong solely to the state. Consequently, the establishment of private military companies is illegal in Russia, despite repeated efforts of certain powerful groups to change that. Pro-legalization arguments mostly center around the wide international practice of using PMCs, which would justify Russia doing the same. According to news reports, however, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other security agencies are strongly against lifting this ban.

However, there are a number of important loopholes in the Russian legislative system. While individuals are not allowed to serve as mercenaries, per the Russian Criminal Code, state-run enterprises are permitted to have private armed forces and security foundations. Combined with a usually dense de facto network of subcontractors, this allows Russian citizens to work for private military companies despite the nominal ban. Another workaround is to register companies abroad, which allows Russian authorities to ignore the operations of the “foreign” PMC. As Candace Rondeaux argues, the likely motivation of the Russian state to not push for the full legalization of private military companies is that this legal opacity adds to the overall ambiguity surrounding these entities; thus it increases the state’s freedom of maneuver in using them.

In practice, the legal environment is so permissive that most Russian private military companies prefer to recruit exclusively Russian citizens. Meanwhile, the formal ban on serving as a mercenary provides the Russian state with strong legal leverage over PMC operatives, ensuring their overall compliance with the state’s preferences.

Wagner Group is far from being the sole Russian private military company. Anna Maria Dyner lists several other Russian private military companies that have operated abroad, such as the E.N.O.T. Corporation in Syria and the Feraks group in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Sri Lanka, as well as the Antiterror-Orel Group and many others.

Direct predecessor of the Wagner Group: the Slavonic Corps

In line with the restrictive legal environment and the logic of plausible deniability, the so-called Slavonic Corps, a private military company, was set up in Hong Kong in 2013 by two employees of a conventional Russian PSC: the Moran Security Group. According to a Norwegian study published in 2020, however, it was in fact the Syrian government that contracted the Moran Security Group to assist Syrian government forces in fighting the Islamic State. As Moran itself was not up to the task, even though it had been operating in Syria already for at least a year, the decision was taken to set up a new entity; this became the Slavonic Corps.

Operatives of the Slavonic Corps deployed to Syria in 2013. Their mission was to assist Syrian forces in re-capturing oil facilities from Islamic State militants. However, several coordination and logistical problems arose. The key problem was that the Slavonic Corps relied on the Syrian government for logistics, but instead of the promised modern weapons, it received outdated weaponry in insufficient numbers. Its first combat mission in Syria ended with a spectacular defeat near Deir al-Zour. Survivors were transported back to Russia, and the company was disbanded.

The Wagner Group and Its Connections to the Russian State

The private military company Wagner Group appeared shortly after the Slavonic Corps ceased to exist. While Wagner is frequently referred to as a private company connected to the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, there are several factors indicating that the entity is closely linked to the Russian state.

An important detail is that Wagner Group is not registered either in Russia or anywhere else— de jure, the company does not exist. In line with the logic of ambiguity described above, the Russian state not only tolerates but, in many cases, actively supports its actions.

The career of Dmitry Utkin

Dmitry Utkin is the founder of the Wagner Group. A veteran of both Chechen wars, Utkin served in the GRU until 2013, after which he commanded a Spetsnaz unit, reaching the rank of a lieutenant colonel. In 2013, he quit the service and joined the Moran Security Group, in whose ranks he participated in the Slavonic Corps’ above-mentioned, failed operation in Syria. In 2014, he quit Moran and established the Wagner Group. The company was named after his old callsign “Vagner.” It cannot be verified whether Utkin initiated the establishment of Wagner Group or was only a front man for someone else.

Operatives of the Wagner Group, as well as Utkin himself, participated in the Russian operations in Ukraine in 2014. During the period from 2014 to 2015, Ukrainian signals intelligence intercepted three phone conversations of Utkin reporting to GRU Colonel Oleg Ivannikov, as well as to Major General Evgeny Nikiforov, chief of staff of Russia’s 58th Army. These conversations indicated that Utkin was subordinated both to the GRU and to the Russian military command. Another indicator of Utkin’s very close connection to the Russian state is that he was photographed at a Kremlin reception held on December 9, 2016, where he was decorated with the Order for Courage, allegedly for his services in Ukraine.

Shared base with the GRU

The main base of the Wagner Group is located in a town called Molkino, in Russia’s Krasnodar district. What makes this facility highly unusual is that it is operated jointly by the 10th Separate Special Purpose Brigade of Russia’s GRU and the Wagner Group. After passing the first checkpoint guarded by GRU soldiers, if one drives left, they will come to the GRU facility, while the road on the right leads to the Wagner barracks. An investigative report, published in the Russian journal Znak in March 2018, revealed that despite the fiasco at Deir ez-Zor, the base was constantly expanded and new buildings were being built.

It is highly unusual for any private company to share a base with an elite, special operations military unit, and it is particularly odd that GRU personnel guard the road leading to the barracks of a PMC. The fact that Molkino base operates the way it does implies that relations between the two organizations are indeed cordial.

Reliance on Russian military infrastructure

There have been several documented occasions where Wagner operatives used transport infrastructure related to Russia’s Ministry of Defense. When Wagner operatives were deployed to Venezuela to assist President Nicolas Maduro, they arrived onboard Russian Air Force transport aircrafts, an Ilyushin Il-62M and an Antonov An-124. In Libya, Russian military Ilyushin Il-76 cargo aircrafts supply Wagner operatives fighting on the ground. Wagner personnel regularly fly in and out of Syria on military transport aircraft.

And transport is not the only sector where it can be documented that Wagner is relying on Russian military infrastructure. Multiple investigative reports confirm that operatives of Wagner Group are treated and rehabilitated in Russian military hospitals. For example, after the February 2018 defeat at Deir ez-Zor, the wounded survivors were evacuated by Russian military medical aircraft to the military hospitals in Rostov and Moscow. This detail indicates that Wagner is connected so closely to Russian military structures that their operatives are entitled to receive specialized military health care—a benefit unlikely to be received by any normal private company.

GRU-issued passports

According to reports of the Ukrainian security service (the SBU), verified by Bellingcat’s investigative reporting, Wagner operatives often use passports issued by a special passport desk in Moscow: Central Migration Office Unit 770-001. This unit issues passports almost exclusively to people linked to Russia’s Ministry of Defense. It was the same Unit 770-001 that issued the passports on the fake identities of the two perpetrators of the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal. Moreover, the documented passports of Wagner operatives were issued with sequential numbers, implying they were given out in groups, in an organized way. As the journalists of Bellingcat observed, this indicates that the Russian state not only tolerates but actively supports the operations of Wagner contractors abroad.

Presidential-level intervention for the sake of the Wagner Group

The last weeks of the 2020 presidential election campaign in Belarus brought an unexpected development: on July 29th, Belarusian authorities arrested 33 Russian citizens who allegedly belonged to the Wagner Group. While Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko used the story of the arrested Wagner operatives for his election campaign, accusing them of planning to interfere with the elections, independent sources revealed that, in fact, the Wagner Group has been using Belarus regularly as a transit country to various operational theaters; thus their presence on Belarusian territory was by no means extraordinary.

On July 31st, Russian President Vladimir Putin specially convened a meeting of the Russian National Security Council to discuss the issue. Thereafter, Putin raised the matter at leasttwice during his bilateral phone conversations with Lukashenko. Not surprisingly, the arrested Russian Wagner operatives were released shortly after the Belarusian elections were over, without any charges. The fact that the arrest of Wagner operatives made Putin urgently convene a special meeting of the National Security Council and that he discussed the issue directly with Lukashenko indicates that the fate of the arrested Wagner operatives was of extremely high importance to the Kremlin—which would be unlikely had Wagner not been closely connected to the Russian state.


Wagner is closely, often directly, connected to the Russian state. There is evidence indicating that the Wagner Group was subordinated to the Russian military in Ukraine. Wagner extensively relies on Russian military infrastructure, from using a shared base to being transported by Russian military aircraft to using military health care services. The Russian state is also documented supporting the Wagner Group with passports and, as implied by the recent events in Belarus, even by presidential-level political intervention.

Considering these factors, the transatlantic scholarly discourse about the Wagner Group should change. Instead of using the Russian narrative, according to which Wagner is a private military company, Wagner should be viewed as a classic proxy organization and handled accordingly. In this context, the fact that Wagner intends to appear as a private military company should be considered of limited relevance.

András Rácz is Senior Research Fellow of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) operating in Berlin, Germany. The views expressed here are solely of his own, and do not represent the official position of CSIS, of any other institution, or state.

Background research for the present study has been conducted with the support of the research grant No. 129243., titled ‘Tradition and Flexibility in Russia’s Security and Defense Policy’, provided by the National Research, Development and Innovation Office of Hungary.

CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

1An important methodological particularity is that this analysis concentrates solely on the direct connections between the Wagner Group and the Russian state. Hence, questions of oligarchic interests occasionally overlapping with Russian state priorities, which may direct Wagner’s operations in various parts of the world, are outside the focus of the present study.

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Proud Boy Who Smashed Window at Capitol Sentenced to 10 Years

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Dominic Pezzola was the third member of the far-right group to be sentenced this week. Among the first of the rioters to enter the Capitol, he was convicted of six felonies but acquitted of sedition.

A mob of protesters entering the Capitol building and approaching police officers whose backs are turned to the camera.

Dominic Pezzola, center right, confronting Capitol Police officers after breaking into the building on Jan. 6, 2021.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Sept. 1, 2023Updated 1:54 p.m. ET

Dominic Pezzola, the rank-and-file member of the Proud Boys who led the charge into the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by shattering a window with a stolen police riot shield, was sentenced on Friday to 10 years in prison.

The sentence imposed on Mr. Pezzola was the third to have been handed down this week to five members of the far-right group who were tried in May for seditious conspiracy and other crimes in one of the most significant prosecutions to have emerged from the Capitol attack. It was only half of the 20 years that the government had requested and less than the punishment meted out to several rioters found guilty of assaulting the police.

Mr. Pezzola, a flooring contractor from Rochester, N.Y., was the only one of the five men charged in the case who was found not guilty of sedition at the trial in Federal District Court in Washington. But the jury convicted him of six other felonies, including assaulting a police officer, a conspiracy to keep members of Congress from certifying the election and the destruction of one of the Capitol building’s windows.

Despite telling Judge Timothy J. Kelly, who has overseen the Proud Boys sedition case, that he was remorseful and had given up on politics, Mr. Pezzola raised his fist before he was removed from the courtroom and shouted, “Trump won!”

Video clips of the Jan. 6 attack showing Mr. Pezzola, with his scraggly beard and wild mane of hair, hammering at the glass with a plastic riot shield, were some of the most enduring images to have emerged from the Justice Department’s sprawling investigation of the riot. The videos were prominently featured not only at the trial, but also at public hearings by the House select committee that investigated Jan. 6.

Mr. Pezzola’s sentencing in the federal courthouse — which sits within sight of the Capitol building — came one day after Judge Kelly, a Trump appointee, imposed a 17-year term on Joseph Biggs, a former top lieutenant in the far-right group, and handed Zachary Rehl, who once ran the Proud Boys Philadelphia chapter, 15 years in prison.

The sentence imposed on Mr. Pezzola was the third to have been handed down this week to members of the Proud Boys.Credit…Justice Department, via Reuters

Judge Kelly is scheduled to sentence Ethan Nordean, a fourth defendant in the case, on Friday afternoon. On Tuesday, at a fifth and final hearing, the judge is expected to decide on the punishment for Enrique Tarrio, the former chairman of the Proud Boys.

The government has long maintained that Mr. Pezzola was the most aggressive of the five men who went to trial in the conspiracy case, a point that prosecutors drove home on Friday.

“He was an enthusiastic foot soldier in that conspiracy,” Erik Kenerson, one of the prosecutors, told Judge Kelly. “And what transpired on Jan. 6 was the type of political violence that Mr. Pezzola signed up for the Proud Boys to partake in.”

After marching with about 200 other members of the group from the Washington Monument to the Capitol, Mr. Pezzola scuffled with a police officer in the crowd outside and made off with his plastic riot shield. He ultimately used that shield to smash a window at the building and rush inside with the first wave of rioters, taking a video of himself smoking what he described as a victory cigar.

The image of Mr. Pezzola breaking the window crystallized the entire attack on the Capitol, Mr. Kenerson went on.

“He was the literal poster boy of this conspiracy,” he said.

Steven Metcalf, Mr. Pezzola’s lawyer, agreed in part, admitting that his client became notorious weeks before Jan. 6 when The Washington Post placed a photograph of him on its front page after an earlier pro-Trump rally in Washington.

But Mr. Pezzola was not like the other Proud Boys with whom he had been charged, having joined the group weeks before the Capitol attack.

“This is a Proud Boys leadership trial,” Mr. Metcalf said, adding that to the high-ranking members of the group, Mr. Pezzola was “a nobody.”

Addressing the court, Mr. Pezzola apologized to his two daughters and to his longtime partner, Lisa Magee, saying, “I have broken this family and crushed your heart.”

He told Judge Kelly that he was “a changed and humbled man” who had taken responsibility for his actions on Jan. 6.

“At times, it feels like I live in an emotional black hole,” he said.

Then Ms. Magee spoke, detailing all the ways in which Mr. Pezzola’s case had harmed her and her family. Their daughters had lost friends, she said, and have suffered from harassment and depression. She had been unable to find work and became financially “destroyed.”

Judge Kelly responded by acknowledging that Mr. Pezzola was a relative newcomer to the Proud Boys and had been acquitted of seditious conspiracy — the most serious charge in the case.

But he also noted that Mr. Pezzola had smashed the window that let other rioters stream into the Capitol to threaten lawmakers as they were certifying the election.

“You really were in some ways the tip of the spear that allowed people to get into the Capitol,” he said.

While Mr. Tarrio and some of the other Proud Boys in the case were well-known figures — even celebrities — in right-wing circles long before Jan. 6, Mr. Pezzola was virtually unknown before he took part in the Capitol attack.

A former Marine and amateur boxer, he joined the Proud Boys in November 2020, after President Donald J. Trump lost the election. He wrote in a journal introduced as evidence during the trial that he viewed the political situation then as a “battle between good and evil,” requiring patriots to “stand up and take back our God-given liberties just like our Founders did.”

During the trial, Ms. Magee testified on Mr. Pezzola’s behalf, telling the jury that before the spread of the coronavirus, he was largely uninterested in politics. But during the pandemic, under the influence of Fox News and heavy drinking, he became “consumed” by the country’s deep divisions, she said.

In a bid to humanize himself, Mr. Pezzola also testified, telling jurors that he believed that the police had incited the violence at the Capitol and that his military training as an infantryman had simply kicked as he stood in the mob outside. But his time on the witness stand quickly turned disastrous as he lost his temper and lashed out at the prosecutors trying him, attacking them for conducting what he described as a “corrupt trial” marred by “fake charges.”

Like the proceedings on Thursday for Mr. Biggs and Mr. Rehl, Mr. Pezzola’s hearing dwelled on thorny issues surrounding what is known as a terrorism sentencing enhancement. Those provisions can be used to increase a defendant’s sentence if prosecutors can show that their actions were undertaken in an effort to influence “the conduct of government by intimidation and coercion.”

Judge Kelly said the enhancement technically applied to Mr. Pezzola’s case — as it did to those of Mr. Biggs and Mr. Rehl — though he has acknowledged that none of the Proud Boys engaged in typical acts of terrorism like blowing up buildings or attacking military installations.

As a legal matter, the enhancement in Mr. Pezzola’s case emerged from his conviction on charges of breaking the window and from his role in trampling a fence that allowed other rioters to surge forward.

That deeply frustrated his lawyer, Mr. Metcalf, who told Judge Kelly, “It’s just ridiculous that that property damage could bring us to this point.”

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Proud Boy who triggered breach of Capitol building on Jan. 6 sentenced to 10 years

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6, 2021 breach of the Capitol when he smashed a window with a stolen police riot shield, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in …

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