Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine have been joined on the battlefield by tens of thousands of mercenaries from a shady group led by a businessman and longtime confidant of President Vladimir Putin.
The Wagner Group is a private military company controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, which made its name with operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region in 2014 and has since deployed troops to several conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, including also in the Syrian civil war.
Wagner proved indispensable in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but an apparent power struggle between the Kremlin and the outspoken Mr Prigozhin has seen the group’s wings clipped by Moscow.
Mr Prigozhin – a 61-year-old ex-convict sometimes known as “Putin’s chef” because his catering company has hosted dinners for the Russian president and supplied Kremlin forces – denied any connection until his announcement last September to the group he was “proud” to be the founder.
He said he founded Wagner to support Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass conflict.
“I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this,” said Mr. Prigozhin. “From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots arose, which later received the name Wagner battalion.”
Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian intelligence officer, is said to be one of the co-founders and remains at the top of the group’s command.
Since its inception, Wagner has been accused of human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mali and Mozambique.
The group is also believed to be working for the Burkina Faso government against an Islamist insurgency.
Before admitting his involvement, Mr. Prigozhin had in the past sued Russian and Western news outlets, who accused him of links to the group. His mysterious attitude was to protect the Wagner soldiers, he claimed.
Mr. Prigozhin eventually had to admit his ties to Wagner as the group rose to prominence in the Ukraine conflict. British intelligence estimates the number of Wagner troops active in Ukraine at 50,000, a quarter of Russia’s total strength.
War contractors are nothing new, but military analysts say the Kremlin relied heavily on Wagner due to the heavy casualties of official Russian forces during the war and difficulties in recruiting.
The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) first reported that Wagner was deployed to Ukraine on March 28, 2022, just over a month into the conflict, after Russian casualties had already begun to slow the pace of the initial attack.
Wagner has since played a key role in capturing cities like Soledar, Popasna and Lysychansk – and possessed relative operational prowess while the Kremlin was repeatedly forced to change command of its own forces in the face of casualties.
Mr. Prigozhin was always striving to help Wagner win in Ukraine, which at times brought him into conflict with the Kremlin’s line. He has even accused the Russian Ministry of Defense of recognizing Wagner’s achievements.
In the battle for Soledar, a small town that came under heavy attack as part of Russia’s ongoing campaign to take over the town of Bakhmut, Mr Prigozhin said his mercenaries defeated Ukrainian forces days before the Kremlin did so with its own forces claimed the same.
Bakhmut is valued by Moscow as its capture would give Russian forces a stronger position in capturing all Donetsk and Luhansk regions belonging to Donbass.
On February 12, Mr. Prigozhin said Wagner had taken the village of Krasna Hora near Bakhmut, without mentioning Russian forces, as Moscow began launching a major offensive against the city of Donetsk and several other front-line settlements.
There has been much speculation about Mr. Prigozhin’s ambitions in Russian politics, and there are signs that Mr. Putin is alert to possible challenges from his former chef.
The Kremlin has decided to clip Mr. Prigozhin’s wings by ordering him to stop publicly criticizing the Defense Ministry and advising state media to stop mentioning him or Wagner by name.
Mr Prigozhin has since confirmed that he has also been stripped of the right to recruit convicts from prisons – a vital breeding ground for Wagner’s ranks – and hand power back to the government for their own armed forces.
Sergey Markov, a former Kremlin adviser who maintains contacts in political circles, said the Russian government had made Mr Prigozhin promise not to start his own political movement or join a parliamentary party unless told to do so by officials.
“They’re a little scared of him and think he’s an uncomfortable person,” said Mr. Markov.
The group, formerly PMC Wagner, recently relocated its headquarters to an imposing glass tower in St. Petersburg that doubles as a technology hub, housing modern weapons displays in gray corridors full of camouflaged personnel.
Disturbing reports of life in the mercenary group have recently surfaced from former members, including Andrei Medvedev, who applied for asylum in Norway in January after leaving a Wagner regiment in Ukraine.
The 26-year-old said the NCOs were reckless in their attempts to recruit new fighters.
“They would round up those who didn’t want to fight and shoot them in front of the newcomers,” he claimed in an interview with CNN.
“They brought two prisoners who refused to fight, shot them in full view and buried them right in the trenches that the trainees had dug.”
The Department of Defense said last July that Wagner lowered recruiting standards to include previously blacklisted individuals.
Mr. Medvedev claimed that he joined Wagner as a volunteer after serving in the Russian military. He said Wagner fighters were often sent into battle without instruction.
Two former Wagner fighters captured by Ukraine told CNN devastating casualties in attacks reminiscent of World War I allegations.
One recalled his first attack near the village of Bilohorivka in Luhansk and said: “We were 90 people. Sixty died in this first attack from mortar fire. A handful remained wounded.”
The other fighter said he was involved in an advance towards Lysychansk on the Luhansk-Donetsk border.
“The first steps into the forest were difficult because of the many land mines scattered around. Out of ten men, seven were killed instantly,” he said.
The fight lasted five days, he said. “There’s no feeling associated with it. Just wave after the other. four hundred [Wagner fighters] were taken there, and then more and more, more and more.”
More evidence of brutality surfaced on February 14, when footage appeared to show a Russian convict who had fought for Wagner being beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he was accused of fleeing the war.
The opposition Labor Party in the UK is just the latest political organization to call for the Wagner Group to be designated a terrorist organization in response to its barbaric behavior in Ukraine and beyond.
The group made headlines again in early March, after the first anniversary of the start of the war, when Mr Prigozhin once again used Telegram to undermine Moscow by warning that the entire Russian front line in Ukraine would be in jeopardy if its soldiers were finally forced would pull out of Bachmut amid the “munitions hunger,” ostensibly a plea for more resources.
“If Wagner withdraws from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” he said in a four-minute video posted on the encrypted app. “The situation will not be comfortable for all military formations protecting Russian interests.
“If we withdraw, we will forever go down in history as the people who took the greatest step toward defeating the war.” That is precisely the problem of the ammunition hunger.”
His appeal comes amid reports that Russian troops are limited to hand-to-hand combat with shovels due to shortages of guns and bullets.
Fierce fighting around Bakhmut has been going on for months, although residents who have persevered despite the grave danger to their lives are finally fleeing as the departure of Ukraine’s military after a courageous resistance appears inevitable.