Putin ‘confronted’ by head of Wagner group says official
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US commandos dived into foxholes for protection as they battled it out with who they believed were pro-Syrian government forces. A four-hour gunfight, it was perhaps one of the most noteworthy and intense skirmishes of the civil war until that point — May 2018. The Americans came out on top, and it soon transpired that they had not only been fighting pro-Syrian government forces but also Russian mercenaries, part of a little-known outfit called the Wagner Group.
Some 300 of them were killed in the 2018 conflict. But that wasn’t a problem for the group: it would simply go on to recruit yet more ex-soldiers, largely picked out from across the former Soviet Union, who had once likely been a part of the huge and disbanded Red Army and Special Forces.
Since then, reams of information and intelligence have cropped up about the Wagner Group, including about its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch who made his fortune during Russia’s aggressive transition to capitalism in the Nineties.
The group has gone on to be present in many brutal conflicts and civil wars in the last ten years, more often than not on the side of the aggressor or the corrupt regime.
But what exactly is the group? And how does it continue to operate?
Waging war in the Donbas
In March 2014 — a month after the invasion — photographs of armed men in Crimea who looked like members of the Russian military surfaced: their guns were the same as those used by the Russian military; the lorries they rode in had Russian number plates; they spoke Russian with Russian accents.
Yet, Russian state-backed media featured little to no reporting of the mysterious men, who walked the streets of Crimea’s towns and cities.
When asked, Vladimir Putin nonchalantly described them as “self-defence groups” organised by the locals who bought their uniforms in a hardware shop.
Reporters in Russia and Ukraine called the people in military fatigues the “little green men”. To this day it is unclear who the men were.
But, shortly after, it was confirmed that a newly formed mercenary outfit called the Wagner Group had aided Russian troops in the Crimean annexation, and soon after these hired men were also spotted fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, in the Donbas.
It is believed that in the weeks before Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Wagner carried out several false-flag attacks to give the Kremlin a pretext for attacking, and Tracey German, professor of conflict and security at King’s College London, told the BBC: “Its mercenaries are thought to have been some of the ‘little green men’ who occupied the region.”
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For years, it was unclear who exactly was coordinating the Wagner Group. A man named Yevgeny Prigozhin rebuffed claims that he had created the group. Years later, he admitted that the reports were true.
It soon transpired that Prigozhin was a close confidante of the Russian president, nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for his role in providing the Kremlin with catering from his various hospitality businesses.
While it is unclear where and how Prigozhin and Putin met, it is generally believed the two crossed paths in the late Nineties when Prigozhin became involved in the gambling business. Putin at that time was the chairman of the supervisory board for casinos and gambling.
Prigozhin’s business deals and financial exploits are well-documented and are filled with shady dealings, accusations of fraud, and under-cutting public bodies like schools.
In the years since the Nineties, he has struck several multi-billion dollar deals with the Russian government, ensuring a life of luxury. Such deals come with high rewards, but even higher consequences should the benefactor fall out of favour.
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Wagner enter Africa and the Middle East
The presence of Wagner Group fighters in Syria was first picked up in October 2015, a month before Putin confirmed that his military would enter the country to help President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Soon, it was reported that Wagner was being contracted by the Russian Defense Ministry, despite the fact that private military organisations are illegal in Russia.
And while Putin dismissed the claims, Russian newspapers reported FSB officials as confirming that Wagner was in fact being funded by the country’s military. Even today, it is thought that Wagner troops are stationed in Syria.
The mercenaries soon moved west, trickling into Africa to help governments faced with similar civil unrest and popular uprisings, including in Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali.
There were also Wagner Group mercenaries supporting forces helping General Khalifa Haftar in Libya after he launched an attack on the United Nations-backed (UN) government in Tripoli, the country’s capital.
The CAR has even invited the group to guard its precious diamond mines, and the government of Mali is believed to be using Wagner soldiers in its fight against Islamic militant groups. While this on the surface may be seen as a positive for the country, Wagner’s practices and upholding of often-dictatorial regimes outweigh any short-term benefits in the long run.
In 2021, the BBC recovered a Samsung tablet left by a Wagner fighter in Libya, and after sifting through it, discovered a “shopping list” for military equipment that witnesses claimed could only come from Russian army supplies.
The group lacks any ‘code of conduct’ and regularly executes captured prisoners, because ‘no one wants an extra mouth to feed’.
Speaking to two fighters, it was found out that the group lacks any “code of conduct” and regularly executes captured prisoners, because “no one wants an extra mouth to feed”.
The mercenaries are also believed to regularly place landmines and booby traps around civilian areas, towns and small cities that pose no real threat or risk to the government regimes.
When the tablet was found, sources told the BBC that Prigozhin had nothing to do with Wagner. “I am sure that this is an absolute lie,” they said. We know now that is a lie.
Wagner has set up permanent bases in the African countries it operates in, and often provides private security and protection for the state’s leaders.
In doing this, it not only curries favour with the regimes but identifies and recruits worthy soldiers from those countries to fight for Wagner around the world, and troops from the CAF have been spotted in Ukraine on Russia’s side
Prigozhin is thought to make money from all of these operations, and according to the US Treasury, he uses the group’s presence in order to safeguard and enrich the mining companies he owns in Africa. In this way, he plunders the countries of both their young men and their natural resources.
A massacre in Ukraine
Just as it did in 2014 and the following years, Wagner has been fighting in Ukraine since Putin ordered Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.
The group was linked to shady Russian activities even before the invasion. According to The Times, Wagner flew in more than 400 contractors from the CAF in mid-to-late January with orders to find and assassinate Volodymyr Zelenksy and senior members of his government. The suggestion hints that the Kremlin was moving to pave the way for a new Ukrainian president, a puppet leader.
This failed, and by March 3 Zelensky, living in a bunker beneath Bankova — Ukraine’s equivalent of Downing Street — had escaped at least three assassination attempts.
As the war gained momentum, in late March, it was reported that the Wagner Group would increase its presence in Ukraine, fighting alongside the Russian Armed Forces, from around 300 to 1,000 mercenaries.
Initially focused on the Donbas region, Wagner fighters fought in some of the east’s most bloody conflicts, like the Battle of Poasna, the capture of Svitlodarks, the Battle of Sievierodonetsk, and the Battle of Lysychansk, all throughout this time Wagner soldiers training alongside the ordinary Russian military.
March 2022 was perhaps one of the darkest moments of the war, and Wagner is believed to have been at the heart of it. For the entire month, as Russia progressed at a steady rate towards Kyiv from the north, it briefly took many of the capital’s suburbs and commuter towns and cities. One of these was Bucha.
The Bucha massacre, as it is now known, saw almost 500 civilians, according to the Ukrainian government, tortured, raped, starved, slaughtered, and murdered at the hands of Russian troops, with Wagner personnel playing a leading role in the atrocities.
It is impossible to know whether the acts committed were the result of rogue Wagner mercenaries, not subject to the same conditions and discipline as regular army soldiers, or whether they were encouraged by the Kremlin to make a statement and leave a message.
As the year went on, Russia’s military gains waned, and Putin became increasingly desperate to look for ways to edge over the Ukrainians.
In July, Prighozin found an answer to this. He began doing the rounds and personally visiting prisons across Russia to recruit inmates who had no prospects in their lives, many of them serving life sentences for crimes like murder.
These convicts were offered incentives ranging from hundreds of thousands of rubles to being granted amnesty if they served a certain amount of time with Wagner fighting.
If they were killed in action, they were promised their relatives would be given compensation, sums that sometimes reached the low millions, reports suggest.
For many, it seemed like a way out, a literal get-out-of-jail card. But soon, as in all such deals, the reality was far from Prighozin’s promises.
Late last year, a Russian prisoner by the name of Vladimir Valerievich was captured by Ukrainian forces and questioned about his work on camera. It was soon established that he had been serving a prison term for murder and was recruited by Prighozin directly.
He told the Security Services of Ukraine (SSU) that Prighozin told around 1,200 men in the prison yard that they could offer their service to “help the Russian Federation to fight the war,” and that this would help to “wash off our sins with blood”.
Valerievich was guaranteed that if he managed to stay alive he would “get freedom, money, and clean documents.”
He said the prisoners were promised training away from the frontline, and they would only ever be deployed to the most dangerous areas once they were well-versed in war.
But this was not the case. Almost instantly, Valerievich said, he and the others were sent to the Donbas region where some of the most intense fighting was happening. He was made to walk in front of the Wagner mercenaries and Russian Armed Forces “like cannon fodder” in order to scout out Ukrainian positions. Many of the convicts died like this.
Prighozin this month announced he would stop recruiting prisoners to fight for Wagner, which would mark an end to one of the most controversial episodes of the war. Whether this is true, however, cannot be known for certain.
Yet, it may make no difference. In mid-February 2023, the Mirror reported that Putin was pulling Wagner Group forces from Ukraine altogether. The mercenaries will be replaced by as many as 300,000 new troops, all a part of the Russian Armed Forces.
But why have the group’s services been tossed aside? The experts say it is because Putin is worried about the strength and influence Wagner has in Ukraine and the wider region, and fears that it may move to undermine his position in power.
According to the Mirror the likes of Prighozin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov “are all suspected possible plotters against Putin”.
But even if Wagner leaves Ukraine, there is no guarantee that the group will stay away.
Where Wagner will focus its attention now is up for debate, but Prighozin will likely continue his work in Africa and the Middle East, as well as venturing into new regions where instability is as ingrained as corruption.
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