L.ONLY OK above is a photo of four men posing in military attire, and the mood seems light. One person is smiling. Another inhales a cigarette, looking straight into the lens. But look under their feet and you will see a severed head on the concrete floor. Before beheading their victim, the men filmed him laughing when they smashed his arms and legs with a sledgehammer. The incident took place in Syria in 2017. The victim reportedly deserted from the Syrian army, and his killers were probably Russians. At least one was identified as an operative with Wagner’s groupRussian mercenaries linked to Russian military intelligence, who are reportedly not operating in Ukraine for the first time.
The most high-profile group of Russian mercenaries, Wagner, has ties that lead directly to President Vladimir Putin. It first became known in Ukraine in 2014, when Russia tried to break off the Donbass region in the east. Then Wagner rendered one of the services that Putin appreciates from mercenaries: denial. Its people could be more believable than Russian soldiers as separatist fighters. Since then the group has been deployed to Fr. many countriesincluding Syria, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) as well as engage in Sudan and Venezuela to always support or establish strongmen assisted by Mr. Putin.
In Ukraine today, Putin can no longer hope for Wagner’s refusal or for the greater benefit of another service he values from mercenaries – a reduction in casualties among soldiers whose families may wonder why their loved ones were sacrificed. With Russia already having about 190,000 troops in Ukraine, even a few thousand Wagnerian mercenaries have little chance of changing the outcome of the war. But they can make his behavior even wilder. For service in Ukraine, Russian recruits appealed to those who had been denied in the past for too little experience or suspicious background. “They take everyone and everything,” said Ilya Rozhdestvensky, a Russian journalist with extensive experience in monitoring mercenaries.
The band reportedly got its name from Hitler’s favorite composer, Wagner, the nickname of its founder, Dmitry Utkin. Mr. Utkin is a veteran of Russia’s military intelligence GRUwho fought in both Chechen wars and later ruled the elite Swat team, or special forces, unit. Wagner’s ties with the Russian armed forces continue. Her training camp in Russia is next to Fr. GRU object. In Libya, Syria, and Venezuela, Russian military aircraft transported and departed Wagner’s operatives; in Libya, the Russian armed forces also provided them with good supplies. A Wagner document found in Libya found a list of purchases of military equipment, including tanks, an advanced radar system and hundreds of Kalashnikov assault rifles. Part of the equipment could probably be provided only by the Russian armed forces.
Wagner’s operatives often use passports issued by a special bureau linked to the Department of Defense, the bureau that issued the passports of two men who in 2018 tried to kill Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy in Britain. In 2020, when Belarus unexpectedly arrested 33 Russians who appeared to belong to the Wagner group, Putin showed personal interest and worked to secure their release. “They’re not independent at all,” sums up Kimberly Martin of Columbia University’s Barnard College.
Like all mercenaries in Russia, Wagner’s group does not officially exist because Russian law does not allow mercenaries. However, in 2018, Putin acknowledged its existence, suggesting that his work was good provided it took place outside of Russia. “They have every right to work and promote their business interests anywhere in the world,” he said. Not surprisingly, the Russian authorities have shown little interest in holding Wagner’s forces accountable for their behavior, including torture in Syria.
It is estimated that about 10,000 people have served with Wagner since its inception, most of them former Russian soldiers with combat experience. Recruiters are said to prefer those who have special military skills and no criminal record. The work is well paid: mercenaries in Africa earn as much as $ 4,000 a month.
Although Wagner’s mercenaries were sent on missions that served Russia’s geopolitical interests, the organization also made a lot of money along the way. Wagner operates in most places, such as Mali or CAR, it is paid by the local government. Sometimes the deal is accompanied by control over gold or diamond mines handed over to Wagner or companies associated with the group’s main supporter Eugene Prigogine. In Syria, Mr. Prigogine was cut into oil fields; in Mali, Wagner reportedly takes away $ 10 million a month.
Sometimes it seems that Mr. Prigogine has had tensions with some Russian officials, such as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. In 2018, U.S. air strikes killed about 200 Russian mercenaries who attacked a U.S.-backed Kurdish outpost near Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria; Russia’s regular army reportedly did little to prevent the massacre. However, Wagner seems to have recovered from such setbacks, perhaps thanks to Mr Prigogine’s ties to the Kremlin.
In his youth, Mr. Prigogine was in a Soviet prison, and after his release opened a kiosk with hot dogs in St. Petersburg. From this humble beginning, it has evolved into restaurants that have attracted the city’s elite. After Putin became president in 2000, he began bringing high-ranking guests to Prigogine’s institutions; It is reported that President George W. Bush dined on duck liver pate, black caviar and steak with morels at the beautiful New Island restaurant floating in the Neva. Soon more lucrative contracts emerged for Mr. Prigogine to feed the armed forces. He was later entrusted with more serious missions, including a group of mercenaries who became Wagner, and the Internet “troll farm”, the Internet Research Agency, which was accused by Robert Mueller, special prosecutor, of spreading misinformation on the Internet to prevent American to the President. elections in 2016.
Despite all his lucrative business, Wagner’s record is mixed. This served Putin’s goals in the Donbass in 2014 and beyond. And in Syria, Wagner’s mercenaries are believed to have played a key role in recapturing the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State and in helping Russia’s armed forces keep Bashar al-Assad in power. But in 2019, when Wagner was hired to fight jihadists in northern Mozambique, his fighters quickly retreated after at least seven of them were killed. In Libya, about 1,000 Russian mercenaries fought for Caliph Haftar, a rebel general, against an unrecognized government. They did not overthrow the government and were charged with war crimes, including killing civilians. У CARabout 2,000 Wagner mercenaries support President Fosten-Orshang Tuader, but are far from defeating the rebels to overthrow him.
Over the past six months, about 1,000 Wagner operatives have arrived in Mali. They have already been accused of Fr. UN a report of involvement with Malian soldiers in a rally of about 30 people, pouring petrol on them and burning them alive. The Human Rights Watch press group says Russian mercenaries from the Malian forces have executed about 300 suspected Islamist fighters, an incident it calls “the worst single atrocity recorded in the decade-long armed conflict in Mali.” Meanwhile, the jihadists continue the offensive.
The mission is crawling
Reports of Wagner’s arrival in Ukraine appeared a few days after the invasion. Ukraine’s security services have announced that mercenaries have been sent to assassinate Volodymyr Zelensky, the president and other officials. But there has been no independent confirmation of this, and analysts and journalists tracking the group believe their use for such a fragile mission is unlikely. Mercenaries do not seem to be fighting alongside Russian soldiers who have invaded from Russia, Belarus and Crimea. Ukraine has released only two Wagner-linked fighters among the many Russians captured; these people said they had fought with the group in the past, but came to Ukraine with a regular Russian army.
Instead, mercenaries are reportedly moving to parts of Donetsk and Luhansk that have already been occupied to back up separatists trying to break through Ukrainian borders. On March 28, the UK Ministry of Defense said it expected Wagner to deploy more than 1,000 mercenaries in eastern Ukraine, including top officials. So far, those heading to Ukraine do not seem to be from the main group. “They use Wagner’s old infrastructure – the base, the recruitment channels,” said Ilya Barabanov, a Russian journalist who has written extensively about the group. “But that’s not what we used to call ‘Wagner.'” Ukraine’s military intelligence says that the mercenaries are a new incarnation of Wagner called “League”, in Russian “League”. They are offered more than 200,000 rubles ($ 2,367) a month, which is several times more than ordinary soldiers usually receive.
Russia can also appeal to Syrians and others who once fought alongside Wagner. Russia’s Defense Minister Shoigu told Putin that 16,000 “volunteers” from the Middle East were ready to fight in Ukraine. Video from CAR also show armed African men who say they want to fight for Russia. Despite the fact that so far there is no evidence that Ukraine has more than it got, foreign fighters can add more than some mercenaries. But they may not be particularly motivated. Many are likely to be “pressed” to do so, as was the case when Russia sent Syrians to support Mr Haftar’s failed push in Libya, Ms Marten said. During the decade of civil conflict, Syrian soldiers have shown more ability to steal household appliances and sell drugs than to fight.
Western intelligence suggests that some of Wagner’s mercenaries may leave Libya for Ukraine. Maybe even a few are leaving CAR. But so far the signs of relocations are limited. “Nobody terminated the other commercial contracts,” Mr. Barabanov said. Indeed, long after the war in Ukraine began, Wagner sent more mercenaries to Mali, says a French military official. “We believe there is no serious impact on the deployment in Mali and CAR“- he adds. Even if more Russian mercenaries do arrive in Ukraine, their records suggest that they may contribute less to the height of the conflict than to increasing the list of war crimes. ■
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