Russian soldiers fight in Ukraine has been supported on the battlefield by tens of thousands of mercenaries from a shadowy group led by a businessman and longtime associate of the president Vladimir Putin.
The The Wagner group is a private military company under the control of Yevgeny Prigozhin who cut their teeth in deployments to Crimea and eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region in 2014 and has since deployed troops to several conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, including civil war in Syria.
IN RussiaWagner’s invasion of Ukraine has proved indispensable, 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 business has hosted dinners for the Russian president and fed the Kremlin’s armed forces – denied any links to the group until last September when he announced he was “proud” to be its founder.
He said he founded Wagner to support Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas conflict.
“I cleaned the old weapons myself, sorted out the bulletproof vests myself and found specialists who could help me with this,” said Prigozhin. “From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later came to be known as the Wagner Battalion.”
Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian intelligence officer, is said to be one of the founders who remains near the top of the group’s command.
Since its formation, Wagner has been accused of committing human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, 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, Prigozhin had a history of suing Russian and Western news media alleging his ties to the group. His secret position was to protect the Wagner soldiers, he has claimed.
Mr Prigozhin was eventually forced to admit his links 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, making up a quarter of Russia’s total force.
War contractors are nothing new, but military analysts say the Kremlin has relied heavily on Wagner because of the heavy losses suffered by official Russian forces during the war, along with difficulties in recruitment.
The UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) first reported that Wagner had been deployed to Ukraine on 28 March 2022, just over a month into the conflict after Russian losses had already begun to slow the pace of the initial attack.
Wagner has since played significant roles in capturing towns such as Soledar, Popasna and Lysychansk – offering relative operational competence while the Kremlin has been forced to repeatedly change command of its own forces in the face of losses.
Mr. Prigozhin has made an effort bring out victories for Wagner in Ukraine, sometimes putting him at odds with the Kremlin line. He has even accused Russia’s defense minister of taking credit for Wagner’s success.
In the battle for Soledar, a small town under intense attack as part of Russia’s still ongoing campaign to take over the town BakhmutMr. Prigozhin said his mercenaries had prevailed over Ukrainian forces days before the Kremlin said its own troops had done the same.
Bakhmut is prized by Moscow because its capture would put Russian forces in a stronger position in the goal of capturing all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that make up Donbas.
February 12, Mr. Prigozhin said Wagner had taken the village of Krasna Hora near Bakhmut, not to mention Russian forces such as Moscow began to launch a major offensive targeting the city of Donetsk along with several other frontline settlements.
Speculation has run rampant over Prigozhin’s ambitions in Russian politics and there are signs that Putin is sensitive to any challenge from his former chef.
The Kremlin has moved to clip Prigozhin’s wings and order him to stop his public criticism of the Defense Ministry while advising state media to stop mentioning him or Wagner by name.
Mr Prigozhin has since confirmed that he had also been stripped of the right to recruit convicts from prisons – a key feeding ground for Wagner’s ranks – handing power back to the government for his own forces.
Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser who maintains contacts in political circles, said the Russian government extracted a promise from Mr Prigozhin that he would not create his own political movement or join a parliamentary party unless officials told him to the.
“They’re a little afraid of him and think he’s an awkward person,” Markov said.
The group, formally PMC Wagner, recently moved its headquarters to an imposing glass high-rise in St. Petersburg, which doubles as a technology center and holds exhibitions of advanced weaponry along gray corridors filled with camouflaged personnel.
Disturbing accounts of life in the mercenary group have recently emerged from former members, including Andrey MedvedevWHO applied for asylum in Norway in January after deserting a Wagner regiment in the Ukraine.
The 26-year-old said sergeants were ruthless in their efforts to recruit new fighters.
“They would round up those who didn’t want to fight and shoot them in front of newcomers,” he claimed in an interview with CNN.
“They took two prisoners who refused to go and fight and they shot them in front of everyone and buried them right in the trenches dug by the trainees.”
The MoD said last July that Wagner lowered recruitment standards to include previously blacklisted individuals.
Mr Medvedev claimed he joined Wagner as a volunteer after serving in the Russian military. He said Wagner fighters were often sent into battle with little direction.
Two former Wagner fighters captured by Ukraine told CNN of devastating losses in raids reminiscent of World War I charges.
Recalling his first assault near the village of Bilohorivka in Luhansk, one said: “There were 90 of us. Sixty died in the first attack, killed by mortar fire. A handful remained injured.”
The other fighter said he was involved in a push for Lysychansk on the border between Luhansk and Donetsk.
“The first steps into the forest were difficult because of all the landmines that were spread out. Out of ten guys, seven were killed instantly,” he said.
The fight went on for five days, he said. “There’s no emotion attached to it. Just wave after wave. Four hundred (Wagner fighters) were brought there, and then more and more, all the time.”
Further evidence of brutality appeared on February 14, which pictures seemed to show a Russian convict who fought for Wagner to be beaten to death with a sledgehammer after being accused of fleeing the war.
Britain’s opposition Labor Party is just the latest political organization to demand that the Wagner Group become one classified as a terrorist organization in response to its barbaric behavior inside and outside of Ukraine.
The group made headlines again in early March, after the one-year anniversary of the start of the war, when Prigozhin again took to Telegram to undermine Moscow by warning that the entire Russian front line in Ukraine would be at risk if his troops were eventually forced to withdraw from Bakhmut mitt “ammunition hunger”seemingly 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 sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests.
“If we withdraw, we will go down in history forever as people who have taken the main step towards losing the war. This is precisely the problem with ammunition starvation.”
His appeal comes amid reports that Russian troops have been reduced to engages in hand-to-hand combat with spades due to the lack of guns and bullets.
Fighting has been intense around Bakhmut for months, although local residents who have held on despite the significant danger to their lives now finally escape as the withdrawal of the Ukrainian military begins to look inevitable after a brave fight.