The Wagner Group: the Kremlin's not-so-secret secret weapon

By Caravanserai and AFP

Wagner Group mercenaries in Ukraine in October. [Wagner Group]

Wagner Group mercenaries in Ukraine in October. [Wagner Group]

PARIS -- For years Yevgeny Prigozhin -- a businessman close to President Vladimir Putin and a fellow St. Petersburg native -- has shied away from the limelight, preferring to operate in the shadows of the Kremlin.

That changed in late September when he finally acknowledged founding the Wagner Group in 2014, calling its fighters "pillars of our motherland".

Although Russian officials have always denied any ties with private military groups, and Wagner has no legal entity in Russia where mercenary companies are illegal, further evidence emerged this week to debunk the Kremlin's claims.

For one, Prigozhin recently vented to Putin about the Russian military's poor handling of the war in Ukraine, according to two US officials familiar with the matter, the Washington Post reported Tuesday (October 25).

A pedestrian walks past a poster displaying Russian soldiers with a slogan reading 'Army of Russia - Army of professionals' decorating a street in Moscow on October 24. [Yuri Kadobnov/AFP]

A pedestrian walks past a poster displaying Russian soldiers with a slogan reading 'Army of Russia - Army of professionals' decorating a street in Moscow on October 24. [Yuri Kadobnov/AFP]

The revelation that Prigozhin felt comfortable enough to give Putin personally such a harsh rebuke of the Russian military in a private setting indicates Prigozhin's rising influence as Moscow's war falters.

"It also highlights the shaky standing of the Russian defence establishment's formal leadership, which has come under fire from Prigozhin and others after months of battlefield errors and losses," the newspaper reported.

Prigozhin also reportedly expressed his view that the Russian Defence Ministry relies too much on Wagner and is not giving the mercenary group sufficient money and resources to fulfil its mission in the conflict, according to a separate US intelligence report that has been circulating in Washington.

'Musicians' in Wagner's 'orchestra'

While Prigozhin has an interest in portraying Wagner as a formidable force in Ukraine, the bar is set extremely low as the Moscow continues to rack up losses, analysts say.

Increased use and spotlighting of the mercenaries are "reflective of wider breakdowns in the Russian military and amongst Russian military leadership", said Karolina Hird of the US-based Institute for the Study of War.

"We've seen in the past months this new rhetoric, originating from Wagner gains, that basically Wagner has become the Kremlin's premier strike force," she said.

That could be a sign of tensions within the Russian elite, where the regular army no longer commands the same respect, Hird said.

"It seems like Prigozhin is trying to curry favour with the Kremlin through pushing his own influence and the gains that his troops have made."

There was little sign of Wagner presence in Ukraine early on in Russia's assault on its neighbour.

Recently, however, "they've become more and more visible, and almost affiliated with the Russian state", said Tracey German, a lecturer in defence studies at King's College London.

One advantage of using mercenaries is that "it allows the Kremlin to avoid having to state casualties" as it would with regular troops -- a boon for a government loath to reveal losses believed by Western sources to mount into the tens of thousands.

Wagner-linked accounts have also been spreading Moscow's propaganda on social media, claiming to be fighting to "liberate the Donbas" and drive out Ukrainian "Nazis".

But the group also strives to set itself apart with imagery and language.

Sporting its logo of a death's head in red crosshairs, members call themselves "musicians" belonging to Wagner's "orchestra".

And they are no longer shy about talking up the role they are playing in Ukraine fighting.

Wagner's chest-beating may be "a way of addressing its own recruitment problems", suggested Yohann Michel, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

"Whatever happens, Wagner won't be able to advance without the rest of the army, there aren't enough of them to mount a successful large offensive," he said.

A video that circulated online in September appeared to show Prigozhin promising a crowd of prison camp inmates pardons if they agreed to fight for Wagner in Ukraine.

Nurtured by the Kremlin

In another blow to the Kremlin's storyline, a former Russian mercenary, who spent years with the Wagner Group in eastern Ukraine and Syria, says the group was from the start nurtured by the Russian government.

"The organisation was created by the defence ministry... the GRU [military intelligence agency] gave responsibility for Wagner to Prigozhin to take care of," Alexander Zlodeyev, 53, told AFP at a centre for newly-arrived asylum seekers in Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport.

Before then, "there was no organisation that could resolve certain problems by military means outside Russian territory," he added.

Zlodeyev said he joined Wagner between 2014 and 2015, at the beginning of the grinding conflict in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region between pro-Moscow separatists and troops loyal to Kyiv, although AFP was not able to verify this or other claims Zlodeyev made.

Zlodeyev insists that he himself did not participate directly in the fighting, but rather he worked in an office "to administer the troops".

In its early days, Wagner was staffed by "trained people who knew what they were doing. Professional soldiers, some who had fought in Chechnya, former officers at the defence ministry," Zlodeyev recalled.

"We got all the military uniforms direct from special warehouses of the GRU. We got very nice uniforms" as well as salaries paid in cash by the intelligence body, he said.

Months later, Zlodyev was sent to Syria, where Wagner took heavy losses as it fought alongside the regular Russian army against the "Islamic State" (IS).

Wagner's war crimes

Since first deploying in Ukraine and then to support the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Wagner men have been active in Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali and in other conflicts around the world.

Wherever they go, Wagner mercenaries have been accused of carrying out war crimes and atrocities against civilians.

In April, Germany's foreign intelligence, known as the BND, says it intercepted radio communications in which Russian soldiers discussed executing Ukrainian civilians.

The radio traffic suggests members of the Wagner Group played a role in the atrocities, including in the town of Bucha, where the streets were left littered with civilians' bodies after the Russians withdrew, people familiar with the findings said.

More than 400 Ukrainian civilians were found executed in Bucha and other areas around the capital, including some bodies found with their hands bound behind their backs.

Around the same time, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Malian forces and members of Wagner of executing about 300 civilians in the town of Moura in late March.

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