A shadowy group of Kremlin-backed mercenaries who allegedly helped lay the groundwork for the invasion of eastern Ukraine have been accused of some of the worst atrocities around the world.
In 2017, hired guns from Russia’s Wagner Group, a private paramilitary outfit, were reportedly behind the savage mutilation and beheading of a Syrian army deserter.
They have also been linked to widespread rapes and robberies of civilians in the Central African Republic last year, according to human rights groups.
In recent weeks, some 300 Russian operatives from Wagner arrived in the separatist enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine wearing civilian clothes, according to European Union officials cited by the New York Times.
While it’s not clear what their purpose is in the region, Wagner’s paramilitaries, who are largely made up of former Russian soldiers, have, allegedly, increasingly been involved in some of the bloodiest conflicts in the world where Russia has an interest.
“The Russian government has found Wagner and other private military companies to be useful as a way to extend its influence overseas without the visibility and intrusiveness of state military forces,” reads a report on the web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
Although mercenaries are banned under the Russian Criminal Code, state-run firms are allowed to use private armies for their security. There are several such security outfits operating in the country, with the Wagner Group among the most prominent because of its previous involvement in Ukraine in 2014, experts say.
That year, the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic broke away from Ukraine after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. Fighting has continued ever since, with an estimated death toll of more than 14,000.
Wagner’s secretive squads have also been involved in civil wars in Mozambique, Libya and Sudan, among other global hotspots, according to reports. In 2018, US-led coalition forces in Syria injured and killed 300 Wagner-linked operatives, according to reports. Russia has aligned itself with Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad in the country’s nearly 11-year civil war.
The Wagner Group was reportedly founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces colonel and veteran of the two wars in Chechnya. The company is named after Utkin’s call sign (“Wagner”), itself said to be an homage to Adolf Hitler’s favorite opera composer, Richard Wagner. The firm is believed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin who is also known as “Putin’s cook” because restaurants and catering companies he owns have hosted lavish dinner parties for the country’s political elite.
In 2016, the US Office of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Prigozhin, 61, for “having materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support … in support of senior officials of the Russian Federation.” The federal agency accused “a company with significant ties to [Prigozhin]” of holding a contract to build a military base near the border of Ukraine with the intention of using it to deploy Russian soldiers into the country.
Prigozhin was also named, along with 12 other Kremlin-connected Russians, by the US Justice Department in a 2018 indictment for their alleged attempts to subvert the 2016 presidential election. He denied the charges.
Although Russian leaders have denied its existence, the Wagner Group is closely linked with Russian armed forces and uses military transports to go in and out of conflict zones, according to reports. When Wagner mercenaries were sent to Venezuela in 2019 in an ongoing effort to help embattled president Nicolas Maduro, they reportedly arrived onboard Russian Air Force transport planes.
On numerous deployments in Syria, Wagner soldiers have flown in and out of the country on military transport aircraft, according to a 2017 report from the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, a Paris-based think tank.
“Wagner should be viewed as a classic proxy organization” of Russia, according to CSIS, which earlier this month documented the arrival of Wagner operatives in Mali to train government forces and shore up the country’s military rulers.
Last month, when confronted with the existence of Wagner mercenaries in Africa, the Kremlin remained coy. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently blasted the group for “supporting” Mali’s ruling junta, and accused Russia of lying about their existence.
“When we asked our Russian colleagues about Wagner, they said they don’t know anything,” he said in an interview with France 24. “When it comes to mercenaries who are Russian veterans, who have Russian weapons, who are transported by Russian planes, it would be surprising if the Russian authorities did not know about it.”