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What is the Wagner group, and who is Yevgeny Prigozhin? What to know about the Russian private military company

June 25, 2023

For years, it was shrouded in secrecy, then infamy. Now, as an apparent power struggle brings confusion and claims of an insurrection in Russia, questions about the notorious Wagner group and the intentions of its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin are swirling.

The group has been a key piece of Russia’s strategy in Ukraine, with Wagner forces being used to hold cities like Bakhmut. Prigozhin has sharply criticized Russian military leadership for weeks, calling top brass incompetent, even traitorous. He has also refused to sign a contract to cooperate with the Russian Defense Ministry.

Tensions between Russia’s defense ministry and Wagner escalated dramatically Friday when Prigozhin alleged that Russian forces had attacked Wagner field camps in eastern Ukraine. Late Friday, Prigozhin issued video taped remarks that appeared to call for a rebellion against Russian military leadership, but he was characteristically vague in defining his plans.

Prigozhin said early Saturday that Wagner forces had left Ukraine for Russia and had reached the city of Rostov-on-Don, which is home to the Russian military headquarters for the southern region and oversees the fighting in Ukraine. In an intelligence meeting, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Prigozhin’s forces appeared to control the military headquarters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the uprising “a stab in the back” in a televised address Saturday morning.

“All those who prepared the rebellion will suffer inevitable punishment,” Putin said. “The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.”

What is the Wagner group?

The Wagner group is a group of entities that operate as a private military company, or PMC. These PMCs can be hired by governments for security or combat services.

They aren’t uncommon: The United States has used private military companies during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, there are differences between the commonly accepted definition of a PMC and Russia’s version of the companies.

“In NATO countries, in Western countries, the main logic behind using private contractors when it comes to security and defense policy has been the flexibility of resources,” said Dr. András Rácz, a Russian expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “However, on the Russian side, the logic has been different. Russia, from the beginning, perceived these companies as a way of exerting state power in a covert way.”

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

As Wagner’s publicity has grown, so has that of its shadowy founder, Prigozhin. His work running a catering company with Kremlin contracts earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef,” but Prigozhin long denied any connection to the group before finally admitting to being its founder last year.

“Prigozhin is a mastermind of media and also is the mastermind of social media,” said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a public policy research based in Washington, D.C. “While Putin and his propagandists have been dominating the Russian television and traditional outlets, Prigozhin is innovative because he had weaponized a network of military correspondents, military correspondents and bloggers.”

Prigozhin is wanted by the FBI for “Conspiracy to Defraud the United States.” The federal law enforcement agency is offering a $250,000 award for information leading to Prigozhin’s arrest for allegedly overseeing the political and electoral interference of the St. Petersburg, Florida-based Internet Research Agency from 2014 to 2018. The agency, for which Prigozhin was the primary funder, worked to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the FBI alleged.

Prigozhin has criticized Russian military commanders as the country failed to make significant gains in Ukraine. Meanwhile, he has positioned himself as a hero.

“He knows that his key differentiator from the Kremlin propaganda is that level of criticism, level of honesty, you know, that things are not really going as well, and criticism sells,” Stepanenko said. “And I think that that’s the platform that he’s really trying to advance on and solidify himself as a prominent figure in Russia.”

Where else has the Wagner group operated?

Wagner first popped up in Ukraine in 2014, when soldiers in unmarked uniforms appeared to help pro-Russian forces illegally annex territory for Russia.

In addition to deploying Wagner troops to Ukraine, the Wagner group has been active in Africa, where some nations are turning to Wagner to fill security gaps or prop up dictatorial regimes.

“In most cases, they provide training for local military forces, local security forces, but they are also engaged in VIP protection, also in guarding. And if necessary, they are able to conduct also high intensity operations, I mean real combat,” said Rácz.

In some countries, like the Central African Republic, Wagner exchanges services for almost unfettered access to natural resources. A CBS News investigation found that Russian cargo flights stopped in the country twice a week, possibly smuggling billions of dollars’ worth of gold back to Russia.

In 2022, the private army became a major part of Russia’s invasion, even recruiting fighters from Russian prisons and promising them pardons to beef up numbers on the battlefield. In February, Prigozhin said that practice would be stopped.

How does the Wagner group act?

As the operations of the once-shadowy group have become more public, so have their tactics.

Wagner mercenaries have been accused of atrocities, including mass murder and rape, across Africa and alongside Russian forces in Ukraine.

In Ukraine, fighters have been charged with thousands of war crimes. When previously asked for comment, the Wagner group dismissed questions from CBS News as boorish and provocative, and insisted the company did not commit these crimes.

In addition to their actions on the battlefield, military experts say Wagner recruits have been poorly equipped or even used as cannon fodder. U.S. officials estimate that about 30,000 Wagner fighters have been killed or wounded so far in Ukraine, all while Russia’s advance has stalled or been pushed back, raising questions about the future of the group, and its leader, Prigozhin.

Experts said it’s possible the group could be replaced by Putin.

“I think that Wagner, insofar as it’s been useful in Ukraine, could certainly be replaced by others. Where you start to have much more of an issue in replacing Wagner and in replacing Prigozhin is in a place like sub-Saharan Africa,” said Catrina Doxsee, an associate director and associate fellow for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“As the U.S. and other Western countries, including in Europe, try to dislodge Russia’s influence and try to make the argument against Wagner, there really needs to be this conversation about viable alternatives,” for countries in the developing world to meet their security and development needs.


Source: CBS News


#Wagner group  # Yevgeny Prigozhin  # mercenaries

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