What Is The Wagner Group And How Is It Impacting Russia's War In Ukraine?

They have been nicknamed Vladimir Putin's private army.
The Wagner HQ
The Wagner HQ
via Associated Press

The Wagner Group is suddenly popping up in headlines around the world – but who are they and why are they important?

This team of private paramilitaries appeared come out of nowhere when they claimed victory in the Ukrainian town of Soledar earlier this year.

But, they actually have a history with Moscow – and Vladimir Putin – stretching back almost a decade, even though the Russian president continues to deny any such connection.

As the group start to go more public with their military accomplishments, here’s what you need to know about why they’re different to the main Russian forces.

Where did the Wagner Group come from?

The Wagner private military company (also known as Wagner PMC) really took off in 2014.

It was the same year that Russia had seized the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine started to push back against Kyiv.

Headed up and financed by a Russian oligarch and former convict, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the covert group of mercenaries began showing up to support the Russian troops in unmarked green uniforms.

Since then, it has grown exponentially, taking on 10,000s of soldiers (usually veterans) who can come straight from elite backgrounds or straight from prison.

What marks them apart from rest of the Russian soldiers is their illegal status. Private military contractors are forbidden in Russia, so the whole group works outside of the country’s law.

That means this is a covert group of significant military force and political influence operations which – according to Vox – makes money by serving Moscow, and exploiting natural commodities in target countries (including oil).

Even Prigozhin denied any link to the group until September 2022 when he admitted he founded it.

Evgeny Prigozhin assists Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a dinner with foreign scholars and journalists in 2011
Evgeny Prigozhin assists Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a dinner with foreign scholars and journalists in 2011
POOL New via Reuters

What is its relationship with Putin?

For the best part of the last decade, the paramilitaries were not a problem for the Kremlin, or for Putin.

Prigozhin actually knows the Russian president, and was previously nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his expanse of catering companies which catered to the Kremlin.

And, the Wagner group extend Russia’s influence around the world, without Moscow ever being accountable for its actions.

For instance, it can deliver weapons and military services to countries with which Russia has a military technical agreement in Africa, the Middle East as well as Ukraine, particularly those with an unstable government.

Putin publicly denied any connection to the group in February 2022, according to Reuters.

Prigozhin shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg on September 20, 2010
Prigozhin shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg on September 20, 2010

Why are we talking about it now?

Russia’s defence ministry claimed in January that it had managed to seize the Ukrainian town of Soledar, the first significant victory for Putin’s troops in months.

It did not mention Wagner.

Then Prigozhin, who has been vocal in his criticisms of the Russian army and claimed his own forces were the best in the world, issued a claim that Soledar had already fallen (even before it actually had).

He said the victory there was solely down to his troops.

He also accused the Russian ministry of “constantly trying to steal Wagner’s victory”, pushing Moscow to suddenly acknowledge the group’s “courageous and selfless action” on the battlefield.

Since then, the Wagner group seem to have become more more prominent. They have an online presence and an HQ in St Petersburg.

This has subsequently attracted more sanctions against the group from around the world and increased global scrutiny.

Are things turning sour with the Kremlin?

In early February the UK’s Ministry of Defence claimed: “Significant tensions between Wagner and the Russian ministry of defence are playing out in public.”

The UK intelligence noted that the scale of the paramilitary’s “convict recruitment programme has probably significantly reduced” compared to its peak between summer and autumn last year.

The MoD has previously speculated that the Wagner Group relied on “poorly-trained convicts” who are just given a smart phone or tablet and told to follow a pre-planned route using commercial satellite imagery to launch their offensives.

The MoD also claimed the Kremlin thinks the Wagner troops are expendable.

The latest prediction from UK intelligence is that there is a 50% casualty rate among the paramilitary group.

The MoD also suggested that the Russian army was trying to wean itself off its dependence on the group, explaining: “Anecdotal evidence from Ukrainian combatants over the last ten days suggests a reduced Russian reliance on human wave style assaults by Wagner convict fighters in key sectors.”

The UK officials speculated that “competition between factions in the Russian elite is likely to be partially responsible for the reduced supply of convicts.”

This speculation came shortly after Putin appointed a new commander to watch over the war in Ukraine, General Valery Gerasimov.

According to the New York Times, Gerasimov’s appointment was “seen as an attempt to keep [Prigozhin] in check”.

But, in January, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied there was a rift.

According to Reuters, he said: “These are mainly products of informational manipulations, which are, okay, sometimes arranged by our informational opponents, but sometimes our friends behave in such a way that such enemies are not needed.

He claimed that Russia recognised both groups as heroes and “both of them will be forever in our memory”.

The Kremlin also had to quash claims on February 16 that it had advised the state media to stop mentioned Wagner or Prigozhin.

The Kremlin told Reuters: “There were no recommendations from the Kremlin to the media. There are a lot of myths and fakes circulating around Prigozhin and Wagner.”

The PMC Wagner Group entrance
The PMC Wagner Group entrance
OLGA MALTSEVA via Getty Images

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