The Wagner Group, accused of numerous war crimes, has sent tens of thousands of mercenaries to fight in Ukraine. Here's everything you need to know:
What is the Wagner Group?
It is a private military company that, despite having no formal ties to the Kremlin, does the dirty work of flexing Russia's geopolitical muscle around the world. Wagner forces have operated in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and dozens of other countries, where they've committed a long list of atrocities. The group, which first appeared in eastern Ukraine in 2014 following the Russian invasion of Crimea, was originally commanded by Dmitry Utkin, a Russian military intelligence veteran who reportedly so admired Adolf Hitler that he named the group after the Nazi leader's favorite composer. Wagner forces were assigned to hunt down and kill Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv when the invasion began in February 2022, but failed. Nonetheless, the group's presence in Ukraine has expanded during the war from a few thousand mainly professional fighters to more than 50,000, including some 40,000 ex-convicts. Wagner forces claimed credit for taking the town of Soledar in Donetsk Oblast in January, and they've taken over key operations in the Russian campaign to capture Bakhmut. "It's pretty apparent to us," said U.S. national security spokesman John Kirby, "that Wagner is emerging as a rival power center to the Russian military."
Who is its leader?
Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who finally acknowledged owning and running Wagner in September after years of denials. A thuggish St. Petersburg native jailed for most of the 1980s for assault, robbery, and other crimes, he established a hot-dog stand when he was released, as the Soviet Union collapsed. By the early 2000s, his business empire included high-end restaurants where Vladimir Putin chose to entertain George W. Bush and other foreign dignitaries. "Putin's chef," as Prigozhin would become known, would eventually reap more than $3 billion in government catering contracts. He also founded the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that spread misinformation on Facebook and other social media about the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Though Prigozhin became one of the world's most sanctioned people, an elaborate system of shell companies and Wagner-controlled drilling and mining operations overseas appear to keep his pockets well-lined.
Where are recruits coming from?
Originally, Wagner attracted veterans of Russian special operations and military intelligence. It also recruits elite fighters from Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries. But for non-command posts, its standards are lower: Prigozhin himself was filmed in 2022 visiting Russian prisons, claiming anyone who joined Wagner in Ukraine for six months — even convicted murderers — would be pardoned. The catch is that many of the convicts who enlist don't live for six months. U.S. intelligence estimates that convicts make up 90 percent of Wagner casualties, and Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak recently tweeted that 77 percent of Russian convict recruits have been killed, wounded, or captured, or have gone missing. The company deters desertions by immediately executing any recruit who tries to escape or disobeys orders. "They would round up those who did not want to fight and shoot them in front of newcomers," said former Wagner unit commander Andrei Medvedev, who fought near Bakhmut before defecting to Norway in January. "There were more dead bodies, and more and more."
How do Wagner forces fight?
In Ukraine, Wagner generally deploys forces in mobile groups of about a dozen or fewer fighters. The infantrymen go into battle in World War I–style formations, with waves of more experienced, better-equipped fighters behind them. When the Ukrainian army mows down the frontline Wagner recruits with machine guns and artillery, the Ukrainians reveal their positions, enabling Russia to attack them. Wagner forces have been savagely brutal in territory they occupy, and played a central role in the March 2022 massacre of more than 400 Ukrainians — including nine children — in Bucha, as well as other towns near Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have alleged that Wagner forces have committed thousands of other war crimes.
Will Wagner continue to expand?
Not necessarily. Hard-line Russian nationalists may often tout Prigozhin online as a potential successor to Putin, but he has publicly antagonized the country's top military brass, accusing them of eating off "golden plates" while skimping on supplies to Wagner forces. The Kremlin has recently taken steps to curb his influence. In January, Putin placed one of Prigozhin's major nemeses, Gen. Valery Gerasi-mov, in direct charge of Russian forces in Ukraine. Facing pushback from Russian authorities, Prigozhin stopped recruiting in prisons and last week backed off his earlier criticism, saying the Russian military is now supplying more ammunition to Wagner forces. Russia has committed about 80 percent of its ground forces to Ukraine but is still struggling to hold territory, so Putin can't afford to lose the support of Prigozhin or Wagner. That means an uneasy truce between Prigozhin and the Defense Ministry — at least for now. "Prigozhin has no shortage of enemies," writes journalist Tatiana Stanovaya, but "every day, the gap is growing between the role that Putin has assigned to Wagner and the place that Prigozhin himself believes he deserves."
Wagner boots have touched ground in at least 18 African countries, helping corrupt dictators battle insurgents in exchange for a share of the nations' raw goods. About 1,000 Wagner mercenaries are thought to be stationed in Mali, helping Russian-backed President Assimi Goïta fight off Islamist rebels as troops from France — Mali's onetime colonial occupier — withdraw. In exchange, U.S. military sources estimate, the poor nation pays Wagner $10 million a month, mainly in gold and precious stones. Since the group's arrival, killings of civilians have increased threefold, and Russian mercenaries have been implicated in several massacres. Wagner runs a massive gold-mining operation in Sudan, where in 2019 forces trained by the group mowed down more than 100 protesters. And in Central African Republic, Wagner mercenaries beat back a 2021 rebel advance on the capital Bangui and have allegedly killed dozens of civilians. U.S. officials are trying to convince the country's leaders to cut ties with Wagner, but so far, they've been rebuffed by Prime Minister Félix Moloua. "At least Wagner does something," he said.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.