What is the Wagner Group, and is it in Ukraine?
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has claimed that members of the Wagner Group — Russia’s shadowy private military — are taking up arms in the country, which is entering its third week of fighting Russian forces.
In a Facebook post this week, the Defense Ministry shared an image of a dog tag that allegedly belonged to a Wagner mercenary soldier. “Wagnerists are already dying on the territory of Ukraine,” the post read.
Reports of the private military in Ukraine have been backed up by the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense, which said Russia is “likely deploying” Wagner soldiers to help Kremlin-led forces. “The Russian state almost certainly maintains extensive links with Russian [private military companies], despite repeated denials,” a statement from the ministry said. A report from the British newspaper the Times on Feb. 28 claimed that more than 400 mercenaries from the group had been deployed to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ukraine claims that as of March 9, Zelensky had survived at least 12 assassination attempts — two of which were allegedly orchestrated by the Wagner Group.
What is the Wagner Group?
According to researchers, no single business is registered as Wagner, so it is most likely a network of businesses and groups of mercenaries that are linked through ownership. “From a legal perspective, Wagner doesn’t exist,” Sorcha MacLeod, who runs the United Nations’ working group on the use of mercenaries, told the Economist.
However, Candace Rondeaux, a senior fellow at the Center on the Future of War, explained to Foreign Policy magazine that referring to the mercenaries as the Wagner Group is “extremely problematic,” as it “makes them sound like these ghostly operators that cannot be traced, and that’s just not the case.” The company is said to have at least 6,000 employees and is reportedly registered in Argentina, with offices in Hong Kong and St. Petersburg, Russia.
The private soldiers are arguably the world’s most effective mercenary army, with strong connections to the Kremlin. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Wagner’s “management and operations are deeply intertwined with the Russian military and its intelligence community.”
Wagner has been accused of acting as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invisible hand in countries around the world, allowing the Kremlin to engage in plausible deniability. The group has reportedly been found operating in Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela and the Central African Republic. Wagner has been accused of committing war crimes as well as creating troll farms that have tampered with electoral processes and Western democracy.
According to a European Union regulation that was issued in December 2021 to implement sanctions against people linked to the Wagner Group, the private militia was founded by the elusive Dmitry Utkin. The former Russian military intelligence officer, who served in both Chechen wars, reportedly named the group after Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner. Another theory from the CSIS says the company was named after Utkin’s call sign (a name given as a unique identifier for military communications), “Vagner.”
Although it cannot be verified that Utkin created Wagner, he has participated in Russian operations in Ukraine since 2014, the CSIS said. His close connection to the Kremlin was publicized when an image of him, allegedly at a reception in Moscow, was shared on Twitter in 2016. Reports claim that Utkin attended the ceremony, where he was given the Order for Courage for his alleged service in Ukraine. The group was born out of the conflict in Ukraine during the annexation of Crimea. For years Wagner has been accused of fighting in the two disputed parts of eastern Ukraine, Luhansk and Donetsk, pro-Russian regions that declared their independence in 2014.
The group is believed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, oligarch and close friend to the Russian president, also known as “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin is wanted by the FBI for his alleged involvement in the notorious troll farm that targeted and interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Prigozhin has been placed on both U.S. and EU sanctions lists for running disinformation campaigns to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He has previously denied any connection to Wagner.
Reported war crimes
The mercenaries, who are known for their heinous acts, have reportedly fought in many conflicts across continents, including the war in Syria. In March 2021, a lawsuit was filed against the Wagner Group by a Syrian man who claimed the group had committed war crimes. The complaint is based on a video posted online in 2017 that reportedly showed an unarmed man being interrogated by Russian-speaking men in military uniforms. In 2019, another video purportedly showed the same man being beaten, tortured and beheaded, and his body being burned.
Last year, U.N. experts said Wagner had committed human rights abuses in the Central African Republic while fighting alongside government forces. The alleged violations included mass executions and torture during interrogation. A report from February 2021 stated that over 276,000 civilians had also been forcibly displaced since December 2020.
The EU then imposed sanctions against eight people connected to the group, including Utkin, as well as three energy companies linked to the group in Syria. “Wagner Group has recruited, trained and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law,” the EU stated.