Wagner’s brutality gives Russia the upper hand in Ukraine war

Fierce battles in eastern Ukraine have put a spotlight on Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military company run by a rogue millionaire with long-standing ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner has spearheaded the push to jump-start Russia’s stalled offensive in the Donetsk province, in eastern Ukraine. Fierce house-to-house fighting has produced some of the bloodiest fighting since Russia sent troops to Ukraine, with Wagner’s staff “marching over the bodies of their own soldiers,” as Ukrainian authorities put it.

The United States this week expanded sanctions against Wagner for his role in Ukraine and mercenary activities in Africa..

Here’s a look at the history of the Wagner Group and its current role in the fight.


Yevgeny Prigozhin, who received a 12-year prison term in 1981 on robbery and assault charges, opened a restaurant business in St. Petersburg after his release from prison. It was in this capacity that he met Putin, who served as the city’s deputy mayor in the 1990s.

Prigozhin, 61, used his ties to Putin to develop a catering business and won lucrative Russian government contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” He later branched out into other businesses, including the media and an infamous “troll factory” that led to indictment of him in the US for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Prigozhin denied any ties to the Wagner Group before acknowledging ownership of the company in September. This month, he stated that he, too, founded, led and financed it.


The Wagner Group was first seen in action in eastern Ukraine shortly after a separatist conflict broke out there in April 2014, weeks after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

While backing a separatist insurgency in the Donbas, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, Russia has denied sending its own weapons and troops there despite ample evidence to the contrary. Involving private contractors in the fight allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of denial.

Prigozhin’s company was named Wagner after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel in the special forces of the Russian army.

He soon established a reputation for extreme brutality and cruelty.

Along with Ukraine, Wagner’s staff deployed to Syria, where Russia supported the government of President Bashar Assad in the country’s civil war. In Libya, they fought alongside the forces of Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter.

The group has also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.

Prigozhin has reportedly used Wagner’s deployment in Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts.

US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that the company was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to finance its operations in Ukraine.

Some Russian media have alleged Wagner’s involvement in the murders of three Russian journalists in July 2018. who were shot dead in the Central African Republic while investigating the group’s activities there. The murders remain unsolved.


Western countries and United Nations experts have accused Wagner Group mercenaries of committing numerous human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.

In December 2021, the European Union accused the group of “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings”, and of carrying out “destabilizing activities” in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

Some of the reported incidents stood out for their grisly brutality.

A 2017 video posted online showed a group of armed individuals, allegedly Wagner’s contractors, torturing a Syrian man, beating him to death with a sledgehammer and cutting off his head before mutilating and then burning his body. The Russian authorities ignored requests from the media and rights activists to investigate the murder.

In November 2022, another video surfaced online showing a former Wagner contractor being bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to the Ukrainian side and was recaptured. Despite public outrage and a series of demands for an investigation, the Kremlin turned a blind eye.


The Wagner Group has taken an increasingly visible role in the Ukraine war, as Russian regular troops suffered great attrition and lost control of some previously captured territory in a series of humiliating setbacks.

Prigozhin claimed full credit this month for capturing the Donetsk region’s salt-mining town of Soledar, accusing the Russian Defense Ministry of trying to steal the glory from Wagner. He said Wagner was leading the attack on the town of Bakhmut, a nearby Ukrainian stronghold that Russian forces have been trying to take for months.

Prigozhin has toured Russian prisons recruiting fighters, promising pardons to inmates if they survived a half-year tour of front-line service with Wagner. He recently posted a video in which he congratulates the first group of convicts who received official pardons and the right to leave the company.

The United States estimates that Wagner has lost about 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 of the convicts the company recruited.

The United States assesses that Wagner is spending about $100 million a month on the fight and has received weapons from North Korea, including rockets and missiles.


Wagner’s reach for North Korean weapons may reflect his longstanding feud with Russian military leadership, dating back to the company’s creation.

A group of soldiers posing as Wagner’s contractors on the front line in Ukraine recently recorded a video in which they hurled curses at the chief of the Russian Army’s General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, over an alleged lack of ammunition supply.

Prigozhin himself criticized the top military commanders in recent months., accusing high-ranking officers of incompetence. His comments are unprecedented in Russia’s tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin can voice such criticism.

Earlier this month, Putin reaffirmed his confidence in General Gerasimov by putting him in direct command of Russian forces in Ukraine, a move that some observers also interpreted as an attempt to reduce Prigozhin.

Prigozhin toned down his harangues against the military leadership somewhat after that, but remained defiant.

He has also increasingly raised his public profile, issuing daily communiqués on messaging apps to boast about Wagner’s alleged victories and sardonically mocking his enemies.

When recently asked about a media comparison of him to Grigory Rasputin, a mystic who gained fatal influence over Russia’s last tsar by claiming the power to cure his son’s hemophilia, Prigozhin snapped: “I don’t stop the blood, but I shed the blood of the enemies of our country.”


The United States imposed several waves of sanctions on Prigozhin and Wagner. The Treasury Department further increased the penalties against Wagner and affiliated companies and individuals on Thursday.

The European Union has also imposed sanctions on Prigozhin about several people associated with Wagner and three Russian-based energy companies linked to the group in Syria.

Prigozhin scoffed at Western sanctions.

“We have carried out an internal check to investigate Wagner’s alleged crimes, but found no incriminating evidence,” he said, commenting on the latest round in the United States.

He challenged Wagner’s accusers to send evidence of wrongdoing to his press service.


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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