Sunday, 21 Apr 2024

What is the Wagner Group and who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

For years, the words ‘shadowy’ and ‘secretive’ were used to describe the Wagner Group.

It has been frequently linked to – and contracted by – the Kremlin in Russia to fight in conflicts across the world, and was most recently involved in the Russia-Ukraine war.

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While much of its past remains shrouded in mystery, the organisation has barely been out of the headlines in recent days.

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s apparent involvement in a plane crash today is currently unfolding across news outlets.

So, who is the mutinous leader and what is the Wagner Group?

What is the Wagner Group and where has it been deployed?

Reports differ on when the Wagner Group officially formed, with 2005 being a vague estimate.

Dmity Utkin – a former Russian soldier – has been a name linked to the group for much of its history.

His own call sign ‘Vagner’ may have provided inspiration for the group’s name.

Wagner Group fighters allegedly provide security for national leaders or warlords in exchange for lucrative payments, often including a share of gold or other natural resources.

Mercenaries have garnered a reputation for being fearsome and gruesome fighters wherever they are deployed.

The Wagner Group has reared its head in countries such as Mali, Syria and more recently in Ukraine.

Soldiers were initially described as ‘little green men’ due to their unmarked uniforms and efforts to hide their identities. 

But as the war continues, so does attention towards the unit.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, himself moved into the global spotlight thanks to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The 62-year-old then moved into his most dangerous role yet: preaching open rebellion against his country’s military leadership.

On Friday, June 23, Mr Prigozhin escalated months of scathing criticism over Russia’s conduct in the war by calling for an armed uprising to oust the country’s defence minister.

It’s quite the breakdown considering his close ties with Vladimir Putin.

Mr Prigozhin and the Kremlin leader go way back, with both born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg.

During the final years of the Soviet Union, Mr Prigozhin served time in prison – 10 years by his own admission, although he does not say what this was for.

Afterwards, he owned a hot dog stand and then restaurants that drew interest from Mr Putin.

In Moscow alone, his company Concord won millions of dollars in contracts to provide meals for schools.

He also organised catering for Kremlin events for several years – earning him the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’ – and has provided catering and utility services to the Russian military.

In 2017, opposition figure and anti-corruption fighter Alexei Navalny accused Mr Prigozhin’s companies of breaking competition laws by bidding for some 387 million dollars (£304 million) in defence ministry contracts.

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The Wagner Group in Ukraine

In Ukraine, Mr Prigozhin’s mercenaries have been a major force in the war, fighting as counterparts to the Russian army in battles with Ukrainian forces.

That includes his fighters taking Bakhmut, the city where the bloodiest and longest battles have taken place.

By last month, Wagner Group and Russian forces appeared to have largely won Bakhmut, a victory with strategically slight importance for Russia despite the cost in lives.

The US estimates that nearly half of the 20,000 Russian troops killed in Ukraine since December were Wagner fighters in Bakhmut. The soldiers-for-hire included inmates recruited from Russia’s prisons.

As his forces fought and died en masse in Ukraine, Mr Prigozhin raged against Russia’s military top brass.

In a video released by his team last month, Mr Prigozhin stood next to rows bodies he said were those of Wagner fighters.

He accused Russia’s regular military of incompetence and of starving his troops of the weapons and ammunition they need to fight.

‘These are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,’ Mr Prigozhin said at the time.

‘The scum that doesn’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell.’

As Mr Prigozhin grew more outspoken against the way Russia’s conventional military conducted fighting in Ukraine, he continued to play a seemingly indispensable role for the Russian offensive.

What’s more, he appeared to suffer no retaliation from Putin over his criticism of the President’s top generals.

Media reports at times suggested Mr Prigozhin’s influence on Putin was growing, and that he was after a prominent political post. But academics warned against overestimating his influence with Mr Putin.

Mark Galeotti of University College, London, who specialises in Russian security affairs, said of Mr Prigozhin on his podcast In Moscow’s Shadows: ‘He’s not one of Putin’s close figures or a confidant.

‘Prigozhin does what the Kremlin wants, and does very well for himself in the process. But that’s the thing – he is part of the staff, rather than part of the family.’

On Saturday, June 24, Putin decried the ‘betrayal’ and ‘treason’ of the Wagner Group following the challenge to his military power.

Without specifically mentioning Wagner Group boss Prigozhin, he said the high ‘ambitions’ of some have led to ‘high treason’.

He added some Russians had been ‘tricked into a criminal adventure’ – again without referring to rebellious Wagner fighters.

Col Gen Sergei Surovikin, the deputy commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine, urged Wagner troops to stop any move against the army, saying it would play into the hands of Russia’s enemies who are ‘waiting to see the exacerbation of our domestic political situation’.

Wagner soldiers had advanced 124 miles towards the Russian capital when their leader ordered them to turn back ‘because of the risk of blood being spilled’.

It was later reported that Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko stepped in to mediate a deal between Putin and Prigozhin.

As part of the deal to defuse tensions, the warlord agreed to relocate to Belarus.

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He broke his silence two days later, saying the group had started their march to Moscow ‘because of an injustice’.

He claimed the decision to turn around the march on Moscow was because he and his fighters didn’t want to shed Russian blood – but said their aim had not been to overthrow the government, but to demonstrate their anger against the Ministry of Defence.

Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, addressed the Wagner Group’s actions in an address to the nation on the same day, saying ‘Blackmail is doomed to fail’ and that mutiny leaders ‘wanted our society to be fragmented’.

‘Virtually the entirety of Russian society… was united by its responsibility to defend their homeland,’ Putin said.

He also thanked Wagner officials who ‘took the right decision to stop and go back to prevent bloodshed’.

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