Dispatched to kyiv at the start of the conflict to assassinate President Zelensky, the Wagner group was to be Russia’s secret weapon in the blitzkrieg it wanted to wage against Ukraine. Far from this image of an elite unit, the private militia today is essentially made up of convicts used as “cannon fodder”.
It is through a note from its secret services that the Ukrainian government discovers the Russian plan to bring down kyiv. On February 27, 2022, four days after the start of the Russian invasion, Ukraine reported the presence of 400 Wagner Group mercenaries near the capital. Their target: President Volodymyr Zelensky, but also the members of his cabinet. On their blacklist were 23 names, including that of the mayor of kyiv, Vitali Klitschko.
“The mercenaries were then very dangerous. They were experienced, well equipped and trained with several missions to their credit in Syria, Mali and elsewhere”, explains Karen Philippa Larsen, security expert at the Danish Institute for International Research (DIIS). , specializing in the study of the Wagner group.
Created in 2014, the Wagner group began to be talked about the same year during the first fights in the Donbass in Ukraine and in the context of the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Moscow. The organization is gradually extending its activities to some thirty countries, particularly in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali. Renowned for its brutality, the militia acts clandestinely, allowing Moscow to deny its official involvement in armed conflicts while serving as a tool of geopolitical influence.
Terror on Boutcha
While the group maintained a presence in Ukraine after 2014, the Russian invasion led to a massive influx of its mercenaries According to Ukrainian intelligence, between 2,000 and 3,000 soldiers recruited by Wagner entered the country in January 2022, weeks before the outbreak of the February 24 invasion.
“As early as December 2021, we saw that Wagner had launched a new recruitment campaign. At that time, it was unknown for what purpose, until the invasion began,” recalls Karen Philippa Larsen
In the wake of reports revealing the presence of these mercenaries in kyiv at the start of the conflict, the government immediately decided to impose a 36-hour curfew and strict confinement of the population. Anyone who ventured outside his home could then be suspected of being a Russian agent and risk arrest, and worse.
Held in check by the Ukrainian security forces, Wagner engages alongside the Russian army in the fighting raging around the capital. Its mercenaries are particularly reported in the spring in Boutcha, a martyred city located 25 km northwest of the capital, the scene of war crimes committed against civilians.
>> To read on France 24.com: the Boutcha massacre, a modus operandi reminiscent of Chechnya
In the wake of the Russian withdrawal, the first images of streets strewn with the corpses of the inhabitants began to spread throughout the world. Some have their hands tied behind their backs. Others were mutilated or burned. According to local authorities, 419 people including nine children were killed during the Russian occupation. Many testimonies also reported torture and rape.
If Russian troops played a major role in these abuses, members of the Wagner group also participated in this strategy of terror, according to German intelligence services.
Less well trained, less well equipped
The summer of 2022 marked a turning point in the Wagner Group’s commitment to Ukraine. Instead of securing the services of professional military men, Vladimir Putin’s shadow army began recruiting from Russian prisons.
In a video posted on Telegram, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigojine – nicknamed “Putin’s cook” – promises inmates an amnesty in exchange for a six-month contract in Ukraine. “It was a huge change that transformed the nature of the group”, analyzes Karen Philippa Larsen, recalling that of the 50,000 mercenaries deployed in Ukraine, 40,000 are Russian prisoners.
“Unlike the first members of Wagner, these prisoners have only received a few weeks of training. Barely enough to familiarize themselves with the use of a weapon. They are also much less well equipped,” adds the researcher.
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Scorned by the more experienced mercenaries, these prisoners are sent to the most dangerous places on the front, specifies Karen Philippa Larsen, in particular in the East in Bakhmout, described as a “butcher’s shop” by Evguéni Prigojine. “We send them into the field to find out where the Ukrainians are shooting from. For Wagner, they serve as ‘cannon fodder'”.
This year also marked for Wagner the formalization of his existence. Prigojine, who has long denied his links with the militia, admitted at the end of September that he was at the head of the paramilitary organization, before opening a headquarters in the city of Saint Petersburg in November.
A total change of strategy intended to establish Prigojine’s legitimacy and position him on the Russian political scene through the image of a dynamic warlord, according to Karen Philippa Larsen.
Whereas the Russian army is with the sorrow in Ukraine, Wagner claims on the contrary successes in the East. A growing rivalry appears between the militia and the Ministry of Defence: Prigojine attacks more and more openly the “incompetence” of the regular army.
However, Wagner paid dearly for his “successes” on the front. Karen Philippa Larsen estimates that 40,000 mercenaries, or 80% of the workforce, have deserted, surrendered or been killed or injured. “There are therefore only 10,000 fighters left in Ukraine,” adds the researcher, specifying that her losses are not counted by Moscow because these soldiers do not belong to the regular army.
In recent months, several testimonies and videos have demonstrated the brutality of the internal workings of the group. In November, Yevgeny Prigojine coldly commented on the video of the execution with a hammer of a “deserter”: “A dog deserves the death of a dog”.
During the months of December and January, the Wagner group would have lost most of its forces in the battle of Soledar by multiplying waves of desperate assaults against the Ukrainian defenders. “It was a suicide mission”, explains Karen Philippa Larsen, for whom the capture of the city is explained more by the staggering number of soldiers sent to death than by any military strategy.
Wagner claims the capture of Soledar on January 11. But the announcement is not confirmed by Moscow. The next day, the Russian Ministry of Defense claims that the city fell but without mentioning the contribution of Wagner’s mercenaries. Furious, Prigojine accuses the Russian army of having “stolen victory” from his men.
Since then, the already execrable relations between Prigojine and the general staff have continued to deteriorate. In February, Wagner announced the halt to its prison recruiting campaign, despite a colossal number of casualties. According to Karen Philippa Larsen, this decision is probably the consequence of a direct order from the Russian Ministry of Defense, which remains Wagner’s main supplier, and therefore has the power to cut him off.
“Russian law has also been changed to allow the army to recruit people with criminal backgrounds,” explains the expert. A way for the Russian army to partially get rid of its dependence on the infantry provided by Wagner.
This rivalry recently took a new step when Prigozhin criticized in mid-February the chief of staff in person, Valery Gerasimov, as well as the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, for the lack of material support for the members of his militia – a form of “treason to the fatherland”, according to him.
>> To go further: Valeri Guerassimov, an obstacle in Wagner’s way?
Wagner today seems far from the image of an army of seasoned soldiers, observes Karen Philippa Larsen, who sees Prigojine increasingly sidelined by Moscow. “However, he should not be underestimated. Now he has two options: either he leaves Ukraine and concentrates on building an army of professionals operating abroad, or he insists in Ukraine. But this scenario will largely depend on his ability to recruit new fighters, which has become increasingly difficult for him.”
Article translated from English by Grégoire Sauvage. The original can be found here.
Source: France 24