For years it was shrouded in mystery and then in shame. Now that what appears to be a power struggle is causing confusion andQuestions are swirling about the notorious Wagner Group and the intentions of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The group was a key element of Russian strategy in Ukraine, something Wagner forces were used to. Prigozhin has been sharply criticizing the Russian military leadership for weeks, describing the top leadership as incompetent and even as a traitor. He also refused to sign a cooperation agreement with the Russian Defense Ministry.
Tensions between the Russian Defense Ministry and Wagner escalated dramatically on Friday when Prigozhin claimed Russian forces had attacked Wagner encampments in eastern Ukraine. Late Friday, Prigozhin released videotaped remarks that appeared to call for a rebellion against the Russian military leadership, but he remained typically vague in defining his plans.
Prigozhin said early Saturday that Wagner troops left Ukraine for Russia and reached the city of Rostov-on-Don, where Russia’s military headquarters for the southern region is located and monitors the city. At an intelligence meeting, the British Ministry of Defense said Prigozhin’s forces appeared to control military headquarters.
Russian President Vladimir‘ in a televised address on Saturday morning.
“All those who prepared the uprising will inevitably be punished,” Putin said. “The armed forces and other government agencies have received the necessary orders.”
What is the Wagner group?
The Wagner Group is a group of companies operating as a private military company (PMC). These PMCs can be hired by governments for security or combat services.
They are not uncommon: the United States has used private military contractors. However, there are differences between the commonly accepted definition of a PMC and the Russian version of the companies.
“In NATO countries, in Western countries, flexibility of resources is the main logic for using private contractors in security and defense policy,” said Dr. András Rácz, Russia expert at the German Society for Foreign Policy. “On the Russian side, however, the logic was different. From the outset, Russia viewed these companies as a means of covertly exercising state power.”
Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?
As Wagner’s fame grew, so did that of his shady founder, Prigozhin. His work as head of a catering company with Kremlin contracts earned him the nickname ““But Prigozhin long denied any connection to the group before finally admitting to being its founder last year.
“Prigozhin is a media mastermind and also the social media mastermind,” said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a public policy research institute based in Washington, DC “Whereas Putin and his propagandists were Dominating Russian television and traditional channels, Prigozhin is innovative because he has armed a network of military correspondents, military correspondents and bloggers.”
Prigozhin is wanted by the FBI for “conspiracy to defraud the United States.” Federal law enforcement is offering a $250,000 reward for information leading to Prigozhin’s arrest for allegedly monitoring political and electoral interference from 2014 to 2018 by the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Internet Research Agency. The agency, which Prigozhin was the main contributor to, was working to disrupt the 2016 US presidential election, the FBI claimed.
Prigozhin has criticized Russian military commanders for failing to make meaningful progress in Ukraine. He’s now positioned himself as a hero.
“He knows that his main differentiator from Kremlin propaganda is the level of criticism, the level of honesty, you know, things aren’t really going that well and criticism sells,” Stepanenko said. “And I think that’s the platform where he really wants to move forward and establish himself as a prominent figure in Russia.”
Where else was the Wagner Group active?
Wagner first emerged in Ukraine in 2014 when soldiers in unmarked uniforms showed up to help pro-Russian forces illegally annex territories for Russia.
In addition to sending Wagner troops to Ukraine, the Wagner group has also been active in Africa, where some countries turn to Wagner to fill security gaps or prop up dictatorial regimes.
“In most cases they train local armed forces and local security forces, but are also involved in VIP protection and guarding. And if necessary, they are also capable of high-intensity operations, I mean real combat,” said Rácz.
In some countries, such as the Central African Republic, Wagner trades services for near-unrestricted access to natural resources. Afound that Russian cargo flights stopped in the country twice a week, possibly smuggling billions of dollars worth of gold back to Russia.
In 2022, the private army became an important part of the Russian invasion, even recruiting fighters from Russian prisons andto increase the number on the battlefield. In February Prigozhin would be stopped.
How does the Wagner Group operate?
As the activities of the once opaque group became more public, their tactics became known.
Wagner mercenaries were accused of atrocities, including mass murder and rape, across Africa and alongside Russian forces in Ukraine.
In Ukraine there were fighters. When previously asked for comment, the Wagner group dismissed questions from CBS News as crude and provocative and insisted the company did not commit these crimes.
In addition to their battlefield engagements, military experts say Wagner recruits were ill-equipped or. US officials estimate that around 30,000 Wagner fighters have been killed or wounded in Ukraine so far while Russia’s advance has stalled or been pushed back, raising questions about the future of the group and its leader Prigozhin.
Experts considered it possible that the group could be replaced by Putin.
“I think that Wagner, to the extent that he was useful in Ukraine, could certainly be replaced by others. In a place like sub-Saharan Africa, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to replace Wagner and Prigozhin,” he told Catrina Doxsee, associate director and associate fellow for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“While the US and other western countries, including in Europe, are trying to supplant Russian influence and argue against Wagner, viable alternatives really need to be discussed” for countries in the developing world to meet their security and development needs.
Reporting is by Andy Triay and Cara Tabachnick.