What is the Wagner Group?

Deemed a transnational criminal organisation by the US, the private army is largely made up of convicts, neo-Nazis and white supremacists

A defaced mural in Belgrade glorifies Russia's mercenary group, reading: Wagner Group - Russian knights. AFP
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Russia's Wagner Group made headlines last week when the US declared it a transnational criminal organisation — but what is the shadowy private army and what has it done to deserve such a designation?

The paramilitary organisation is widely known to be a proxy for the Russian military and is thought to be financed by Kremlin confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin, a catering magnate nicknamed “Putin’s chef” who has also been hit with US sanctions.

After years of denying any links to the Wagner Group, Mr Prigozhin admitted in September 2022 that he had “founded” the organisation.

It was Moscow’s proclivity for ad hoc policymaking that moulded the group, developed under a shroud of secrecy as Russian President Vladimir Putin sought ways to justify his country's involvement in Ukraine and Syria.

The Wagner Group has been supplying soldiers to aid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, though it has had boots on the ground since 2014, when it aided separatist forces in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

The company is believed to be in command of about 50,000 troops in Ukraine. The US National Security Council estimates that about 80 per cent of its troops were plucked from Russian prisons, having been offered clemency in return for fighting in Ukraine.

By using mercenaries, Mr Putin is able to plead plausible deniability and also fudge the numbers of soldiers killed in battle.

Despite mercenary forces being illegal in Russia, last year, the Wagner Group registered as a company, opening a new headquarters in St Petersburg.

“It is openly recruiting in Russian cities, on billboards, and is being named in Russian media as a patriotic organisation,” Samuel Ramani, of the Rusi think tank, told the BBC.

The Russian Ministry of Defence reportedly supplies the group with military equipment and the Task Force Rusich, which led the 2014 charge in Donbas, is populated by and has ties to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, according to the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In February of last year, Mr Putin justified his invasion of Ukraine as a “denazification”.

In addition to activities in Ukraine, members of the Wagner Group are alleged to have played roles in widespread human rights abuses in parts of Africa.

“Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.

UN experts on Tuesday also reported “persistent and alarming accounts” of mass atrocities, torture, summary executions and other brutal crimes allegedly carried out by the organisation, as well as government forces, in Mali.

John Kirby tears up as he talks about Russian atrocities in Ukraine

John Kirby tears up as he talks about Russian atrocities in Ukraine
Updated: February 02, 2023, 5:30 PM