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Russia is increasingly relying on soldiers from the mercenary Wagner Group to shore up its flagging army in Ukraine and limit its official military casualties, according to a British intelligence chief.
Spymasters believe Wagner is ready to “step up a gear” in helping Russia’s armed forces and looking at relocating soldiers from other conflict zones in which it has intervened, including Libya, Syria and Central Africa.
Although in theory a private company, Wagner is widely seen as acting as a proxy for the Russian state and is thought to be financed by Kremlin confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin, a catering tycoon nicknamed “Putin’s chef”. Jeremy Fleming, the director of British intelligence service GCHQ said Thursday the private army, which was added to the UK’s sanctions list last week, is working to send large numbers of personnel to Ukraine to fight alongside Russia’s armed forces.
Its mercenaries have allegedly been given the task of assassinating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after a years-long presence in the country, fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists.
Any deployment to Ukraine could enable Russia to take pressure off its own troops, reinvigorate its efforts in the eastern Donbas region and use Wagner as a cover for heavy losses and questionable military activities.
Wagner “works as a shadow branch of the Russian military, providing implausible deniability for riskier operations”, said Mr Fleming in a speech in Australia.
But any operatives sent to Ukraine “are likely to be used as cannon fodder to try to limit Russian military losses”, he said. The Kremlin denies any affiliation with Wagner.
Mr Fleming’s comments came in a speech in which he described Russian troops as low on morale and ammunition and advisers in Moscow as too scared to tell President Vladimir Putin how badly his army is faring.
Britain has said that most of the Russian forces stationed on the Ukrainian border in the prelude to the invasion have already been sent in but have failed to deliver decisive military victories.
In the US, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wagner had about 1,000 people dedicated to the fighting in eastern Ukraine and appeared to be recruiting for contractors in Syria and North Africa.
Mr Kirby said the use of Wagner troops was a “reflection of the very tough fighting” in eastern Ukraine and was a sign that Mr Putin was reinforcing Russia’s presence in the region after its offensive towards Kyiv lost momentum.
The death toll among Russian troops is estimated by Ukraine and its allies as running into the thousands, the kind of losses which analysts believe Mr Putin has previously sought to avoid by using Wagner mercenaries as cover.
Mr Zelenskyy says the casualties in Ukraine are higher than those suffered by Russia during its 1990s wars in Chechnya, which unfolded in part while Mr Putin was prime minister under former president Boris Yeltsin.
Under Mr Putin’s presidency, Russia denied having any military role in the war in Libya, but Wagner troops were widely documented as being one of the many groups of foreign fighters who took part in the conflict.
Western powers have described Wagner as breaching a UN arms embargo in Libya by importing weapons, which the US said had been supplied by the Russian state.
These included Russian military cargo aircraft and air defence equipment, according to the Pentagon, which said in 2020 that the Kremlin “lies about [Russian involvement] every time they deny it”.
Wagner has also been accused of arbitrary executions and other human rights abuses in a string of countries, including Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique and the Central African Republic.
In Syria, Wagner is believed by European powers to have trained government forces and other militias loyal to President Bashar Al Assad, a Russian ally.
The European Council said in December that Wagner mercenaries had made a “crucial contribution” to Mr Assad’s war efforts in the long-running conflict.
In Mali, western powers believe Wagner has been hired by the government to fight an extremist insurgency in a move that drew condemnation from the US and its allies.
US diplomat Sarah Creedon told the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva this week that Wagner’s involvement meant “abusive military operations will likely mount, and civilians will suffer”.
“The price to pay is just too high,” she said.