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Wagner Group

The Wagner Group (Russian: Группа Вагнера, romanized: Gruppa Vagnera), also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner, or CHVK Vagner, is a Russian paramilitary organization. It is variously described as a private military company (PMC), a network of mercenaries, or a de facto private army of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The group operates beyond the law because private military contractors are officially forbidden in Russia. While the Wagner Group itself is not ideologically driven, various elements of Wagner have been linked to neo-Nazis and far-right extremists.

The group came to global prominence during the war in Donbas in Ukraine, where it aided separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics from 2014 to 2015. Its contractors have reportedly taken part in various conflicts around the world—including the civil wars in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali, often fighting on the side of forces aligned with the Russian government. Wagner operatives have committed war crimes in areas where they are deployed. The accusations include rapes and robberies of civilians, and torturing accused deserters.

Because it operates in support of Russian interests, receives military equipment from the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) and uses installations of MoD for training, Wagner Group is frequently considered an arm's-length unit of the MoD or Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU. The group is widely believed to be owned or financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close links to Putin. After years of denying links to the Wagner group, Prigozhin admitted in September 2022 that he 'founded' the paramilitary group. It is speculated that the Wagner Group is used by the Russian government to allow for plausible deniability in certain conflicts, and to obscure the number of casualties and financial costs of Russia's foreign interventions from the public; it has most recently been tied to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, where it has been reportedly deployed to assassinate Ukrainian leaders, and its wide recruitment and deployment of prisoners and convicts to the frontlines.

The Times reported that the Wagner Group flew in more than 400 contractors from the Central African Republic in mid- to late-January 2022 on a mission to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and members of his government, and thus to prepare the ground for Russia to take control for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which started on 24 February 2022. The Ukrainian government received information on this early on 26 February, after which it declared a 36-hour "hard" curfew to sweep the capital for "Russian saboteurs". The government said that the previous day its forces had killed 60 saboteurs in Kyiv who were posing as a territorial defence unit. Soon after the government received the information, heavy fighting erupted in western and northeastern Kyiv, with Ukraine claiming to have repelled an attack on a military base. By the morning, Ukrainian forces had secured the capital. The United States described Russian forces that entered Kyiv as "reconnaissance elements." Two days later, a US official stated that there were "some indications" that Wagner was being employed, but it was not clear where or how much. By 3 March, according to The Times, Zelenskyy had survived three assassination attempts, two of which were allegedly orchestrated by the Wagner Group. On 8 March, the Ukrainian military claimed they had killed the first Wagner PMC members since the start of the Russian invasion, the first of whom was named on 13 March.

During the invasion, the Ukrainian military said the Wagner Group had rebranded itself as Liga and referred to them as such in their reporting. UNIAN says that Ukrainian soldiers nicknamed the Wagner PMCs "The Musicians".

In late March, it was expected that the number of Wagner PMCs in Ukraine would be tripled from around 300 at the beginning of the invasion to at least 1,000, and that they were to be focused on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. It was reported that Wagner Group PMCs played a leading role in the Bucha massacre of civilians, according to Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (BND), and that intercepted incriminating radio communications suggested the killings were part of a Russian plan to instill fear in the population, thus reducing the will to resist.

On 8 April, the Ukrainian military said that the Wagner Group was engaged with an artillery strike at Popasna and multiple members were killed. Mid-April, Vitaly Milonov, deputy Duma member, posted a picture on VKontakte of himself with Yevgeny Prigozhin in the Donbas region or on the Ukraine-Russia border. It was thought by the Institute for the Study of War that Prigozhin was present to organize recruitment and funding for the Wagner Group.

In late April, during a Russian military offensive to take the remainder of the Donbas region dubbed the Battle of Donbas, Ukraine claimed between 20 and 25 "Libyan and Syrian mercenaries" were killed during fighting in the town of Popasna. The Libyans and Syrians were operating under the umbrella of the Wagner Group as part of a force numbering between 300 and 500 fighters, according to Ukraine. At the start of May, a video was released of Wagner Group PMCs taking part in street fighting in Popasna. On 7 May, Russian forces launched an operation to break through Ukrainian lines in the city, with Wagner PMCs involved in the assault. Russian troops captured Popasna the same day. More than two weeks later, Wagner PMCs were also involved in the capture of Svitlodarsk. During fighting near Popasna on 20 May, retired Major General Kanamat Botashev of the Russian Air Force was shot down while flying a Sukhoi Su-25 attack aircraft, reportedly for the Wagner Group. Eight days earlier, another Su-25 was shot down over Popasna, piloted by a retired Belarusian Colonel, who was also said to have been employed by a private military company. A third Su-25 was also shot down near Svitlodarsk mid-June, with the Wagner pilot captured.

In early June, a Ukrainian sniper was reported to have shot and killed Wagner member Vladimir Andonov, call sign "Vakha" and dubbed "The Executioner", near Kharkiv. Andonov took part in the initial conflict in the Donbas region in 2014, as well as supposedly Wagner's deployments to Syria and Libya. He was accused of killing three Ukrainian soldiers who were taken as prisoners following the pro-Russian takeover of the town of Lohvynove, as well as for allegedly taking part in a civilian massacre in Espia, Libya. Meanwhile, around the same time, Ukraine claimed its forces destroyed a Wagner Group military base in the town of Stakhanov, killing 22 PMCs. Between late May and late June, the Wagner Group took part in the battle of Sievierodonetsk, being part of Russia's main assault force. In late June, Wagner also took part in the Battle of Lysychansk.

In early July, the Russian news outlet iStories reported that the Wagner Group had been recruiting in two Saint Petersburg prisons. The recruiters told inmates that they would be sent to the Donbas region and that "almost nobody will return". The inmates were offered 200,000 rubles and amnesty for six months of "voluntary service", or 5 million for their relatives if they died. According to relatives of the inmates, the contracts were not recorded anywhere and the inmates would be sent to the war without their passports. Subsequently, the UK Ministry of Defence stated in an intelligence report that Russia was maybe considering recruiting prisoners into the Wagner Group. The following month, Mediazona reported that it had received messages from Russian prison inmates alleging that Yevgeny Prigozhin was personally recruiting them to fight in Ukraine. According to two inmates from Rybinsk and Plavsk, Prigozhin promised inmates a pardon and a salary of 100,000 rubles per month and a bonus of roughly similar sum, or 5 million rubles for an "honorable" death. Prigozhin told inmates that they wouldn't be used as cannon fodder, saying the likelihood of death is 15%, based on an earlier "experimental" deployment of Saint Petersburg prison inmates. After the recruiters left, both prisons were cut off from the Zonatelecom system of communication, leaving the inmates only with illicit phones. Approximately 300–350 prison inmates signed up to fight in Ukraine by this point. In a prison recruitment speech video published on 14 September, Prigozhin said that prisoners have been participating in the invasion of Ukraine since 1 July.

In late October, Wagner was also reported to be leading the recruitment of former members of the Afghan National Army Commando Corps, who were abandoned in Afghanistan during the United States withdrawal and fled to Iran. A Prigozhin spokesman denied the reports as "crazy nonsense."

On 15 August, Ukraine claimed to have struck a building in Popasna being used as HQ by the Wagner Group with HIMARS artillery. Serhiy Hayday, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, said that the location was revealed by Russian journalist Sergei Sreda. The image posted online showed a sign giving a street in Popasna, Luhansk. A pro-Moscow blogger, called Kotenok, wrote on Telegram: "A strike was carried out on one of the Wagner PMC locations in Popasna. Sources in Donbas confirm that. Probably 'Himars'. Ukrainian sources report the death of Prigozhin - we don't confirm that."

In September 2022, the group's Task Force Rusich, known to be active in combat in Ukraine, advocated for war crimes in its Telegram channel, calling for "removing body parts" and "destruction of prisoners on the spot". The Guardian reported that the Rusich message's "key points also include explicit instructions to murder captives after interrogation and encourages forcing the families of murdered captives to pay Rusich for the coordinates of their loved ones’ bodies." According to the United Nations-supported Tech Against Terrorism director Adam Hadley, "the actions of Rusich in the conflict demonstrate the concerning prominence of neo-Nazi groups committing atrocities on behalf of the Kremlin."

During the invasion, Wagner PMCs also trained Russian servicemen before they were sent to the frontline.

According to Bellingcat's briefing to British MPs of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee on 21 April 2022, close to 3,000 of the 8,000 members of Wagner in Ukraine had been killed. However, according to BBC News Russian, there is no reliable data on the Wagner Group's losses. A number of Belarusian soldiers who had signed contracts with Russian private military companies had been killed during the invasion. A subsequent US estimate on 8 August, put the number of Wagner PMCs killed in the invasion at 5,000, while the Ukrainian Center for Analytical Studies and Countering Hybrid Threats (CCHT) NGO reported that by its count between 800 and 1,000 had been killed by early November.

On 13 November 2022, a video was published, showing the Wagner Group executing its ex-fighter Yevgeny Nuzhin for treason, smashing his head with a sledgehammer. On the video, Nuzhin claims that he was captured on the streets of Kyiv by unknown people and brought to a basement, though concerns for validity of his words were raised by Ukrainian news groups. A spokesman to the Ukrainian President's Office claimed Nuzhin had agreed to take part in a prisoner exchange. He previously gave an interview to a Ukrainian journalist where he confirmed that he was recruited in a prison. Prigozhin said that "the show demostrates that [Nuzhin] didn't find happiness in Ukraine, but met ill, yet just people". He also called this a "great show" and "amazing director work", expressing "hope" that "no animals were harmed in the production".

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