Who are the mercenaries fighting Russia’s battles?
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In early December, the Biden administration put the Russian-based Wagner Group on a list of religious freedom violators, alongside terror groups like the Taliban and Boko Haram. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken labeled the Wagner Group an “entity of special concern” for its activities in the Central African Republic, part of the group’s attempts to extend Russia’s influence on the African continent. The designation does not carry immediate U.S. sanctions, but those targeted may face future penalties. Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Wagner Group?
The Wagner Group is a Russian paramilitary organization created by Vladimir Putin’s personal cook, and now businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Its exact legal status remains unclear, but currently the Wagner Group falls under the supervision of the General Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and is financed by the Ministry of Defense.
How did it get started?
According to international human rights organization Amnesty International, Russian intelligence officials first proposed the idea of the Wagner Group in 2012. Originally made up of retired soldiers and mercenaries, it took part in combat actions in Ukraine in 2014. Although Russian authorities denied the Russian military was then active on Ukrainian territory, Wagner fighters captured combat targets in the Donbas and Luhansk, in particular seizing the Luhansk airfield.
Where do Wagner Group fighters come from?
Currently, members of the Wagner unit are mainly recruits from Russian prisons. Prigozhin personally flies to penal colonies by helicopter to recruit convicts and has signed up more than 11,000 to fight in Ukraine. In a video posted online by the Meduza news agency, Prigozhin stands in front of prisoners at correctional colony #6 in Mari El and says, “We take those aged 22 to 50 to war. None of you should surrender.” Prigozhin goes on to say that all prisoners will be stormtroopers sent to the front line to scout out enemy positions.
What kind of discipline reigns within the Wagner Group?
These military units practice strict and ruthless discipline. Because leaders consider the lives of prisoners worthless, disobeying a commander risks punishment of death, carried out immediately. Former convict and Wagner fighter Yevgeny Nuzhin surrendered to Ukrainian forces in September 2022. He returned to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange and in November was brutally murdered by Wagner forces in a widely ciculated video intended to intimidate other fighters into submission.
Does Wagner operate in places you wouldn't expect to find the Russian military?
The BBC reported that in October 2015, the Wagner Group relocated to Syria to participate in the civil war there. The group's fighters took part in the capture of Palmyra in March 2016. In December 2017 The BBC reported Wagner Group involvement in the civil war in Sudan, where it sided with the government of Omar Bashir. On May 3, 2022, Human Rights Watch published a report showing Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group participated in the killing and torture of civilians in the Central African Republic.
Where is it active at the moment and how many fighters are in its ranks?
According to the Turkish news source Anadolu Agency, the Wagner Group is expanding its influence in African countries. About 2,000 Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group now operate in the Central African Republic. Between 160 and 300 Russian mercenaries linked to the Wagner Group have operated in Mozambique since 2019. Its fighters are also known to operate in Sudan, and are believed to carry on activities in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and Angola. At the beginning of 2022, the Wagner Group had units numbering 3,000 soldiers in Syria. In Libya, 2,000 Wagner mercenaries operate at the Al-Jufra airbase in the central part of the country, as well as at the Al-Kardabiya airbase in Sirte, and at its port.
How many Wagner Group mercenaries are present in Ukraine?
In an interview with RBC-Ukraine, Ukrainian Defense Ministry representative Vadim Skibitsky estimated 4,500 to 5,000 Wagner Group mercenaries are active in Ukraine. “They are assault squads working on the first line of troop offensives,” Skibitsky said.
In December, the body of Zambian student Lemekani Nyirenda was returned to his family after he was killed fighting in Ukraine. The 23-year-old was studying nuclear engineering in Moscow when he was sentenced in 2020 to nine years in prison for a drug offense. The Wagner Group admits it recruited Nyirenda this year to fight in Ukraine in exchange for early release. His family in Zambia still believed he was studying in Russia when they learned of his death. Zambians are calling for their government to protect other foreign students in Russia from being pressed into military service. The Wagner Group is also accused of recruiting prisoners from the Central African Republic to fight in Ukraine.
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