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Even before Vladimir Putin’s forces crossed Ukraine’s border on February 24, operatives from the shadowy Wagner Group had penetrated Ukraine ’s defences laying the groundwork for the Russian assault.
The Wagner Group is modelled on private armies like American military contractors Blackwater, or South Africa-based Executive Outcomes. But while those companies are willing to sell their services to the highest bidder, The Wagner Group works for just one client – Vladimir Putin.
On Putin's orders the paramilitary organisation has committed appalling atrocities all over the world.
In just one conflict – the civil war in the Central African Republic [CAR]– Russian-backed “instructors” were implicated in 103 alleged war crimes including torture, murder and rape.
In February 2021, a 20-year-old woman from CAR claimed several Russian mercenaries had abducted and raped her. “They tortured me like an animal,” she said.
In another incident men believed to have been from the Wagner Group fired indiscriminately into a crowd of civilians taking shelter in a mosque: “They weren’t trying to figure out who was a rebel and who was a civilian,” said one eyewitness. “They wanted to kill people,”
While some Wagner Group operatives are ex-military, many others are former convict with little or no military training or experience.
But they’re drawn by the money. The Times reports that Wagner Group mercenaries’ combat pay in Syria was roughly six times the average wage in Russia.
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The group is run by two of Putin’s closest allies.
Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin specialises in espionage and deception. He was sanctioned by the US for alleged involvement in a bid to sway the result of the 2016 presidential election and other political contests, and is believed to be allied with Maria Butina, a Russian spy who infiltrated various Conservative political groups such as the National Rifle Association.
His less subtle partner is Dmitry Utkin, who makes no secret of his fascination with Adolf Hitler, frequently appearing in Nazi uniforms or taking part in re-enactments of WWII events.
In December 2021, the Council of the European Union accused Utkin of being "responsible for serious human rights abuses committed by the group, which include torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings".
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But despite considerable evidence that the Wagner Group has taken part in numerous conflicts around the world – including Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic and elsewhere – there is no registered central office for the organisation and it does not officially exist.
But despite that, the group has been a valuable asset for Putin. “The Russian government has found Wagner and other private military companies to be useful as a way to extend its influence overseas without the visibility and intrusiveness of state military forces,” a report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said.
Wagner Group mercenaries worked with pro-Russian separatists and organised crime figures to engineer the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 – the first step in Putin’s plan to absorb Ukraine into his new Russian empire.
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And the private army has already gone head-to-head with US Special Forces.
In 2018, a detachment of around 30 elite US troops were guarding a Syrian gas plant. A huge force of Russian mercenaries, most if not all of them believed to be from the Wagner group, attacked the plant.
Russia denied responsibility for what they called the “pro-Assad” troops.
“The Russian high command in Syria assured us it was not their people,” Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said. Once he had determined that the large group of Russian-speaking attacvkers, backed up by three Russian-made T-72 tanks, Secretary Marris told Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the attackers should be “annihilated".
While the Americans were massively outnumbered – estimate put the Russian force at around 500 – they had considerable air support. They called in F-15 and F-22 fighters, Reaper drones, and even massive B52 bombers to help them hold off the Russian attack.
Documents obtained by The New York Times estimated that up to 300 men of the “pro-regime force” were killed.
But Sean McFate, a professor of strategy at Georgetown, told The Times: “It took America’s most elite troops and advanced aircraft to defeat 500 mercenaries. What happens when they have to face a thousand? Five thousand?”
We may soon find out. Wagner Group operatives had been in Ukraine for months before the invasion, and Russia expert Mikheil Saakashvili says that Putin’s attention could next turn to either Finland or Sweden.
There’s every chance that the advance guard of his private army is already in Scandinavia preparing the way.
- Vladimir Putin
- Russia Ukraine war
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