They are called “Moscow’s fighting dogs” or “Vladimir Putin’s secret army.” According to the Times, about 400 mercenaries from the Wagner paramilitary group have been sent to Kyiv on a mission to execute Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and his government. They would be authorized by Moscow, and Wagner’s group was suspected of being an instrument of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. What is it, who finances these mercenaries and why are their practices denounced by several NGOs?
1. A paramilitary group established in 2013
The Wagner Group is a private paramilitary group founded in 2013 by former Russian military intelligence lieutenant colonel Dmitry Utkin. The latter, who chose Wagner as a military pseudonym for Hitler’s favorite composer, also gave his name to the paramilitary group.
The existence of Wagner’s group was revealed in 2015 by former St. Petersburg police officer Denis Korotkov. After becoming a journalist, he now works for the Kremlin opposition media Novaya Gazeta and has thoroughly investigated Wagner. According to him, the group will consist of 2,500 to 5,000 mercenaries and will be funded by Russian billionaire and influential businessman Evgeni Prigogine.
He owns luxury restaurants and is also known as Kremlin catering. A position that allowed him to get closer to Vladimir Putin. Evgeni Prigogine is also suspected of being the head of the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory that could influence the 2016 US presidential election on social media.
2. The Kremlin denies its existence
Officially, Wagner’s group does not exist. The company is not registered anywhere. Vladimir Putin has never admitted to working with Wagner, to the point of denying his existence. “This Wagner group does not exist,” and “private military companies are banned in Russia,” he said. He also denied in 2016 information from Denis Korotkov that Russia was providing its military barracks to facilitate the training of a private army.
However, several clues reveal links between Wagner and the Kremlin. The man behind this group, Dmitry Utkin, for example, was awarded the Order of Bravery in 2016 by Vladimir Putin himself. Above all, Wagner’s group seems to be located almost systematically in all conflict zones, where Russia is seeking to expand its influence.
3. Present in several conflict zones
This is not the first time Wagner Group mercenaries have been stationed in Ukraine. In 2014, they fought in particular in Donbass with pro-Russian separatists.
Their presence was also noted in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s troops. In 2016, the Syrian state signed an agreement with a Russian company to maintain control over oil and gas fields. Called Europolis, this private company, also run by Evgeni Prigogine, is actually directly linked to Wagner. That is why the French Ministry of the Economy started freezing its assets in December last year.
Europolis “serves as a cover for the Wagner group in Syria. It has signed a number of agreements with the Syrian regime through the state-owned company General Petroleum, under which it receives 25% of the revenues generated from oil and gas production from the fields occupied by the Wagner Group. “
After Russian citizens were killed in Syria in a U.S. airstrike in 2018, Moscow denied any involvement of its troops, but acknowledged that “many compatriots” were present in Syria.
Wagner’s presence was also noted in the Central African Republic, along with President Tuadera. According to the official speech, Russian instructors have been deployed since 2018 to train the national army. In 2019, however, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian mentioned the presence in the Central African Republic of “assistants acting under the leadership of a gentleman named Mr Prigogine” before calling it “Wagner’s power”.
The agreement signed between Wagner and the Malian Ministry of Defense in the autumn of 2021 also weighed in favor of the withdrawal of French troops from Mali, with Westerners believing that their commitment on the ground was incompatible with the presence of some 900 Russian mercenaries. ” known for their abuses “, according to the words used by the Elysee Palace.
4. Accused of extreme violence
Wagner’s group has been accused by several NGOs of being responsible for acts of torture, execution and rape in these conflict zones, particularly against civilians. In July 2018, three Russian opposition journalists traveling to the Central African Republic to try to investigate Wagner’s group died on the spot under conditions that have not yet been officially clarified.
The first complaint against these paramilitaries was filed in Russia in March 2021 by three non-governmental organizations, including the Federation for Human Rights. They accused Wagner’s mercenaries of torturing, beheading and then burning a Syrian army deserter in 2017. The complaint was made possible by a video that Nova Gazeta had access to. This made it possible to identify the Russian executioners and to trace their connections with Wagner’s group.