The private Wagner mercenary group that is making headlines worldwide has proved vital to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, but its successes have also exposed the divisions in Moscow’s war effort.
White House National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby told reporters on Friday that the U.S. recognizes growing tension between Russia’s defense ministry and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has long had close ties with Putin. .
Russia claimed victory in the hotly contested battle for the town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine earlier this month, showing glaring fault lines between the Defense Ministry, which credits victory to its troops, and Putin-linked Prigozhin, who said that the rare feat was due to his mercenaries.
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The Defense Department, which has long distanced itself from the Wagner Group, then issued an unusual statement, saying the city had been taken in a “heterogeneous” effort to squeeze Soledar from the north and south.
The direct attack on city blocks “was accomplished with the courageous and selfless actions of Wagner PMC’s volunteer assault troops,” the ministry added.
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“We see indications, including in the intelligence community, that tensions between Wagner and the Russian Defense Ministry are increasing,” Kirby told reporters on Friday. “Wagner becomes a rival center of power for the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”
For years, the Russian government has denied any connection to the private military company (PMC), despite reports ranging from first-hand accounts to UN-level data showing that the shadow force has been used to pursue Kremlin-based interests, from the Middle East and Africa to Ukraine. , especially Putin’s interests.
Wagner PMC was formed as a military branch for hybrid operations outside Russia under the auspices of the FSB [Federal Security Services]Wagner expert Oleksander Kovalenko told UKTN News Digital, referring to the intelligence agency that replaced the infamous KGB.
Kovalenko, a military supervisor of the information resistance group in Ukraine who began countering propaganda after Russia’s 2014 invasion, explained that Russia’s use of private military groups is nothing new.
“It all started in the time of the USSR,” he said, noting that power struggles over foreign campaigns developed between the KGB and the defense ministry.
“Priority for operational activities abroad has always been given to the military and military intelligence – the GRU,” Kovalenko said, pointing out that the KGB was pressuring the GRU for more access and budget.
“But everything changed with the arrival of Putin.”
Putin, who served as a foreign intelligence officer in the KGB for nearly two decades, was a supporter of the FSB, granting it more freedoms than historically granted.
“It was with his blessing that the first steps to form a PMC began,” added Kovalenko.
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The first signs of Putin’s mercenary army appeared during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In 2015, the hired soldiers carried out Putin’s bidding in Syria to support his president, Bashar al-Assad, and to carry out goals the Kremlin could not wanted his army attached to.
Wagner is now believed to be active not only in Ukraine and Syria, but across Africa in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Madagascar and possibly Eritrea.
“At first glance, it seems that the presence of PMC Wagner in a given African country is a matter and nothing else,” Kovalenko explains. “In the Central African Republic, for example, this is not just the service of the local dictator and his protection against cash.
“It’s also control over precious metal and stone deposits,” he added.
Kovalenko said control over natural resources is just one of Russia’s goals.
“Russia’s goal is to expand its influence on the African continent, to take control of local government and, as the ultimate goal, to create a pool of African states loyal to [Moscow]Kovalenko said, pointing out that these tactics are carried out through information warfare, election interference and the general destabilization of societies.
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While an estimated 10,000 Russian mercenaries are scattered across Africa, the Wagner enterprise has grown significantly since Putin invaded Ukraine.
Some 50,000 Wagner troops are estimated to be active in Ukraine, Kirby confirmed Friday, a feat only possible thanks to Prigozhin’s ability to turn to Russia’s penal system after the group suffered massive losses early in the war. past.
Of Ukraine’s 50,000 hired soldiers, about 10,000 are believed to be professional contractors, while 40,000 are convicts, Kirby confirmed.
After this shift in recruiting, Kovalenko explained, the group is divided between professional mercenaries with combat experience who generally work in Africa and the Middle East or train Russian troops in Belarus and the recruits he says are being used as “live meat”. “bodies to fill the front lines.
Kovalenko said an estimated 20,000 Wagner mercenaries alone have been sent to the Bakhmut axis in Donetsk, though he noted that the situation remains “fluid” and it is therefore difficult to know how many have been killed or padded.
Ukraine estimates that Russia has lost more than 120,000 soldiers, although it is unclear whether this includes Wagner troops as well as mercenaries who are generally not considered military casualties.
Wagner troops and Russian troops generally do not work together. Despite the Ministry of Defense’s statement about the joint effort to capture Soledar, the Russian government maintains a certain distance from the group of mercenaries.
“PMC Wagner is dangerous because it maintains contacts with many radical groups around the world,” said Kovalenko, including groups in the Donbas. “Wagnerites do not abide by the Geneva Convention.”
The Wagner expert said Prigozhin extorts captured Ukrainian soldiers for money, often returning them “crippled, with terrible bodily injuries,” though UKTN News Digital could not independently verify these exchanges.
“Therefore, on an official level, a direct connection between PMC Wagner and the Russian government will never be recognized,” he added. “This makes it easier to ignore the crimes…not just in Ukraine but around the world.”
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Despite alleged separations between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Wagner, they share an undeniable copacetic relationship.
“Therein lies the paradox. Prigozhin, who mercilessly criticizes and attacks the Russian Defense Ministry, finally bites the hand that gives him everything necessary for the war,” Kovalenko said.
‘After all, where did PMC Wagner get his tanks, armored cars, infantry fighting vehicles, helicopters and planes, artillery and ammunition in enormous quantities?’ he asked. “Does this FSB give to Prigozhin? No. This is all provided by the Ministry of Defense.”