The controversial private military company Wagner Group is in the news again as Ukrainian authorities say a number of its fighters were killed in an attack on a hotel in the city of Kadiivka, in the Russian-occupied Luhansk region.
But who are Wagner Group?
- The private military company emerged publicly for the first time during Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. There, Wagner fighters were reportedly among the so-called “little green men” – unidentified special forces – who occupied the region.
- From 2015 onwards, Wagner appeared wherever Russia had an interest: first in Syria’s civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, then Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mali, among other countries.
- In Syria, Wagner fighters have been accused of torturing, shooting and beheading a deserting soldier. These claims have not been investigated by Russia.
- In the CAR, Wagner repelled a rebel advance on Bangui in January 2021. A statue of a Russian soldier defending a family was built in the capital, and an action movie, The Tourist, glorified the group’s exploits. Human Rights Watch has accused the mercenaries of torturing, executing and kidnapping civilians in the CAR.
- In Sudan, it reportedly oversees gold mining operations, working with Sudan’s military government. Activists and bloggers accuse Russia of supporting the military coup in Sudan and stealing the country’s gold.
- The European Union has accused the Wagner Group, whose members are mostly former military personnel, of human rights abuses. The United States and EU have sanctioned Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin over his role in the group.
- The group is controlled by Prigozhin who is known as “Putin’s chef” for his many catering contracts through a network of front companies.
- For a long time, Prigozhin denied any involvement with Wagner, he even filed complaints to the authorities after being asked about it by journalists. But as Wagner’s role in the war in Ukraine grew since February, he stepped into the spotlight.
- In an online statement on September 26, Prigozhin acknowledged he founded the Wagner Group and recruited a group of mercenaries in 2014 who “would go and protect Russians” when “the genocide of the Russian population of Donbas began”.
- In November, he opened its first official headquarters in the Russian city of St Petersburg.
- Once its existence become public, so did its recruitment efforts: Job postings reportedly offer wages of 240,000 Russian roubles ($4,000) per month, far higher than the pay of a typical soldier.
- “Wagner has now become so public precisely because of the change in its status,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security matters, told Al Jazeera. “Whereas it was once an arm’s length, deniable instrument of the Russian state … now it is little more than an extension of the military. It is an alternative source of combat manpower, necessary precisely because this is just a ‘special military operation’ and thus the Kremlin can’t simply mobilise the men it needs.”