A threat by the owner of private Russian military company Wagner on Friday to withdraw his fighters from the battle to seize an eastern Ukrainian city is another flareup in his dispute with Russia's regular military over credit and tactics in the war.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy entrepreneur with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has led the push to jump-start Russia’s stalemated offensive in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province. He threatened to pull out his soldiers from the city of Bakhmut next week, citing high casualties and ammunition shortages.
Russia's nine-month campaign to take Bakhmut has made the city the focus of the war's longest battle. Ferocious house-to house fighting there has produced some of the bloodiest encounters since Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022.
Here is a look at Wagner’s history and its role in the fighting.
WHAT IS THE BACKGROUND OF WAGNER'S LEADER?
Prigozhin, who received a 12-year prison term in 1981 on charges of robbery and assault, started a restaurant business in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s following his release from prison. It was in this capacity that he got to know Putin, the city’s deputy mayor at the time.
Prigozhin used his connection with Putin to develop a catering business and won lucrative Russian government contracts that earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” He later expanded into other areas, including media outlets and an infamous “troll factory” that led to his indictment in the U.S. for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
In January, Prigozhin, 61, acknowledged founding, leading and financing the shadowy Wagner company.
WHERE HAS WAGNER WORKED?
Wagner was first spotted in action in eastern Ukraine soon after a separatist conflict erupted there in April 2014, weeks after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
While backing the separatist insurgency in the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, Russia denied sending its own weapons and troops there despite ample evidence to the contrary. Engaging private contractors in the fighting allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of deniability.
Prigozhin’s company was called Wagner after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Russian military’s special forces. It soon established a reputation for its extreme brutality and ruthlessness.
Wagner personnel also deployed to Syria, where Russia supported President Bashar Assad’s government in a civil war. In Libya, they fought alongside forces of commander Khalifa Hifter. The group has also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Prigozhin has reportedly used Wagner’s deployment to Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts. U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January that the company was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to fund its operations in Ukraine.
Some Russian media have alleged that Wagner was involved in the July 2018 killings of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic who were investigating the group’s activities. The slayings remain unsolved.
WHAT IS THE GROUP’S REPUTATION?
Western countries and U.N. experts have accused Wagner mercenaries of committing human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
In December 2021, the European Union accused the group of “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings,” and of carrying out “destabilizing activities” in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
Video footage has surfaced that purported to show some of the activities that have contributed to Wagner's fearsome reputation.
A 2017 video posted online showed a group of armed people, reported to be Wagner contractors, torturing a Syrian man, beating him to death with a sledgehammer and cutting his head before mutilating and burning his body. Russian authorities ignored requests by the media and rights activists to investigate.
In November 2022, another video showed a former Wagner contractor beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to the Ukrainian side and was recaptured. Despite public outrage and demands for an investigation, the Kremlin turned a blind eye.
WHAT IS WAGNER’S ROLE IN UKRAINE?
Wagner has taken an increasingly visible role in the war in Ukraine as regular Russian troops have suffered heavy attrition and lost control over territory in humiliating setbacks.
Prigozhin claimed full credit in January for capturing the Donetsk region salt-mining town of Soledar and accused the Russian Defense Ministry of trying to steal Wagner’s glory. He has repeatedly complained that the Russian military failed to supply Wagner with sufficient ammunition to capture Bakhmut, the reason he cited Friday for his withdrawal threat.
Prigozhin has toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising inmates pardons if they survived a half-year tour of front-line duty with Wagner.
The U.S. estimates Wagner has about 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 of the convicts the company enlisted.
A U.S. official says nearly half of the 20,000 Russian forces killed in Ukraine since December have been Wagner’s troops in Bakhmut.
The U.S. assesses that Wagner is spending about $100 million a month in the fight .In December, the United States accused North Korea of supplying weapons, including rockets and missiles, to the Russian company in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Both Wagner and North Korea denied the reports.
HOW HAS WAGNER'S LEADER CRITICIZED RUSSIA’S MILITARY?
If the U.S. accusation is true, Wagner’s reach for North Korean weapons may reflect its long-running dispute with the Russian military leadership, which dates back to the company’s creation.
Troops purported to be Wagner contractors on the front line in Ukraine recorded a video in which they showered the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, with curses for the alleged failure to provide ammunition.
Prigozhin himself accuses top-ranking Russian military officers of incompetence. His frequent complaints are unprecedented for Russia’s tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin could air such criticism.
Prigozhin has increasingly raised his public profile, issuing daily messaging app statements to boast about Wagner’s purported victories, sardonically mock his enemies and make complaints about Russia's military brass.
Asked recently about a media comparison of him with Grigory Rasputin, a mystic who gained fatal influence over Russia’s last czar by claiming to have the power to cure his son’s hemophilia, Prigozhin snapped: “I don’t stop blood, but I spill blood of the enemies of our Motherland.”
WILL WAGNER REALLY WITHDRAW FROM BAKHMUT?
Yohann Michel, a research analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, took Prigozhin’s threat with “a shovel of salt, at least, or maybe a truck.”
Michel said Prigozhin might want to regroup without being accused of retreating; he may worry about being fired for not taking the city and prefer to say he left on his own; or he could genuinely need more ammunition.
“The only thing I am taking seriously from that declaration is that Bakhmut is probably not ready to fall,” Michel, who is based in Berlin, said.
If Prigozhin did pull Wagner’s troops out of Bakhmut, it would have serious implications, according to Michel said.
“If he’s removed from the front line — except if Russia surprisingly has reserves that they did not want to use before — I think we can say it is the end of this phase of the offensive for Russia,” he said.
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