Three billboards in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg shine a light on what was once one of Russia’s most shadowy organisations, the private military contractor Wagner.
“Motherland, Honour, Blood, Bravery. WAGNER”, one of the posters reads.
Another, which locals said first appeared on the outskirts of the country’s fourth largest city in early July, depicts three men in military uniform next to the words “Wagner2022.org”.
The billboards, which can be seen in several Russian cities, are part of Wagner’s efforts to recruit fighters to join its ranks in Ukraine.
They also serve as a testament to the transformation the group has undergone since Moscow launched its invasion over five months ago, from a secretive mercenary organisation shrouded in mystery to an increasingly public extension of Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine.
“It looks like they have decided that they will no longer try to hide their existence. By now, everyone knows who they are,” said Denis Korotkov, a former Novaya Gazeta journalist and longtime observer of Wagner.
Wagner was established in 2014 to support pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The US and others say it is funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a powerful businessman closely linked to Vladimir Putin who is under western sanctions. Prigozhin denies any links to the group.
The group has since played a prominent role fighting alongside the Russian army in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and has been spotted in several African nations – places in which Russia holds strategic and economic interests. It has been repeatedly accused of war crimes and human rights abuses.
Despite its global reach, much of the group’s inner workings have remained a secret to the outside world.
On paper, it doesn’t exist, with no company registration, tax returns or organisational chart to be found. Russia’s senior leadership, including Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly denied any connections between Wagner and the state.
Private military companies are officially banned in Russia, and the semi-legal framework mercenaries operate under has also meant that family members of deceased Wagner operatives were often pressured into silence when seeking information about their loved ones.
And while Wagner has gradually embarked on a PR campaign, with companies linked to Prigozhin funding propaganda films that glorify the deeds of “military instructors” in Africa, any mention of the group remained largely taboo in the public sphere. Journalists like Korotkov who investigated the group have been harassed for their work.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has, however, brought the group out of the dark.
At the end of March, British intelligence claimed that about 1,000 Wagner mercenaries had gone to Ukraine. The group’s role in the war appears to have since grown significantly after Moscow refocused its efforts on the east following its failure to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Wagner is believed to have played a central part in the capture of Popasna in May and Lysychansk in June, two strategically important towns that Russia largely razed to the ground during their seizure of the eastern Luhansk region. On Wednesday, British intelligence said that Wagner played a role in the capture of the giant Vuhlehirsk power plant in Ukraine’s east.
As Wagner’s role in Ukraine grew, so did its public image at home.
In May, Wagner received what appeared to be its first acknowledgement on state news when a correspondent alluded to it in a national broadcast, saying the army had its “own orchestra” in Ukraine.
Wagner is often referred to by its supporters and members as the “orchestra”, a reference to the German composer Richard Wagner. The group’s alleged founder, Dmitry Utkin, has been linked to the far right and is believed to have named it after Hitler’s favourite composer.
UK intelligence has also suggested that Prigozhin, who was pictured in eastern Ukraine in April, has recently been made a Hero of the Russian Federation in recognition of the group’s role in the invasion.
Last week, Wagner received its biggest recognition to date when Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country’s most widely read tabloid, published a story on the group’s storming of the Vuhlehirsk plant on its front page.
Not that long ago, Russian officials (up to Putin) and state media pretended that Wagner had nothing to do with the Russian state or even that it didn't exist at all
Today a report on the group storming 🇺🇦's second largest power station is on the front page of 🇷🇺's top tabloid pic.twitter.com/KTX6Ye0wMm
— Francis Scarr (@francis_scarr) July 29, 2022
Wagner publicly boasted of its involvement in the war with a message on its website stating: “They have already liberated Popasna, join us to liberate the entire Donbas! Go on your first combat campaign with living industry legends!”
When the Guardian contacted the email address posted on Wagner’s website, an individual claiming to represent the group said that it started its recruitment campaign because “we saw that the support for our company is colossal, and there are many who want to join”.
“But nothing changes, there is no Wagner and never was, it’s just a legend. There are only Robin Hoods who protect the poor who are oppressed by the rich,” the person added in an email exchange that was characteristic of Wagner’s tongue-in-cheek public stance.
The website has since been taken down by Hostinger, the Lithuania-based internet domain provider that hosted it. A Hostinger representative said it took action when it discovered that the site was “cloaking” itself with fake identities, VPNs and crypto payments.
Wagner also appears to have established regional recruitment centres in over 20 cities, posting the phone numbers of recruiters on popular social media channels linked to the group.
The ads say that Wagner offers soldiers over 240,000 roubles (£3,370) per month, several times more than regular soldiers’ typical wages.
The Guardian contacted several of the recruiters whose numbers were listed. Some used the mercenary group’s symbols as their profile pictures on WhatsApp and Telegram, and none denied their association with Wagner.
When asked about Wagner’s mobilisation efforts, a recruiter from the Nizhny Novgorod region in central Russia, who declined to give his name, sent a list of the documents needed to join up, which included a passport from any country that “wasn’t Nato or Ukraine” and several medical certificates.
The recruiter also sent a list of items to bring once accepted by Wagner, ranging from shower gel to tourniquets and other medical equipment.
“See you in Molkino”, the message concluded, referring to the town in Russia’s Krasnodar district where Wagner is believed to be headquartered near a major defence ministry base.
Military analysts have argued that Russia’s reliance on groups like Wagner shows the extent to which the country’s regular army, which has lost as much as a third of its combat strength, has struggled to achieve its goals in Ukraine.
“Wagner private military contractors have reportedly played a critical role in the fighting. Indeed, it is fair to ask whether some Wagner detachments … are in fact more elite and capable than regular Russian motorised rifle units,” wrote Michael Kofman and Rob Lee, two leading specialists on the Russian military, in a recent briefing for the website War on the Rocks.
The war in Ukraine and Russia’s military failures appear to have also accelerated Wagner’s cooperation with the defence ministry. Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner commander, told the Guardian in an earlier interview that his troops worked closely with Russia’s defence ministry when fighting in Syria.
That relationship appears to have deepened since the start of the war in Ukraine. According to an investigation by the independent Meduza outlet, the Russian ministry of defence has largely taken control of the networks that Wagner used to recruit new soldiers.
Korotkov, the Wagner expert, said it was hard to distinguish between soldiers fighting for Wagner and those in the regular army.
“The defence ministry has largely co-opted Wagner, and it now looks more like one coordinated group,” Korotkov said, adding that such cooperation made it hard to estimate the number of Wagner soldiers in Ukraine.
And while Wagner’s role in the invasion has made the group mainstream, some say its latest recruitment push threatens to diminish its overall military standards.
According to the investigative news outlet iStories, Wagner has resorted to recruiting prisoners and offering high salaries and potential amnesties for six months of service.
“Wagner is lowering its recruitment standards and hiring convicts and formerly blacklisted individuals, potentially impacting Russian military effectiveness,” the UK’s Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence briefing last week.
“Even before the conflict, less than 30% of the soldiers in Wagner were actual professionals,” said Gabidullin, the former Wagner commander. “Now, the group will mostly consist of a bunch of amateurs … The circus that is Russia continues.”