What is the Wagner Group? US sanctions Chinese firm supplying Russian mercenary organisation
The Wagner Group, considered to be President Vladimir Putin’s private army, is recruiting soldiers in Russian schools, UK intelligence chiefs believe.
The group is believed to have lost access to recruiting in Russian jails due to owner Yevgeny Prigozhin’s ongoing dispute with the Russian defence leadership.
Meanwhile, the Italian government has blamed the group for sparking a rise in migration from Africa to Italy.
Defence minister Guido Crosetto said that “the exponential increase in the migratory phenomenon departing from African shores is also, to a not insignificant extent, part of a clear strategy of hybrid warfare that the Wagner division is implementing, using its considerable weight in some African countries.”
What is the Wagner Group?
The Wagner Group is a mercenary organisation created by Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The Ministry of Defence says it is likely that Prigozhin had partially funded the organisation “via inflated government contracts awarded to his other companies”.
A BBC investigation found that former Russian army officer, Dmitri Utkin, was involved, and it’s thought that he named the group after his former radio call sign.
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It was first identified in 2014, when it supported pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. It has since been involved in countries such as Syria, Mozambique, Sudan, and the Central African Republic.
The US has designated the group as a “significant transnational criminal organisation”.
Prigozhin admitted to founding the group in September 2022. They opened their headquarters in St Petersburg a month later.
As of December 2022, the Wagner Group had formally registered as a legal entity, declaring their core activity as “management consultancy”.
The Ministry of Defence says that this registration “likely aims to maximise Prigozhin’s commercial gain and to further legitimise the increasingly high-profile organisation”.
Despite Private Military Companies (PMCs) being illegal in Russia, the Wagner group is “openly recruiting in Russian cities, on billboards, and is being named in Russian media as a patriotic organisation," Dr Samuel Ramani, of the Royal United Services Institute think tank, told the BBC.
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Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?
Prigozhin, 61, is a Russian oligarch and a confidant of Putin. He owns restaurants in St Petersburg and a catering company that services the Kremlin.
Prigozhin was indicted in the US for his role in the “troll factory” that tried to influence the 2016 election in favour of former president Donald Trump. As reported by Bellingcat, the same troll factory posted thousands of messages on social media promoting Brexit.
An investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider and Der Spiegel alleges that “Prigozhin’s disinformation, political interference and military operations are tightly integrated with Russia’s Defense Ministry and its intelligence arm, the GRU”.
The Wagner Group in Ukraine
The Wagner Group is understood to have up to 50,000 troops in Ukraine, according to UK and US estimates. Before the Ukraine war, it is thought that the group had around 5,000 fighters.
The US National Security Council says that around 80 per cent of its troops in Ukraine have been recruited from prisons.
The group has been accused of killing civilians in Bucha, just outside of Kyiv, in March 2022 by German intelligence.
The Wagner Group is believed to have been operating in Ukraine since 2014, when it tried to help Russia annex Crimea.
US sanctions on Chinese firm
The US has placed sanctions on a Chinese firm said to be supplying the Wagner Group with satellite imagery to assist their operation in Ukraine.
The US Treasury Department said in January that Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute, also known as Spacety China, had been sanctioned by Washington.
A statement added: “Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute Co. LTD (Spacety China) is a People’s Republic of China (PRC)-based entity that has provided Terra Tech synthetic aperture radar satellite imagery orders over locations in Ukraine.
“These images were gathered in order to enable Wagner combat operations in Ukraine.”