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What is the Wagner Group as Russian private army declared terrorist organisation

What is the Wagner Group as Russian private army declared terrorist organisation

The Russian mercenary group Wagner will now be identified as a terrorist organisation, according to the Home Office.

Under the former leadership of Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a recent plane crash, the elite private army had stakes in both Ukraine, as well as conflicts in Africa.

Prior to his death, Prigozhin had reportedly recruited criminals from Russian jails as well as others into his private mercenary army. They’ve also been accused of committing war crimes such as rape and torture, according to the United Nations. What’s more, the group has been linked to atrocities in Bucha.

When the order is passed in the UK, it’ll mean that it would be illegal to support or be a member, of the Wagner group. So what exactly is the Wagner group?

What is the Wagner Group?

The Wagner Group (officially called PMC Wagner) is a private military company created by and under the control of Yevgeny Prigozhin.

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 Ministry of Defence said it was likely that Prigozhin had partially funded the organisation “via inflated government contracts awarded to his other companies”.

Since then, the group has grown significantly — in December, the US believed that the group had an estimated 50,000 personnel inside Ukraine, around 80 per cent of whom have been drawn from prisons.

A BBC investigation found that former Russian army officer Dmitri Utkin was involved, and it is thought that he named the group after his former radio call sign.

The US designated the group as a “significant transnational criminal organisation”.

In September 2022, Prigozhin finally admitted to founding the group and it opened its headquarters in St Petersburg a month later.

Although private military forces are illegal in Russia, the Wagner Group is formally registered as a legal entity, declaring its core activity to be “management consultancy”.

The Ministry of Defence previously said that this registration “likely aims to maximise Prigozhin’s commercial gain and to further legitimise the increasingly high-profile organisation”.

The 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.

Who was Yevgeny Prigozhin?

Prigozhin, 62, was a Russian oligarch and former confidant of Putin.

He started his ascent in Russia’s elite circles by owning restaurants in St Petersburg and a catering company that serviced the Kremlin. He was previously dubbed “Putin’s chef” for catering state events with his catering business.

In 2014, he founded the Wagner mercenary group and the army has been known for involvement in various atrocities around the globe — claims Prigozhin had denied.

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 alleged that “Prigozhin’s disinformation, political interference, and military operations are tightly integrated with Russia’s Defense Ministry and its intelligence arm, the GRU”.

The private army chief had recently become increasingly critical of other senior Russian leaders and the country’s official military. He has accused Russian soldiers of “quietly running away” allowing Ukraine to retake part of a village near Bakhmut in the country’s east.

His fall from Putin’s graces reached a boiling point when he turned against the Russian leader and staged a short-lived rebellion. Since the failed coup, Prigozhin was understood to have been keeping a low profile in Belarus until the fatal crash.

Russian businessman and Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin (Sergei Ilnitsky / Reuters)
Russian businessman and Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin (Sergei Ilnitsky / Reuters)

What is the Wagner Group doing in Ukraine?

The Wagner Group is understood to have had 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 had previously claimed that around 80 per cent of its troops in Ukraine have been recruited from prisons.

The Wagner Group is believed to have been operating in Ukraine since 2014, when it tried to help Russia annex Crimea. The group was heavily involved in Russia’s capture of the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.

Following a rebellion, and in his first public address after the coup, Prigozhin had said that his Wagner troops would be focusing more on Africa instead of Ukraine.

What crimes is the Wagner Group alleged to have committed?

Wagner operatives have been accused of committing war crimes, including rape, robbery of civilians, and torturing accused deserters, according to the United Nations.

In 2020, the US military accused Wagner mercenaries of having planted landmines and other improvised explosive devices in and around the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Ukrainian prosecutors have also accused mercenaries of killing and torturing civilians near Kyiv in April 2022, as well as in the Ukrainian city of Bucha in March 2022.

At the start of 2023, the US placed sanctions on a Chinese firm said to be supplying the Wagner Group with satellite imagery to assist its operations 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.”