The brutality of Russian Wagner gives him the lead in the war in Ukraine

Fierce battles in eastern Ukraine have cast a new spotlight on Russia’s Wagner Group, a private military company run by a rogue millionaire with longtime ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner spearheaded the revival of the stalled Russian offensive in Donetsk province, eastern Ukraine. The fierce house-to-house fighting produced some of the bloodiest encounters since Russia sent troops to Ukraine, with Wagner’s staff «marching over the bodies of their own soldiers», according to Ukrainian authorities.

The United States this week expanded sanctions against Wagner for his role in Ukraine and his mercenary activities in Africa.

Here is an overview of the history of the Wagner group and its current role in the fights.


Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1981 for robbery and assault, opened a restaurant in St. Petersburg after his release from prison. It was in this capacity that he met Putin, who served as deputy mayor of the city in the 1990s.

Prigozhin, 61, has used his ties to Putin to develop a catering business and won lucrative contracts with the Russian government that have earned him the nickname «Putin’s boss». It then spread to other businesses, including media and an infamous «troll factory» that led to his indictment in the United States for interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Prigozhin denied any ties to the Wagner Group before acknowledging ownership of the company in September. This month, he said he also founded, directed and financed it.


The Wagner Group was first spotted in action in eastern Ukraine shortly after a separatist conflict erupted there in April 2014, weeks after Russia annexed Crimea.

While backing the separatist insurgency in Donbass, the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, Russia has denied sending its own weapons and troops there despite ample evidence to the contrary. The involvement of private contractors in the fighting allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of denial.

Prigozhin’s company was called Wagner after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Russian army’s special forces.

He quickly gained a reputation for extreme brutality and ruthlessness.

Along with Ukraine, Wagner personnel deployed to Syria, where Russia has supported President Bashar Assad’s government in the country’s civil war. In Libya, they fought alongside the forces of Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter.

The group also operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.

Prigozhin reportedly used Wagner’s deployment in Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts.

US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that the company was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to fund its operations in Ukraine.

Some Russian media alleged Wagner’s involvement in the murders of three Russian journalists in July 2018, who were shot dead in the Central African Republic while investigating the group’s activities there. The murders remain unsolved.


Western countries and United Nations experts have accused the Wagner Group mercenaries of committing numerous human rights violations across 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 to carry out “destabilizing activities” in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

Some of the reported incidents stood out for their gruesome brutality.

A 2017 video posted online showed a group of armed people, believed to be Wagner contractors, torturing a Syrian man, beating him to death with a hammer and chopping off his head before mutilating and then burning his body. Russian authorities have ignored requests from media and rights activists to investigate the murder.

In November 2022, another video surfaced online showing a former Wagner contractor being beaten to death with a hammer after allegedly fleeing to the Ukrainian side and being recaptured. Despite public outrage and a flood of demands for an investigation, the Kremlin turned a blind eye.


The Wagner Group played an increasingly visible role in the war in Ukraine as Russian regular troops suffered heavy attrition and lost control of some previously captured territory in a series of humiliating reverses.

Prigozhin this month claimed all the credit for capturing the mining town of Soledar in the Donetsk region and accused the Russian Defense Ministry of trying to steal Wagner’s glory. He said Wagner spearheaded the attack on the town of Bakhmut, a nearby Ukrainian stronghold that Russian forces have been trying to capture for months.

Prigozhin visited Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising inmates a pardon if they survived a six-month frontline tour with Wagner. He recently posted a video in which he congratulates the first group of convicts who have been granted official pardons and the right to leave the company.

The United States estimates that Wagner lost about 50,000 people fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 of the convicts the company drafted.

The United States estimates that Wagner spends about $100 million a month on combat and received weapons from North Korea, including rockets and missiles.


Wagner’s reach for North Korean weapons may reflect his long-running dispute with Russian military leaders, dating back to the company’s founding.

A group of soldiers believed to be Wagner contractors on the front line in Ukraine recently recorded a video in which they flooded the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Army, General Valery Gerasimov, with curses for an alleged failure to provide ammunition.

Prigozhin himself has lambasted senior military brass in recent months, accusing senior officers of incompetence. His remarks were unprecedented for Russia’s tightly controlled political system, in which only Putin could issue such criticism.

Earlier this month, Putin reaffirmed his confidence in General Gerasimov by placing him directly in charge of Russian forces in Ukraine, a move some observers also interpreted as an attempt to cut Prigozhin down to size.

Prigozhin somewhat toned down his harangues against the military rulers afterwards, but remained defiant.

He has also increasingly raised his public profile, posting daily statements on the messaging app bragging about Wagner’s alleged victories and sardonically mocking his haters.

Asked recently about a media comparison comparing him to Grigory Rasputin, a mystic who gained fatal influence over the last Tsar of Russia by claiming to have the power to cure his son’s haemophilia, Prigozhin replied curtly: «I keep not blood, but I shed the blood of the enemies of our homeland.


The United States imposed several waves of sanctions on Prigozhin and Wagner. The Treasury Department has further tightened the sanctions against Wagner and affiliated companies and individuals on Thursday.

The European Union also imposed sanctions on Prigozhin on several people associated with Wagner and three Russian energy companies linked to the group in Syria.

Prigozhin scoffed at Western sanctions.

«We conducted an internal audit to examine Wagner’s alleged crimes but found no incriminating evidence,» he said, commenting on the latest US round.

He challenged Wagner’s accusers to send proof of wrongdoing to his press office.


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