On May 20, 2023, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, recorded from Bakhmut a video that would soon go viral. The Ukrainian city, besieged by Russian troops and which used to house some 70,000 people, was almost abandoned after months of bombing. “Today, at twelve noon, Bakhmut was completely taken.”
an article of The New Yorker ask how Prigozhin used the war in Ukraine to raise his profile, from fighting alongside Russian forces in Ukraine to rebelling against the Kremlin.
The leader turned this mercenary organization into the country’s foremost fighting force, a private army made up mostly of soldiers recruited from Russian prisons. His victory in Bakhmut boosted his popularity to the point that, in a June poll, Prigozhin earned a 60% approval rating, while 19% of those polled said they would be willing to vote for him as president.
As his power increased, he began to openly criticize top Moscow officials, particularly Sergey Shoigudefense minister, already Valery Gerasimovchief of the general staff, whom he accused of withholding artillery ammunition from Wagner.
But Shoigu did not sit idly by, implementing a regulation requiring all “volunteer units”, including Wagner, to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense before July 1, thus losing their autonomy and falling under the command of the Russian Army.
Prigozhin remained defiant, but the decision, backed by Putin, put him in an impossible place. However, the intensity of his attacks increased. He said that Shoigu and other top military leaders, along with the Russian oligarchy, were “mentally ill trash” who had led Russia to disaster in the Ukraine.
But even more shocking, he questioned the very basis of the war: “The Defense Ministry is trying to mislead the public and the president and misrepresent the story that there were insane levels of aggression from the Ukrainian side and that they were going to attack us, along with everything the NATO bloc.
On the night of June 23, Prigozhin announced a “march for justice”. A march that became an armed riot against the upper echelon of the Kremlin. It was the most dramatic uprising in Russia since August 1991, when the leaders of the KGB, the Ministry of Defense and the Communist Party put the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachevunder house arrest and seized power.
Putin called Wagner’s actions “treason”, “a subversion from within”, “a stab in the back”. Less than 24 hours after the armed incursion into Russian territory began, Prigozhin announced that he feared “blood might be shed” and halted the rebellion.
According to reports, the Belarusian dictator, AAlexander Lukashenko, brokered a deal between Prigozhin and the Putin regime. Wagner’s forces would join the Defense Ministry, be disbanded or relocated to Belarus, and the charges against Prigozhin would be dropped.
Initially, Wagner was not included in Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine. A senior Ukrainian intelligence official told the New Yorker that the Kremlin leaders “thought they would quickly capture kyiv, keep the government buildings and infrastructure intact, and simply take over and run the country.” For a supposedly fast mission, you don’t need mercenaries, they thought. But when the Russian advance stalled, in the spring of 2022, the Kremlin withdrew Russian units from around kyiv and redoubled efforts to seize territory in the Donbas.
According to the article in the American media, the Ukrainian army first saw Wagner’s fighters at the Battle of Popasna, a major railway junction in the Lugansk region. After Popasna was left in the hands of Russian troops, in early May, Prigozhin promised that Wagner would take Bakhmut, 20 miles to the west.
But last September, a Ukrainian counter-offensive drove out Russian forces around the city of Kharkiv, cutting off a position from which they were advancing towards Bakhmut. Following the shocked response from the Kiev troops, Prigozhin criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for the withdrawal: “Send all these bastards to the front with guns and barefoot.”
Thus, Bakhmut became a means for both armies to tie up and degrade each other’s forces, in order to exhaust them for future battles. “Our task is not Bakhmut himself,” Prigozhin said last November, “but the destruction of the Ukrainian army and the reduction of its combat potential”.
The operation had been dubbed “Bakhmut’s meat grinder.
Time later, Wagner was losing fifty to one hundred fighters a day.. Word of the high casualty rates had reached the Russian inmates, so fewer and fewer were willing to join the ranks of the mercenary group. At the same time, the Ministry of Defense had begun drawing its own recruits from prisons, enrolling convicts in armed formations called Storm-Z. If the Ministry of Defense wanted to limit Wagner’s influence, cutting off its supply of convicted combatants was one way to do it. In response, last February, Prigozhin announced that Wagner was ending its prisoner recruitment program.
Later that month, he changed the deadline for taking Bakhmut and placed the blame squarely on the Kremlin, or what he called the “monstrous military bureaucracy” of Russia.
Tensions were increasing and the differences with the Ministry of Defense were already undisguisable.
On May 5, Prigozhin posted a video showing him in the dark pointing a flashlight at a row of dead bodies. “These are Wagner guys who died today. His blood is still fresh!” “They will eat their guts in hell. Shoigu, Gerasimov, where’s the damn ammunition?
After those crude words, he got more ammunition and announced that the Wagner group would stay fighting.
“By mid-May, Wagner controlled more than ninety percent of Bakhmut. But, even when the Ukrainian army was driven out of the city, he was retaking territory on the flanks, turning Bakhmut into a prize and a trap, ”says he the New Yorker. Prigozhin again blamed the Russian regular army.
But soon Bakhmut was fully occupied. President Volodimir Zelensky he initially denied that the city had fallen, but within a few days it became clear that there were no Ukrainian troops left. Bakhmut’s capture was the beginning of the end for Wagner in the Ukraineand had already achieved its goal at a high human and material cost.
Putin revealed that the state had paid Wagner almost billion dollars in the last year. Dmitry Kiselev, a television propagandist, estimated that number to be even higher: almost ten billion dollars in state funds for Wagner.
“In the aftermath of the insurrection, Putin seemed to take a measured approach with Wagner. Hundreds of Russian citizens who have criticized the authorities and the war in less vivid terms than Prigozhin have been jailed, fined, and removed from their jobs or universities, and not one of them sent an armored column on the way to Moscow,” the article said. . “But, for now at least, Putin has decided that jailing Prigozhin would risk making him a martyr while also undermining Russia’s military effort.”
In July, a contingent of thousands of Wagner fighters traveled to Belarus to set up camp near the town of Asipovichy, supposedly to train local reservists. The mercenary chief made his first public appearance since the mutiny: he arrived with Wagner’s flag from the base at Molkino, which had been emptied. “We fought with dignity… We have done a lot for Russia,” he told the assembled troops.
The mercenary group emerged in 2014, during the Russian annexation of Crimea. The US government has indicated that the organization is financed by Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close associate of Putin. They refer to him as Putin’s chefdue to his catering business, which has organized elegant state dinners for the Russian president.
The group is not registered as a legal entity anywhere in the world. Mercenaries are illegal under Russian law. Their clandestine existence allows Russia to downplay its battlefield casualties and distance itself from atrocities committed by Wagner’s fighters, observers say.
“It operates in a situation of opacity, there is a real lack of transparency and that is the point,” he said. Sorcha McLeod, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, which has examined the Wagner Group. Its structure allows it the ability to deny its actions and create “distance between the Russian state and the group,” MacLeod said.
In addition to their involvement in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and Ukraine, Wagner elements have also fought in Sudan, Mali, and Mozambique, where they have exerted Russian influence through power, done the bidding of authoritarian leaders, and at times , have raided oil or gas fields or secured other material interests. They have become more and more formal and have begun to act more like the military contractors of the West.
“There is a trend or pattern when Wagner gets involved in an armed conflict,” MacLeod said. “The conflict is prolonged, there is heavy weapons, civilians are substantially affected, human rights violations and war crimes increase significantly and there is no access to justice for the victims.”
The group reportedly got its name from the nickname of its leader, Dmitry Utkin, a retired Russian military man. It is said that Utkin chose “Wagner” as a tribute to the composer, who was a favorite of Hitler. Despite the Kremlin denying any links to the Wagner Group, Utkin has been photographed at Putin’s side.
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