How was the infamous and mysterious Wagner paramilitary formed?

Billboard with the inscription of the "Wagner" group/ Photo: Telegram
Billboard with the inscription of the "Wagner" group/ Photo: Telegram

A group of mercenaries fighting for Russia under the name Wagner has once again caught the world's attention after Ukrainian forces destroyed a secret military base in the Popasna district, said to be the headquarters of the notorious Wagner group.

This group was created in 2015 and is considered a powerful weapon in the hands of the Kremlin. The founder of this paramilitary formation is a former Russian intelligence officer, who is also Wagner's financier. He is known under the nickname "Putin's chef", and the goal of his actions are always the biggest enemies of official Moscow.

Photo: Archive / Free Press

How did the infamous Wagner come about?

The Wagner Group was founded by former Russian army officer Dmitry Utkin. A veteran of the First and Second Chechen Wars, but also a lieutenant colonel of the GRU – the Russian intelligence service, this group of mercenaries began their first operations during the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Although the Russian Constitution does not allow the formation of paramilitary formations, Wagner is believed to have a stronghold in the Kremlin. Under such a distribution of forces, Wagner can be sent to war on behalf of Russia without Russian officials ever acknowledging that the command comes from an office in the Kremlin – because the Wagner group consists of independent mercenaries.

 

Members of the Wagner group / Photo: Printscreen / YouTube

The Wagner group is usually recruited by war veterans who come from rural areas, where they are unable to earn enough money to live on.

Who finances the Wagner Group?

There is no official information about Wagner's sponsors and financiers, but it is assumed that the money for waging wars comes from the Russian intelligence agency GRU, which monitors the "work" of this group.

Sources from the Wagner group told the BBC that their training base in southern Russia is next to a Russian army base. Although Russian authorities have consistently denied any connection to the Wagner mercenaries, independent investigations have determined that the group's founder, Utkin, is also linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch known by the nickname "Putin's cook."

Yevgeny Prigozhin / Photo: Printscreen / YouTube

Many of Prigogine's companies are currently under US sanctions for what he described as "sinister political and economic influence around the world", but he has denied any connection to the Wagner group.

Where have Wagner's mercenaries been hired so far?

In 2015, the Wagner group began operating in Syria, fighting alongside pro-Assad forces to preserve the country's oil fields. Wagner's mercenaries have also been active in Libya since 2016, where they support troops loyal to General Khalifa Haftar.

According to unofficial data, about 1.000 mercenaries participated in the military advance of General Haftar's forces against the government in Tripoli in 2019.

Soldiers without insignia stand guard in Simferopol, Crimea in 2014 / Photo: EPA/MAXIM SHIPENKOV

After Syria and Libya, Wagner's mercenaries also arrived in the Central African Republic to protect diamond mines.

The US Treasury alleges that Wagner serves in these countries as protection for Prigogine's mining companies, such as M Invest and Lobai Invest.

The arrival of Wagner members in Mali in 2021 influenced the decision of the French authorities to withdraw their troops from that country.

Member of Wagner in Ukraine /Photo: EPA/MAXIM SHIPENKOV

Crimes Under the Veil of Secrecy

The United Nations and the French government have accused Wagner's mercenaries of raping and robbing civilians in the Central African Republic, which is why the European Union has imposed sanctions against members of this paramilitary formation.

In 2020, the US military accused Wagner's mercenaries of planting mines and other improvised explosive devices around the Libyan capital, causing civilian casualties.

However, the leaders, as well as members of Wagner, were never held accountable for the alleged crimes.

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