Wagner Group’s bloody year in Ukraine: From murder squad to cannon fodder

It was supposed to be Russia’s secret weapon for a swift and efficient victory in Ukraine. But in the year since Wagner Group mercenaries were dispatched to Kyiv to hunt down Ukraine’s president, what was once an elite murder squad has become a group of mostly ill-trained and unequipped convicts who today serve as “cannon fodder”.

On February 27, 2022, just four days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian intelligence services said they had uncovered an unnerving plot. A special operations unit, consisting of some 400 mercenaries belonging to private Russian military company the Wagner Group, had been deployed to Kyiv to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his cabinet. In all, 23 names were on the hit list, including Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko.

“The mercenaries were very dangerous at that point in time because they were very well equipped, skilled and experienced, with most of them having been flown in from the group’s other missions in Syria and Mali and so on,” explained Karen Philippa Larsen, a global security researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and one of the few academic experts in the world dedicated to studying the Wagner Group.

Putin’s secret army

The Wagner Group was founded in 2014 to help Russia annex Crimea, but has since expanded into an international organisation with operations in some 30 countries, notorious for its brutality. Up until the war in Ukraine, the group was shrouded in secrecy, carrying out covert missions for the Russian state in countries including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Syria, offering Moscow convenient plausible deniability in armed conflicts it did not want to be seen to be involved in.

Although the group had remained in Ukraine after 2014, Russia’s invasion of the country last year marked a huge influx of the specially trained mercenaries. According to Ukraine intelligence, between 2,000 and 3,000 Wagner contractors entered the country in January 2022 – some two months before Russia launched its invasion, on February 24.

“A month before that, in December, we had started seeing on different channels that the Wagner Group was recruiting again. Back then, no one really knew what the recruitments were for, but then the invasion came,” Larsen recalled.

Reports that the group had sent a special team into Kyiv to assassinate Zelensky and his entourage prompted the Ukrainian government to immediately impose a 36-hour “hard” lockdown during which Ukrainian troops swept the capital for Russian agents. Anyone venturing out during that time risked being stopped or worse.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to “remove” the Ukrainian government with the help of Wagner mercenaries and take control of Kyiv “within days” was effectively botched.

Bucha massacre 

Then, on April 1, horrifying images started to emerge from the small city of Bucha, some 25 kilometres northwest of Kyiv.

Russian forces had retreated from Bucha a day earlier, after an almost month-long occupation, and after they left, bodies of unarmed civilians were found strewn across the city. Many of them were found with their hands bound behind their backs, while others had been either mutilated or burnt. According to local authorities, 419 people, including nine children, were killed during the occupation. Residents have since also recounted harrowing accounts of both torture and rape.

Although Russian troops were quickly pegged as the main culprits, members of the Wagner Group played a key role in the atrocities too.

“They weren’t alone in committing them, but they were there as well, and it definitely shows how brutal they can be,” Larsen said.  

Convict recruits 

In the beginning of the summer, those watching the group suddenly noticed a remarkable shift in its recruitment strategy. Instead of posting its usual social media ads targeting former military professionals, it had started recruiting in Russian prisons.

In a video leaked on the Telegram messaging app, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close Putin ally who had long been rumoured to be the de facto leader of the Wagner Group, was seen addressing inmates and offering them a pardon in exchange for six months of service with the company in Ukraine – if, of course, they managed to survive.  

WATCH >> Wagner mercenaries recruiting new soldiers to be sent into Ukraine

“This marked a big shift and really affected the group’s make-up,” Larsen said, pointing to the fact that out of 50,000 Wagner fighters estimated to have been deployed to Ukraine since the start of the war, at least 40,000 have come from Russian prisons.

“But in contrast to original Wagner Group members, these convicts were just given a few weeks of training – which barely gives you enough time to familiarise yourself with a gun – and they were not at all as well equipped,” she said.

The convicts – viewed by more experienced mercenaries as underdogs – were then sent on the “most dangerous missions in the most dangerous places” of Ukraine, Larsen explained. She referred in particular to the frontline in Ukraine’s east, in places like Bakhmut, which has widely been described as a “meat grinder”.

“They started sending them out on the field to see where the Ukrainians were shooting from, Larsen said, “using them as cannon fodder”.  

Bitter rivalry

At the end of September, Prigozhin, who had long denied his ties to the group and even sued journalists for reporting such claims, finally acknowledged he was indeed the original founder and owner of the Wagner Group.

Larsen said Prigozhin’s sudden change of heart might be explained by the fact that he wanted to give the Wagner Group an official voice – helping to claim its proper recognition – but also as a way to position himself on the Russian political scene as a “can-do” military strongman.

By then, the Wagner Group had started collecting a growing number of victories, while the Russian army was doing the exact opposite. A bitter rivalry began to take shape, in which Prigozhin and his men openly, and more and more fervently, accused the army and its Moscow leadership of incompetence.

But the Wagner Group was paying a steep price for its battleground successes: Larsen estimates that as many as 40,000, or 80 percent, of its fighters in Ukraine have either been killed, deserted or surrendered – most of them in the past few months alone.

“There are only around 10,000 of them still fighting,” she said, adding that the Wagner deaths are conveniently not included in Russia’s official statistics on losses because the fighters are not part of “the official structure”.

In November, the group’s ruthless culture was underscored even further when a video emerged showing Wagner fighters executing a deserter with a sledgehammer.

Commenting on the brutal video, Prigozhin called the man a traitor and said: “a dog receives a dog’s death”.

Out in the cold

In December and January, the Wagner Group’s growing rivalry with the Russian army came to head in the battle for Soledar. This is where the group is believed to have lost the bulk of its force after staging several of its now notorious human wave attacks. “A suicide mission,” Larsen said, noting that it was the sheer number of fighters running into the line of fire, rather than any military skill, which finally resulted in the city finally falling into Russian hands.

On January 11, the Wagner Group was first to claim it had captured Soledar, but the statement received no support from Moscow. A day later, the Russian defence ministry claimed its forces had taken the city, without mentioning the involvement of the Wagner mercenaries who had spearheaded the assault and broken through enemy lines. The move infuriated Prigozhin who publicly lashed out against the Russian defence ministry, accusing it of trying to “steal the victory”.

Since then, the mood between the two has grown more and more sour.

WATCH >> Russia’s war on Ukraine: ‘Fierce competition’ between Russian army and Wagner mercenaries

At the beginning of February, the Wagner Group announced – despite its huge shortage of fighters – that it had stopped its prison recruiting. According to Larsen, this may have come on the direct orders of the defence ministry, which is the group’s main supplier and therefore has the power to squeeze its resources should it see fit.

“Russian laws were changed recently to allow the army to recruit people with criminal records,” she explained. Now that the Russian army itself has started recruiting former and even current prisoners, its need for the Wagner Group’s convict fighters is much less acute.

In the middle of February, Prigozhin accused Moscow’s military chiefs of “high treason”, seeking to destroy his group by withholding munitions.

Larsen said that in the year since the Russian invasion, the Wagner Group is no way near the professional elite force it once was. And it is clear that Moscow is increasingly leaving Prigozhin out in the cold.

“But Prigozhin shouldn’t be underestimated, he’s shown before that he has the skills to use all the tools he is given. It can go two ways: either Prigozhin leaves Ukraine and builds up a very specialised force outside of it, or he insists on staying in Ukraine – but that would largely depend on his ability to recruit new fighters, which has now become a lot harder.”

Ukraine, one year on © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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US pressures allies to expel Russia’s Wagner mercenaries from Libya, Sudan

The United States has stepped up pressure on Middle East allies to expel the Wagner Group, a military contractor with close ties to Russia’s president, from chaos-stricken Libya and Sudan where it expanded in recent years, regional officials told The Associated Press.

The U.S. effort described by officials comes as the Biden administration is making a broad push against the mercenaries. The U.S. has slapped new sanctions on the Wagner Group in recent months over its expanding role in Russia’s war in Ukraine

The group is owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Pentagon has described it as a surrogate for the Russian Defense Ministry. The Kremlin denies any connection.

The Biden administration has been working for months with regional powers Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to pressure military leaders in Sudan and Libya to end their ties with the group, according to more than a dozen Libyan, Sudanese and Egyptian officials. They asked for anonymity to speak freely and because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

“Wagner obsesses them (American officials),” said an Egyptian senior government official with direct knowledge of the talks. “It is at the top of every meeting.”

The group doesn’t announce its operations, but its presence is known from reports on the ground and other evidence. In Sudan, it was originally associated with former strongman Omar al-Bashir and now works with the military leaders who replaced him. In Libya, it’s associated with east Libya-based military commander Khalifa Hifter.

Wagner has deployed thousands of operatives in African and Middle Eastern countries including Mali, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Syria. Its aim in Africa, analysts say, is to support Russia’s interests amid rising global interest in the resource-rich continent. Rights experts working with the U.S. on Jan. 31 accused the group of committing possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali, where it is fighting alongside government forces.

“Wagner tends to target countries with natural resources that can be used for Moscow’s objectives – gold mines in Sudan, for example, where the resulting gold can be sold in ways that circumvent Western sanctions,” said Catrina Doxsee, an expert on Wagner at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment sent to the press department of the Concord Group, of which he is an owner. 

The group’s role in Libya and Sudan was central to recent talks between CIA director William Burns and officials in Egypt and Libya in January. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also discussed the group with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in a late-January trip to Cairo, Egyptian officials said. Weeks after the visits, Burns acknowledged in a Thursday speech at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., that after recent travel to Africa he was concerned about the Wagner’s growing influence in the continent. 

“That is a deeply unhealthy development and we’re working very hard to counter it,” Burns said. 

Burns and Blinken called on el-Sissi’s government to help convince Sudan’s ruling generals and Libya’s Hifter to end their dealings with the Wagner, an Egyptian official briefed on the talks said.

The group and its founder have been under U.S. sanctions since 2017, and the Biden administration in December announced new export restrictions to restrict its access to technology and supplies, designating it as a “significant transnational criminal organization.”


Leaders in Sudan have received repeated U.S. messages about Wagner’s growing influence in recent months, via Egypt and Gulf states, said a senior Sudanese official.

Abbas Kamel, the director of Egypt’s Intelligence Directorate Agency, conveyed Western concerns in talks in Khartoum last month with the head of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the official said. Kamel urged Burhan to find a way to address Wagner’s “use of Sudan as a base” for operations in neighboring countries such as the Central African Republic, the official said.

Wagner started operating in Sudan in 2017, providing military training to intelligence and special forces, and to the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces, according to Sudanese officials and documents shared with The Associated Press. 

The RSF, which grew out of the feared Janjaweed militias, is led by powerful general Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who has close ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Dagalo has been sending troops to fight alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s long-running civil war.

Wagner mercenaries are not operating in a combat role in Sudan, officials said. The group, which has dozens of operatives in the country, provides military and intelligence training, as well as surveillance and protection of sites and top officials.

Sudanese military leaders appear to have given Wagner control of gold mines in return. The documents show that the group has received mining rights through front companies with ties to Sudan’s powerful military and the RSF. Its activities are centered in gold-rich areas controlled by the RSF in Darfur, Blue Nile and other provinces, according to officials.

Two companies have been sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury for acting as fronts for Wagner’s mining activities — Meroe Gold, a Sudanese gold mining firm, and its owner, the Russian-based M Invest firm. Prigozhin owns or controls both, according to the Treasury. Despite sanctions, Meroe Gold is still operating across Sudan.

The Russian mercenaries helped the paramilitary force consolidate its influence not only in the country’s far-flung regions, but also in the capital of Khartoum, where it helps run pro-RSF social media pages.

The main camp of Wagner mercenaries is in the contested village of Am Dafok on the borders between the Central African Republic and Sudan, according to the Darfur Bar Association, a legal group that focuses on human rights.

“Nobody can approach their areas,” said Gibreel Hassabu, a lawyer and member of the association.


In Libya, Burns held talks in Tripoli with Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, head of one of Libya’s two rival governments. 

The CIA director also met with Hifter in eastern Libya, according to officials with Hifter’s forces. One official briefed on the meeting in al-Rajma military complex, the seat of Hifter’s command just outside Benghazi, said Wagner was the main issue discussed.

U.N. experts said Wagner mercenaries were deployed Libya since 2018, helping Hifter’s forces in their fight against Islamist militants in eastern Libya. The group was also involved in his failed offensive on Tripoli in April 2019.

The U.S. Africa Command, AFRICOM, estimated that some 2,000 Wagner mercenaries were in Libya between July-September 2020, before a cease-fire. The mercenaries were equipped with armored vehicles, air defense systems, fighter aircraft, and other equipment, which were supplied by Russia, according to the AFRICOM assessment. The report also said the Wagner group appeared to be receiving money from the UAE, a main foreign backer of Hifter.

Since the 2020 cease-fire, Wagner’s activities have centered around oil facilities in central Libya, and they have continued providing military training to Hifter forces, Libyan officials said. It is not clear how many Wagner mercenaries are still in Libya.

American officials have demanded that mercenaries be pulled out of oil facilities, another Libyan official said.

Hifter did not offer any commitments, but asked for assurances that Turkey and the Libyan militias it backed in western Libya will not initiate an attack on his forces in the coastal city of Sirte and other areas in central Libya.

Egypt, which has close ties with Hifter, has demanded that Wagner not be stationed close to its borders.

There is no evidence yet that the Biden administration’s pressure has yielded results in either Sudan or Libya, observers said.

Doxsee, the expert, said the U.S. and allies should resist promoting narratives that “Russia is bad and what we have to offer is good” and instead focus on offering better alternatives to Wagner.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, Wagner is a business. If you can cut out the profit and you can reduce the business case for using Wagner, that’s what is going to make it a less appealing case,” she said.



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