Russia’s Wagner Group has gained worldwide fame from Africa to Ukraine, but division is growing at home

Grabbing headlines around the world, Wagner’s private group of mercenaries has proven vital to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, but its successes have also exposed a split in Moscow’s war effort.

John Kirby, the White House National Security Council communications coordinator, told reporters on Friday that the United States appreciates that there is escalating tension between Russia’s Defense Ministry and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has long had close ties to Putin.

Russia declared victory in a pitched battle for the town of Solidar in eastern Ukraine earlier this month, showing stark differences between the Defense Ministry, which awarded victory to its forces, and Putin-aligned Prigozhin, who said the rare achievement was well deserved. for his hired men.

A man lays flowers at a coffin during the funeral of Dmitry Menshikov, a mercenary for the private Russian military company Wagner Group killed during the military conflict in Ukraine, on the Alley of Heroes at a cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia, December 24, 2022.
(Reuters / Igor Rusak)

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The Defense Ministry, which has long distanced itself from the Wagner Group, issued an unusual statement and said the town had taken on a “disproportionate” attempt to storm Solidar from the north and south.

The ministry added that the direct attack on the city’s compounds “was carried out through the courageous and honest actions of the volunteer Wagner military offensive forces.”

“We see indications, including in intelligence, that tensions between Wagner and the Russian Defense Ministry are increasing,” Kirby told reporters on Friday. “Wagner became a rival power center for the Russian army and other Russian ministries.”

For years, the Russian government denied any connection with the private military company (PMC) despite reports ranging from first-hand accounts to UN-wide records showing that shadow power has been used to pursue Kremlin-based interests from the Middle East and Africa to Ukraine. , especially Putin’s interests.

Wagner PMC was formed as a military branch of mixed operations outside Russia under the auspices of the FSB [Federal Security Services]Wagner expert Oleksandr Kovalenko told Fox News Digital, referring to the intelligence agency that replaced the infamous KGB.

Russia’s use of private military groups is nothing new, explained Kovalenko, the military overseer of the Information Resistance group in Ukraine that began countering propaganda after Russia’s 2014 invasion.

People in uniform, allegedly soldiers of the Russian mercenary group Wagner and its chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, pose for a photo believed to be at a salt mine in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this photo posted Jan. 10, 2023.

People in uniform, allegedly soldiers of the Russian mercenary group Wagner and its chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, pose for a photo believed to be at a salt mine in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this photo posted Jan. 10, 2023.
(Concorde press service/Handout via Reuters)

“It all started in the days of the Soviet Union,” he said, noting that the struggle for power due to foreign campaigns arose between the KGB and the Ministry of Defense.

“Operational activities abroad have always been prioritized by military and military intelligence – military intelligence,” Kovalenko said, noting that the KGB pushed the GRU for greater access and a larger budget.

But everything changed with the arrival of Putin.

Putin, who served as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB for nearly two decades, has favored the FSB and given it more freedoms than it was historically allotted.

“With his blessing, the first steps to form a special military commission have begun,” Kovalenko added.

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The first signs of Putin’s mercenary power appeared during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. By 2015, hired soldiers were doing Putin’s bidding in Syria to support its president, Bashar al-Assad, and to carry out goals the Kremlin did not want its military to do. associated with.

Wagner is now believed to be operating not only in Ukraine and Syria, but throughout Africa in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Madagascar, and possibly Eritrea.

“At first glance, it might seem that the presence of PMC Wagner in a particular African country is a business and nothing else,” Kovalenko explained. “For example, in the Central African Republic, this is not just a favor to the local dictator and his hard money protection.

This undated photo distributed by the French Army shows three Russian mercenaries, right, in northern Mali.

This undated photo distributed by the French Army shows three Russian mercenaries, right, in northern Mali.
(French Army via AP)

“It also controls deposits of precious metals and stones,” he added.

Kovalenko said that controlling natural resources is just one of Russia’s goals.

Russia’s goal is to spread its influence on the African continent, to control local government and, as an ultimate goal, to create a group of African states loyal to it. [Moscow]Kovalenko said these tactics are carried out through information warfare, interference in elections and general destabilization of societies.

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While it is estimated that 10,000 Russian mercenaries are spread across Africa, Wagner’s company has grown exponentially since Putin invaded Ukraine.

Kirby confirmed on Friday that an estimated 50,000 Wagner soldiers are operating in Ukraine, a feat made only possible by Prigozhin’s ability to turn to the Russian sanctions system after the group saw heavy losses early in the war.

Kirby emphasized that of the 50,000 servicemen employed in Ukraine, approximately 10,000 are believed to be professional contractors while 40,000 are convicts.

After that recruiting shift, Kovalenko explained, the group split between professional mercenaries with combat experience generally working in Africa and the Middle East or training Russian forces in Belarus and criminal recruits who he said use “live meat,” carcasses to populate the front lines.

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions in Pakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, November 10, 2022.

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions in Pakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, November 10, 2022.
(AP Photo/Libkos, file)

An estimated 20,000 Wagner mercenaries have been sent to the Bakhmut axis in Donetsk alone, Kovalenko said, though he noted that the situation remains “fluid” and thus it is difficult to know how many have been killed or what to do.

Ukraine estimates that Russia has lost more than 120,000 soldiers, though it is unclear whether this also includes Wagner’s forces as mercenaries who are not generally considered among military losses.

Wagner forces and Russian forces do not usually work together. Despite the Ministry of Defense’s statement regarding joint efforts to capture Solidar, the Russian government maintains a level of detachment from the mercenary group.

Including groups in Donbass, Kovalenko said, “PMC Wagner is dangerous because it maintains contacts with many extremist groups around the world.” “Wagnerites do not comply with the Geneva Convention.”

The Wagner expert said that Prigozhin extorts captured Ukrainian soldiers for money, often bringing them back “crippled, with severe physical injuries,” though Fox News Digital has not been able to independently verify these exchanges.

“Therefore, at the official level, a direct link between PMC Wagner and the Russian government will never be recognized,” he added. “This makes it easier to ignore the crimes…not only in Ukraine but all over the world.”

This image is from a video that shows soldiers burying bodies near a military base in northern Mali.  The French military said it had videos of Russian mercenaries burying their bodies near a military base in northern Mali.

This image is from a video that shows soldiers burying bodies near a military base in northern Mali. The French military said it had videos of Russian mercenaries burying their bodies near a military base in northern Mali.
(French Army via AP)

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Despite the confirmed separation between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Wagner, they share an undeniable adaptive relationship.

After all, mercilessly criticizing Prigozhin and attacking the Russian Defense Ministry, Kovalenko said, he is biting the hand that supplies him with everything necessary for war.

“After all, where did PMC Wagner get its tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, helicopters, planes, artillery and ammunition in huge quantities?” he adked. “Is this the FSB gives Prigozhin? No. All this is provided by the Ministry of Defense.”

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