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The rise of the Wagner mercenary group – and what their success says about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

As the Russian president orders another shake-up of his military chiefs, the unit – run by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin – is making gains in the eastern town of Soledar during some of the most vicious fighting of the war, writes Kim Sengupta

Friday 13 January 2023 12:38 GMT
<p>Wagner troops and the mercenary group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, alongside a satellite image of the destruction wrought on Soledar </p>

Wagner troops and the mercenary group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, alongside a satellite image of the destruction wrought on Soledar

An arm torn by shrapnel with rivulets of blood dripping down from the sleeve, a deep gash in a face caked with mud, limping after being dragged through the rubble – the Wagner fighter hardly looked like a menacing, cold-eyed killer of an elite mercenary outfit.

Talat Nazarbekov had been taken prisoner in the east Ukrainian city of Bakhmut following an ambush and a firefight. Two comrades who also had been trying to infiltrate Ukrainian positions had been killed, their bodies lay nearby. Others, injured, had made it back to the Russian base.

The Wagner contingent on the frontline, said Talat, a young Uzbek, were running short of ammunition, supplies were not arriving, fire support they were promised had not materialised: morale was very low.

Parading the prisoner in front of me and another journalist, that is what his Ukrainian captors wanted to hear. This was precisely what their own intelligence suggested, they nodded sagely. “We are going to be taking back the areas Wagner have occupied, they are in poor shape, we are ready,” said a captain of the 93rd Brigade. “A lot of them will not live, this man is lucky we got him really. He will be taken to hospital for treatment.”

The Wagner fighter muttered wryly: “They will shoot me when you guys are gone.” He asked for a cigarette. Lighting him one, a Ukrainian soldier grinned. “We should put you out of your misery, but don’t worry, we are not going to,” he said. Talat, in the event, was not executed, I saw him a few days later at a hospital in Dnipro. But the Ukrainian advance did not take place either – both sides were stalled in attritional street fighting, gaining little.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of Wagner, was keen to dampen expectations back in Moscow at the time. “The situation near Bakhmut is difficult. The Ukrainian troops are putting up decent resistance, and the legend of the fleeing Ukrainians is just a legend," he said in a Telegram post. "Ukrainians are guys with the same iron balls as us".

Three months on, Wagner-led Russian forces have at last made a breakthrough in the Donbas, taking over most of the salt-mining town of Soledar, north of Bakhmut, giving them a strategic leverage as well as a propaganda victory. While fighting continues, the gains are the Kremlin’s only battlefield success since the summer.

Dramatic video captures medical evacuation amid fighting in Soledar

As they moved through the town to secure a network of underground tunnels, the Wagner group said they had found the body of one of two men from Britain – 48-year-old Andrew Bagshaw and Chris Parry, 28 – who have been missing in the area, although they did not name which one.

The gains in Soledar have added to the claims by Prigozhin that his men are a far more effective force than many of Moscow's regular military units. There are currently 50,000 of the company’s mercenaries in Ukraine, some of them recruited from prisons, comprising a quarter of total Russian strength – more are being prepared for deployment in the near future.

Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef” due to his ownership of a catering business with Russian government contracts, is a long-term confidante of the Russian president. He had been relatively low-profile while Wagner had deployed on behalf of the Kremlin in arenas including Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, and recently Mali.

Over the last few months, however, Prigozhin has repeatedly sought the limelight, attacking the Kremlin military hierarchy over strategy and tactics, with Ukraine having made steady progress in the field as Russian forces faltered. He has been joined in the strident criticism by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen ruler, whose troops are also in Ukraine. As well as some of Russia’s hawkish and influential military bloggers.

A Ukrainian army Grad multiple rocket launcher fires rockets at Russian positions along the frontline near Soledar

Kadyrov has praised Prigozhin – his “dear brother” – and advised his fighters, who number 20,000 overall and are formally a part of Rosgvardiya, the Russian National Guard, to pay “close attention” to what the Wagner chief has to say.

The frequency with which senior Russian officers have been moved during the Ukraine invasion indicates that President Putin continues to be dissatisfied with the way it is being run. The latest to be replaced is General Sergei Surovikin, who lost his role as head of what Moscow calls its "special military operation" to General Valery Gerasimov, the country’s military chief, after just three months.

Surovikin, a former commander of Russia’s air force, had been lauded by the pro-Kremlin media as "General Armageddon" for his aggressive strategy in Syria, including the pulverising bombing of Aleppo. The campaign of hitting Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure was initiated by the general. However, the damaging effect of that lessened with more drones and missiles being intercepted before they reach their targets.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said the appointment of General Gerasimov was to ensure “closer contact between different branches of the armed forces and improving the quality and effectiveness of the management of forces”.

There have, however, been reports of disagreements between Surovikin and Gerasimov – as well as the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu. In this internal power struggle Prigozhin has been a supporter of Surovikin and a critic of Shoigu.

Yevgeny Prigozhin serves food to Vladimir Putin at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow in 2011

The boss of Wagner has many enemies in Moscow, and they are believed to have been behind negative stories which have surfaced recently. The most prominent have been tales about Prigozhin's time in prison while he was serving a 13-year sentence on charges of aggravated burglary and robbery.

In one video, a man, covered in prison tattoos and calling himself Sasha Kurara, claimed Prigozhin was his “b****” and that of other gangland heads while incarcerated. “He knew his place and agreed to his place,” said the supposed crime boss.

Prigozhin’s allies have sought to dismiss the allegations as smears – an indication of how those who oppose him are worried by his growing power.

It is unclear what effect the divisions and acrimony in the Russian military hierarchy will have on the ground.

Taking control of Soledar would enable access to 120 miles of tunnels which could be used to move troops and weapons. Prigozhin has highlighted the advantage of the underground passages. “They can hold a big group of people at a depth of 80 to 100 metres, and also tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. They can be stored but also be moved through them,” he has said.

Members of the Ukrainian army’s 43rd Heavy Artillery Brigade fire from tanks near Soledar

Control of Soledar will also provide vantage points for further artillery strikes on Bakhmut. Capturing Bakhmut will not only be a symbolic triumph but could pave the way for an assault on the main Donbas cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.

Wagner has secured an array of weaponry – including Su-25 aircraft, T-90 tanks, S-300 missile systems, TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launchers, 23mm heavy artillery and Pantsir air defence missile systems – for its Ukraine mission. Last month, the White House said that the group was spending $100m a month in Ukraine, with John Kirby, spokesperson for the US National Security Council, saying the group had taken delivery of an arms shipment from North Korea. The company has also set up training and recruitment centres parallel to the Russian defence ministry in Belgorod and Kursk.

No other private army in the world has such an arsenal, and Wagner is expected to play a major role in a new campaigning season which will get under way after the winter hiatus. Both sides are planning offensives.

Weapons are also the subject under discussion by Ukraine’s allies. Western-supplied Himar and MLRS rocket launchers turned the tide in Ukraine’s favour in the Donbas and the south during the summer, and more of these systems are due to be sent.

Armoured fighting vehicles like the American Bradleys, German Marders and French AMXs are also on the way, and the UK has announced that it will supply a small number of Challenger 2 battle tanks. Berlin is under pressure from allies to allow the transfer of German-made Leopard 2 tanks, in service with European armies, to Kyiv.

The arrival of armour – especially tanks – and artillery will have a huge impact in the coming months, and play a significant part in deciding what happens to Vladimir Putin’s war in the heart of Europe. As well as to those, like Yevgeny Prigozhin, seeking to amass power amid the carnage.

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