On January 11, the commander of the "Wagner Group" Russian militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is leading Russia's attack on the city of Soldar in the Donetsk region, claimed that his soldiers had completed the occupation of the city.
"Wagner's units have taken over the entire territory of Soldar," Prigozhin said in a voice message posted on his Telegram account.
"The number of prisoners taken captive will be published tomorrow," added Prigozhin, who is considered close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Denis Pushilin, who heads the "People's Republic" of Donetsk, which was annexed in September, told the Russian channel 1 that according to information in his possession, "Soldar center is already under the control of Wagner's units."
The Wagner group, which recruited prisoners to its ranks, became a central force in the Russian offensive in Ukraine that began at the end of February 2022, but Ukraine is not the first - or the only - place where the militia is laying its eggs.
What exactly is the Wagner Group, which is considered a private military contractor,
On video: The Wagner group terrorizes the battlefield in Ukraine (Reuters)
"Whether they are fighting for wealth or fame, the brutality of the group is unquestionable. Wherever Wagner's fighters go, human rights violations follow. From Syria to Cameroon, Somalia, Venezuela, Libya to Mali, they are accused of rape, robbery, murder and torture. In Ukraine. Apart from their indiscriminate bombing of residential areas, Wagner fighters are accused of executing civilians near Kiev, in the early days of the war.
Rape, human trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, massacre, torture, seizure of natural resources, involvement in internal politics of countries , illegal arms trafficking - these are some of the allegations against the group, and the evidence is abundant," a report by the Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) said last year. The US Treasury last week even designated the Wagner Group - a Russian private mercenary organization whose Fighting in Ukraine alongside the Russian soldiers - a transnational criminal organization and imposed a series of sanctions on the global network that supports it.
"The Russian army is encountering increasing difficulties on the battlefield, and Putin is forced to rely on the Wagner group to continue the war he started. The Wagner group also intervened and sowed instability in African countries and committed extensive human rights violations," the ministry said in a statement.
Wagner soldiers (Photo: Walla! NEWS system, soldat)
The private military company is owned by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It appears on the surface as a conventional company, but its management and operations are closely integrated with the Russian military and intelligence.
The Russian government established Wagner and other private military companies to serve as conduits of influence for Russian ideology outside of Russia, without the need to involve the country's official military forces.
As a result, Wagner can be considered a proxy organization of the Russian state, as opposed to a traditional private security company that offers its sword-for-hire services on the open market.
More flexible and cheaper
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent thousands of military experts under the guise of "advisors" to conflict zones around the world, mainly the Middle East.
These messengers played an important role in assisting the armies of Syria, Egypt and Libya, among others.
In the 1990s, Russian "volunteers" participated in conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, while the Russian state officially denied any involvement in those conflicts.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were various private companies in Russia as part of the general privatization trend, which provided security services, but the world's attention was directed to them in 2010 and later due to their involvement in Syria and Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin and Vladimir Putin (Photo: Reuters)
A political-military tool for influence
The post-Cold War era heralded the resurgence of Private Security Companies (PSCs) and Private Military Companies (PMCs).
Various countries and organizations have relied on their services because these companies are more flexible and cheaper, and their fighters are usually more skilled than ordinary soldiers.
Conflicts in the 21st century, and especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, led to the fact that these private companies began to be involved in all phases of combat - from logistical support to operations in the field.
According to the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), the Kremlin has developed a unique view of the private military companies - they are not only a priority in terms of budget, but also as a political-military tool of political influence, which can be used - while at the same time denying any connection to it.
In April 2012, then-Prime Minister Putin was asked if he supported the idea of creating a network of private military companies.
He answered in the affirmative and emphasized that these companies are a tool of Russian influence that enables the fulfillment of the country's national interests, without direct involvement.
Putin noted that they can, for example, provide security for important infrastructure and facilities, as well as guide and train foreign soldiers abroad.
Another motive for using the private mercenary companies is that they allow Russia to reduce the number of deaths among its soldiers.
Since these companies are private, their death tolls are not included in the Russian Ministry of Defense's official reports of dead and wounded. Additionally, mercenaries usually fight on the frontlines and in areas of heavy fighting, so their death tolls are much higher than in the regular military.
Not exactly legal
The Russian constitution states that all matters of security and defense belong exclusively to the state.
Therefore, the establishment of private military companies is illegal in Russia.
However, there are some loopholes in the Russian legislative system.
Individuals cannot serve as mercenaries, but state-run entities can have private military and security arms.
Thus, Russian citizens are allowed to work with private companies, despite the ban.
Another method is to register the companies abroad, which allows Russia to ignore their activities on the grounds that they are "foreign companies". According to experts, Russia is interested in an atmosphere of uncertainty and mystery that surrounds these companies so that it has room to maneuver in using them - so behind the scenes there is no A real desire to make them legal.
On the ground, most private companies operate freely and recruit almost exclusively Russian citizens.
The Wagner group even demonstrates its commitment to Russia's interests in Ukraine.
Its fighters proudly wear the group's menacing white skull insignia as they battle the Russian army in the east of the country.
The symbol of the Wagner group (photo: screenshot, Twitter)
The beginning: failure in Syria
In 2013, a private military company called Slavonic Corp was established in Hong Kong by two Russian employees of another company.
According to a Norwegian study from 2020, it was the Syrian government that hired its services for the benefit of fighting ISIS.
Slavonic Corp fighters were sent to Syria in 2013.
Their mission was to help the Syrian forces recapture oil facilities from ISIS.
Due to a lack of modern weapons that the Syrian government had promised to supply the mercenaries, the mission failed, and its fighters were sent back to Russia.
Wagner Group emerged shortly after the dissolution of Slavonic Corp.
The company is currently managed by Prigozhian, but it is also closely linked to the state.
In fact, Wagner Group is not registered as a place - it does not exist.
Russia encourages the lack of transparency and supports its activities under the cloak of obscurity.
Dmitry Utkin, who served in the Russian military intelligence GRU until 2013, founded Wagner Group in 2014.
He himself joined a private company and went to Syria but after the failure there, he decided to found his own company.
The new company was named after Otkin's old contact letter "Wagner".
The group's fighters began fighting in Ukraine in 2014 to help annex Crimea to Russia.
Otkin even received the decoration of courage at a ceremony held in 2016 in the Kremlin for his service in Ukraine.
Wagner's agents, or fighters, enjoy the right to use infrastructure associated with the Russian Ministry of Defense.
When sent to Venezuela to assist President Nicolás Maduro, the agents arrived in Russian Air Force planes.
In Libya, Russian planes provided agents fighting on the ground with aid and equipment.
Wagner's men often flew to and from Syria in Russian military aircraft.
Wagner agents who are injured are even treated in Russian military hospitals, according to many reports. This is a benefit that not every private military contractor receives.
Dmitry Otkin (right) (Photo: Walla! NEWS system, soldat)
The sponsor: "Putin's Chef"
The United States has determined that the financier of the Wagner group is Prigozhian, the oligarch sometimes called "Putin's chef" because of his restaurants, which are particularly beloved by Putin.
He also owns a Russian catering company called Concord, which supplies food to the Kremlin.
According to reports, Prigozhin also runs an extensive media empire in Russia that controls about a dozen news sites, and serves as an important propaganda weapon for the country.
According to an investigation by "Blingcat", "Insider", and "Der Spiegel", his activity is "closely integrated with the Russian Ministry of Defense and Intelligence".
Prigozhin, whose father and grandfather were Jewish, was accused by the US government of trying to influence the 2016 US presidential election, and in 2017 the US and the European Union imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group.
In 2019, the United States announced that it was imposing individual sanctions on Prigozhne.
In September 2022, YouTube videos appeared, according to which Yevgeny was personally involved in recruiting prisoners for the war in Ukraine.
On September 26, Ferguson publicly admitted for the first time, according to Reuters, that he leads the "Wagner Group" and recruits prisoners serving time in prisons for the organization.
Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin (photo: official website, Russian government)
Prigozhin constantly takes care to establish his status and the status of his company and make it necessary for the President of Russia.
He also usually claims that it is his soldiers who achieved Russia's great achievements in Ukraine, such as the recent occupation of the city of Soldar, and other areas in eastern Ukraine.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently said that the oligarch's growing influence is similar to that of the monk Grigory Rasputin at the court of Tsar Nicholas II.
"Vladimir Putin needs efficiency and achievements on the battlefield at all costs," he said.
"Prigozhin has a devilish charisma, which somehow competes with that of Putin. But Putin needs him now."
In addition to fulfilling Putin's goals, Wagner helps Prigozhin fulfill his criminal commercial interests - that is, making money, and lots of it.
In the Central African Republic and Sudan, for example, the organization's fighters are supposed to take over the diamond and gold mining.
In their actions and tactics, Wagner's fighters are similar to ISIS fighters, who use terror to loot, murder and destabilize entire regions.
According to experts, through maneuvering, propaganda and illegal agreements with corrupt leaders, the organization obtains full authority in the country in which it operates, turning it into its tool.
All this, Prigozhin achieves through fighters who are mostly convicted criminals.
According to Yuri Atanov, a political science lecturer in Kyiv, the reason for this is committing crimes and achieving goals quickly through horrific tactics.
"After all, only the immoral can commit such crimes. These are not ordinary soldiers, they have no borders. There is a complete disregard for the Geneva Convention here."
Yevgeny Prigozhin (Photo: Reuters)
Murdered with hammer blows after he defected.
Yevgeny Nozhin (photo: official website, Telegram)
"Tactics of ISIS"
"I joined Wagner after fighting in the Donbass in 2104. I met good guys who thought like me," Alexander Zlodev, who left the organization in 2017, told "UK Daily".
And this is one of the reasons why people, especially young people, are attracted to the Wagner Group.
"They pay well, so this is a great opportunity for unemployed guys, most of whom are frustrated by the economic hardship they are in and want to improve their lives," said Doran Ospanov, a Kazakh reserve officer to the "Central Asia News" website.
Wagner offers a monthly salary of $1,000 for volunteers to maintain facilities, and $1,500 for those who volunteer to fight, the Arab website Al-Swayda reported on March 24, 2020. For many of the recruits to the organization who come from countries in Africa or Asia, this is a fortune.
Wagner's recruitment methods are similar to those of ISIS, for example using money to lure poor recruits and finding and recruiting young people in need via the internet.
A new report by Ukrainian intelligence reveals more details about the organization's conduct. "Assault units do not withdraw without an order... the penalty for an unauthorized withdrawal of a team is immediate execution," the report states.
Moreover, "Wounded Wagner soldiers remain on the battlefield for hours. The assault unit cannot remove the wounded from the battlefield, because their primary mission is to continue the assault until the objective is reached. If the assault fails, withdrawal is not permitted until night falls."
In the event that a fighter is killed in the field, his family does not receive compensation because the militia is not recognized by any official body, and the promises it received from Wagner's leaders are worth as much as the skin of garlic.
The report also shows that Wagner's soldiers are arranged in mobile and small groups of 12 fighters or less, use RPG grenades and utilize real-time intelligence from drones which are a "central tool" in their activities.
Another tool that the soldiers use is communication equipment made by Motorola.
The technology company announced that it has closed all its operations in Russia.
The report also claims that the tens of thousands of prisoners recruited for Wagner usually attack in the first wave and take the hardest hit - up to about 80% of the force. More experienced soldiers have night vision and thermal vision equipment. The group receives its weapons from Russia but also from North Korea, said last week the spokesman of the National Security Council in the United States Joe Kirby.
The British intelligence report states that Wagner uses large numbers of prisoners who do not receive instruction or training because they can be sacrificed. The units are usually given a specific mission in the field and they are not allowed to deviate from it - for example, to take over some structure. Anyone who deviates from the plan is threatened with execution.
Similarly For ISIS, Wagner promotes its brand on social networks, and has its own channel on the Telegram platform. The organization has a shiny new headquarters in St. Petersburg - PMC Wagner Center which is "dedicated to the production of new ideas with the aim of increasing Russia's defense capabilities, including in the field of information".
The new headquarters in St. Petersburg (Photo: Reuters)
Bocce (Photo: Reuters)
On video: hard documentation of bodies on the streets of the Ukrainian town of Bocha that was liberated from the Russians (Photo: Reuters)
Severe violence is one of the signs that characterize the group.
In the video released by Wagner, you see how her fighters beat one of the defectors to death with a hammer.
According to eyewitnesses, the organization's fighters murdered and tortured civilians near Kiev in April 2022, alongside regular soldiers of the Russian army.
According to German intelligence, they also massacred civilians in Bouche in March 2022. The United States and France accuse the mercenaries of raping and looting civilians in Africa.
In 2020, the US military even accused Wagner's fighters of planting mines around Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
Wagner Group Headquarters (Photo: Reuters)
Therefore, many believe that the definition of Wagner Group as a "terrorist organization" will make it difficult for the company to continue its activities, gain access to the global arms market and establish commercial relations with the world.
According to Agia Zgarbalska, a lawyer and the founder of the Competition League in Kyiv, "Such a definition will limit the group's presence in other countries and reduce its influence. In addition, it will create a legal framework that will encourage countries in Africa and the Middle East, where Wagner is located, to limit its influence and ties with it."
According to Mykola Malmozh, a Ukrainian security analyst, this definition would open the door to declaring the entire Russian regime "supporting terrorism."
"If Wagner operates under the auspices of the Russian state, is integrated into government agencies and acts according to instructions from the top, then the actions of the government leaders in the international arena will be considered 'actions of a terrorist organization'. This will weaken Putin who will be designated as a sponsor of terrorism."