First they were known as the “little green men”, an anonymous private Russian force appearing first in Crimea, then Syria, then in central Africa. Now, they are on the frontline of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Just how powerful is the Wagner Group and their increasingly vocal founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin?
It was December, freezing and Dmitry Mrachnik was mowing down waves of Russian storm troops. Deep in a forest trench in eastern Ukraine the lieutenant, once a tattoo artist and shoemaker, felt like he was in a video game. “People compared it to some kind of zombies,” he said. “You’re shooting into hordes of zombies.”
The “zombies” were mercenaries from the Wagner Private Military Company, thousands of them convicts freshly released from jail. Now, they were on the frontline of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, expendable bodies sent into the line of fire as Russia battled to capture two strategic towns. Through heat-vision goggles, Dmitry and his fellow soldiers peered into the distance. “Oh Jesus, there are dozens of them.” They kept shooting.
For the past six months, Wagner’s strength has been in numbers. An estimated 50,000 prisoners have been conscripted by the private military force: most of them – untrained, poorly equipped and in poor health – have ended up fighting on the frontlines in Bakhmut and Soledar. It’s here, in a particularly bloody scene in the theatre of Russia’s war, that a man called Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin has taken centre stage.
Why this story?
Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine hasn’t gone as planned. A year into the full-scale invasion, the Russian army is struggling to gain territory in the east. In search of help – and manpower – Putin has turned to a long-standing ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and a private military force that has until now largely operated in the shadows – the Wagner Private Military Company. Now, Wagner is everywhere and Prigozhin, their funder, has become a vocal and bombastic spokesman. Why? We investigate why a once-secretive military force has emerged from the shadows and onto the frontline on Europe.
How we got here
Our coverage of Ukraine has been focused on key moments in the unfolding war: the assault on Mariupol; the strangling of the port of Odesa; the siege on Olenivka. The common thread across 12 months of the conflict is the targeting of civilians, a tactic Wagner Group mercenaries have been accused of in many countries around the world where their services are retained by national governments seeking to quash opposition and assert control.
On 10 January, Prigozhin, a former hot-dog seller and caterer turned billionaire, announced on his popular Telegram channel that Soledar had fallen. “No units, other than the fighters of the Wagner group took part in the assault on Soledar.” In other words: this wasn’t a Russian army triumph. This was his. Soon, he was all over social media. In early February, a video showed him in a Sukhoi SU-24 fighter plane challenging the Ukrainian president to a dogfight. Long-suspected to be funding the Wagner mercenary force, it seemed he had chosen this moment to claim the limelight, rebranding as a military showman – bombastic, ultranationalist, and unafraid to speak his mind. Only a year ago, he was suing a journalist for a tweet linking Prigozhin to Wagner. What changed?
The answer to that question lies, in part, in the failures of Russia’s invasion. “It’s all very Game of Thrones in Russia at the moment,” said Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative group Bellingcat, who have reported on Wagner and Prigozhin for years. “Chaos is a ladder in Russia, and he’s trying to climb it as quickly as possible.”
But it stretches further, too. The story of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s war is a tale that begins and, maybe, ends in Ukraine, but unfolds elsewhere, deep in central Africa and the Middle East, and reveals a new era in Russia’s hybrid war.
Yevgeny Prigozhin didn’t start life in the Russian political elite. His father died when he was young, his mother worked in a hospital. After a series of thefts, he was in a penal colony from 1981 until 1990. When he was released, he set up a hot-dog stand in St Petersburg. From there he expanded into supermarkets and then restaurants. Through his businesses, he came into contact with the mayoral office of St Petersburg, and one politician in particular: Vladimir Putin.
It was Russia in the 1990s: a period of lucrative chaos and market liberalisation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was in this environment that Prigozhin began his upwards climb – rung by rung.
In the early 2000s, he began winning government catering contracts through his company, Concord, providing food for big events, and later, for schools and the military. But he wasn’t yet a player. He was always in the background, hovering behind the powerful but not yet one of them. Photographs from restaurants and banquets at the time show Prigozhin standing behind Prince Charles or serving George W Bush. Abbas Gallyamov, a former speech writer for Vladimir Putin, said Prigozhin didn’t appear in the political structure back then: “He was a non-existent factor in public politics.”
Things started to change in 2013. From catering, Prigozhin successfully pivoted to politics, quietly financing the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which later became known as the troll farm behind a firehose of disinformation aimed at disrupting the 2016 US presidential election. The US later criminally indicted the IRA for obstructing “the lawful functions of the government”. For the Kremlin, in other words, it was a success. And so, the former hot-dog seller, still very much in the shadows, continued to climb Putin’s ladder of power and patronage.
By 2014, the stakes were about to get much higher for Prigozhin. In February of that year, Russia annexed Crimea and so-called “little green men” – soldiers with no insignia, no identifying marks – began to appear in Simferopol. The birth of the Wagner group is still shrouded in mystery, but over time it became clear that some of these unidentified fighters belonged to a new organisation set up by Dmitry Uktin, a Russian former special forces officer with what appears to be a Nazi Waffen SS neck tattoo.
With a presence first in Syria and then eastern Ukraine, the name “Wagner” soon began to crop up in Libya, Central African Republic, and Mali.
Lou, who declined to give her second name to protect her safety, is lead researcher with All Eyes on Wagner, an investigative group tracking their operations around the world. It’s a dangerous job: when we met in London, she told me three Russian journalists were killed in 2018 for investigating Wagner’s interests in gold, diamond and uranium mines in the Central African Republic. Using open source intelligence, Lou tracks their activities in her spare time, mapping commercial and military structures – what she calls the “Wagner galaxy”.
In Africa and the Middle East, the Wagner Group’s work is separated into three areas, all feeding each other. First, they act as mercenaries, providing security for governments. Second, they form companies using those security services, often to protect interests in diamonds, gas, gold and oil, which generate substantial sums of money. Third, they run cyber units to build influence.
“The Central African Republic is a true example of the full set of Wagner operations,” Lou said. “Today they are training the FACA [Central African Republic armed forces]. They are conducting joint operations with them in some areas to try to repel militias.” They have built companies, managing gold and diamond mines. But they’re also trying new things. “They have two vodka brands that they try to sell locally – and they have just launched a beer.” I ask Lou, is there a big vodka market in CAR? No, she said.
Wherever they work, their activities are clouded by horror. They have been accused of civilian atrocities, including mass killings and rapes. The Kremlin has denied any links: in May 2022, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that Wagner had “nothing to do with the Russian state”. That same month, Wagner mercenaries were accused of storming a maternity hospital in the capital of the Central Africa Republic, Bangui, raping healthcare workers and women who had just given birth.
Lou and her group, All Eyes on Wagner, alongside Higgins and Bellingcat, see a force that is supporting and protecting Russian interests abroad – a proxy for the Russian military. “The leadership structure is still very difficult to understand,” Lou told me. She has mapped the companies that pay mercenaries in Mali, Syria and Libya. “We try to go back up to Russia and to see who is the ultimate beneficiary of all those companies. And each time the one that appears is: Prigozhin.”
Even now, who exactly runs it remains murky. That obscurity is strategic: Wagner has always been designed to be a deniable military arm of the Russian state. According to British intelligence, the group’s primary training area is within a Russian MoD facility, opened in September 2022 by Prigozhin himself. But even as its name and its interests became better known, until recently Prigozhin went to extreme lengths to deny his involvement.
In 2021, Higgins was told he was being sued by Prigozhin for libel over a series of tweets in which he posted links to news articles connecting the billionaire to Wagner. “I was being sued for the contents of those articles, which is strange in itself.” The suit, a SLAPP case – a strategic lawsuit against public participation – targeted Higgins personally. Despite the fact Prigozhin had been sanctioned by the UK government a year before, for “significant foreign mercenary activity” in Libya, the Treasury had, remarkably, agreed to allow him to bypass those sanctions to pay his lawyers in the UK. “It was shocking,” Higgins told me over Zoom.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 proved a turning point for the case. As Putin launched a land and air offensive across the country, Prigozhin’s lawyers – a firm called Discreet Law – dropped him. After he failed to file the correct paperwork, the case was thrown out. “It still cost about £70,000 just in legal fees to get to that point. That wasn’t even the court case, this was the preamble to the actual court case. So had it actually reached that point, it could have cost hundreds, if not millions of pounds.”
But the invasion of Ukraine didn’t only change the course of the lawsuit.
Eight years after the annexation of Crimea, the Wagner Group returned to Ukraine as Russia’s invasion began. At first, they appeared to have a singular mission. In late February, the Times in London reported that 400 Wagner Group mercenaries had been flown in from Africa to assassinate Volodymir Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, and members of his government.
As the war unfolded, and Ukraine mounted its resistance, the Wagner Group’s presence was documented at some of the most critical, and brutal, moments of the conflict, and slowly, Prigozhin became more visible. In April, he was pictured wearing combat uniform near the border in eastern Ukraine. By June, he appeared to have been given the Hero of Russia award by Putin for his services to the state – and was photographed wearing the star medal.
Speaking from his home in Israel soon after being designated a “foreign agent” by the Russian ministry of justice, Gallyamov, Putin’s former speechwriter, said: “Everything started changing after it became obvious that the Russian Army had failed. Putin desperately needed a saviour, and Prigozhin became a kind of a saviour.”
Prigozhin had until now been a faithful servant – and beneficiary – of Putin’s system. So where there was a need, he answered it. By the summer, there was a need for manpower – bodies. In September, a video found its way onto the internet; of Yevgeny Prigozhin standing in a yard surrounded by prisoners. “If you serve six months (in Wagner), you are free,” he told them. “If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will execute you.”
Just days after the video was made public, Prigozhin finally came into the open. He not only admitted his link to Wagner, but boasted about it. The Telegram channels of the Wagner PMC – followed by hundreds of thousands of people – buzzed with ultranationalist videos, memes, voice notes and photographs from the war; a warp of gamer culture, troll content, snuff videos and brash, macho imagery, casting Wagnerites as the elite force – living, breathing war machines. Prigozhin, once a background lurker, was now a hardman hero. By the winter of 2022, it seemed as if was reaching the upper rungs of the ladder he’d been climbing since the 1990s. But it put him on a collision course.
Olha Bihar is an officer of the Ukrainian territorial defence. She joined as a volunteer with her mother and younger brother just after the invasion. Before that, she was a lawyer.
“Bakhmut is the hardest bottle. Exhaustion, fatigue, endless assault battles, 24 hours, seven days a week. Time in Bakhmut goes differently. It goes faster,” she said in a voice note from the frontline. The reality she describes is a far cry from the Wagner propaganda online. “We met recruited convicts by Prigozhin. You have to understand that they have no honour and no conscience. They are murderers, criminals and rapists, who came to get their ticket for freedom – or a bullet in the head.”
“I just could not imagine the harshness of that battle,” said Dmitry Mrachnik of his time on the frontlines in Bakhmut in December. In a break from the gunfire, having just survived a brutal offensive, he went to see the enemy – to see who he had been shooting at. A fellow soldier showed him a corpse. “He had no Russian uniform. He was dressed up like a hunter, in hunting camouflage, stuff like that. […] He looked very bad. His face told me he’s like in his eighties or seventies, but his body was like in his forties or fifties.”
These were the men Prigozhin claimed victory for in Soledar, in January 2023: in a video, he boasted that Wagner units alone controlled the territory. But the Russian army’s struggles could not simply be Yevgeny Prigozhin’s gain. A rift appeared. The Russian ministry of defence did not – initially – acknowledge Wagner’s involvement. On Telegram, Prigozhin claimed there was an attempt to “steal victory” from his mercenaries. Soon afterwards, in a statement, the ministry of defence corrected itself – and thanked “the courageous and selfless actions of the volunteers of Wagner’s assault squads”.
Prigozhin had become impossible to ignore; the subject of multiple profiles and news items. People were beginning to ask: could he be a challenger to Valdimir Putin? To Abbas Gallyamov, Prigozhin’s behaviour highlights the Russian president’s weakness: “Putin is already losing control over the situation… Putin just doesn’t have enough strength to take care of everything… Prigozhin is showing that normality is over. The system is already beyond normal. It went crazy.”
But there are signs that he can only go so far. After amplifying criticism of General Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military’s general staff, sniping that he was sequestered in a warm office away from the frontlines; Putin made Gerasimov the chief Commander of the war in Ukraine. Now, rumours circulate that the Kremlin has asked the media to tone down their coverage of Wagner’s main man. The prison recruitment drive has now been halted; and Prigozhin admits that will shrink his forces in Ukraine. The latest crisis was a dearth of ammunition, with angry videos posted on Telegram.
All of which points to a different theory; one supported by the investigators of the Wagner Group I’ve spoken to, who believe he is a larger-than-life bogeyman who is undeniably a product of a system that has served Putin and the Kremlin for decades. Lou told me: “Prigozhin cannot operate with Kremlin approval. So when he’s going public, I think there is still a government intention behind it, and I wouldn’t disconnect the two.” If he’s still operating, “there is approval”, she said. “And today, in Africa, he’s still operating a lot.”
There is little question that for now, Yevgeny Prigozhin is a helpful figure to Putin. Candace Rondeaux, an international security analyst, believes Putin factored in Wagner’s off-book hard currency revenues from across Africa and the Middle East – from gold and diamonds and oil – to make up for losses Russia expected due to sanctions. That would suggest Wagner has always been part of the calculation for war.
Like so many oligarchs forged in the 1990s, Prigozhin emerged in a moment of lucrative chaos; and he climbed. Now, he is sowing more chaos around the world, feeding instability in countries vulnerable to his particular brand of misinformation and might. And it’s still lucrative for him. So, if chaos is a ladder, then Prigozhin has successfully climbed to the upper rungs. The problem is: it’s still Vladimir Putin holding the bottom, ready to kick it from under him. The threat is real, said Eliot Higgins. “I mean, he could be thrown out of a window kind of tomorrow for all we know, but we’ll have to see.”
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