In a significant development, the UK government is poised to designate the Russian Private Military Company. Russian mercenary group known as Wagner is a terrorist organization. This move follows the recent demise of Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in a plane crash that occurred in western Russia in August.
Understanding Wagner: Origins and Size
Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed to establish Wagner in 2014, and despite mercenary forces being technically illegal in Russia, Wagner officially registered as a Russian Private military company” in 2022. Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman and convicted criminal often referred to as “Putin’s chef” due to his catering services for the Kremlin, played a pivotal role in its inception. Dmitry Utkin, a former Russian special forces officer, served as Wagner’s initial field commander, and the group derived its name from his radio call sign.
Initially, Wagner consisted primarily of personnel from Russia’s special forces and elite units, with an estimated strength of around 5,000 during its early days. However, in 2022, Prigozhin began recruiting prisoners from Russian jails to bolster their numbers, offering pardons in exchange. As a result, the group’s ranks swelled to approximately 25,000 fighters. Wagner has been involved in operations not only in Ukraine but also in Syria, Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Libya.
UK’s Response to Wagner
Home Secretary Suella Braverman has initiated parliamentary proceedings to authorize the treatment of Wagner’s assets as terrorist property and their subsequent seizure. The draft order, if passed, would also render membership in Wagner or any form of support for the group illegal. Braverman categorizes Wagner fighters as “terrorists” and emphasizes their threat to global security.
In contrast, the Kremlin disputes the existence of Wagner as a legal entity. Furthermore, in January 2023, the United States designated Wagner as a “Transnational Criminal Organisation,” prompting calls from several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) for the European Union to include the group on its list of terrorist organizations.
Assessing Wagner’s Global Security Threat and Alleged Crimes
Wagner mercenaries have faced numerous accusations, including involvement in the killing and torture of civilians near Kyiv in April 2022, alongside regular Russian troops. German intelligence suggests that Wagner troops may have been responsible for massacres in Bucharest in March 2022. In July 2023, the UK imposed sanctions on Wagner’s businesses in Africa, citing allegations of “executions and torture in Mali and the Central African Republic and threats to peace and security in Sudan.” Previously, the U.S. military accused Wagner mercenaries of planting landmines in and around the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Wagner’s Role in Russian Private Military Company
Wagner’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine has been significant, particularly in the capture of Bakhmut, an eastern Ukrainian city, on behalf of Russia in May 2023. During these operations, Prigozhin criticized Russia’s army leadership for insufficiently supplying Wagner’s troops, resulting in significant casualties. In June 2023, a mutiny involving around 5,000 Wagner fighters occurred. They briefly occupied the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and advanced towards Moscow, aiming to remove top Russian military officials. A deal brokered by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, with the involvement of Russian President Putin, led to the suspension of their advance. As part of this agreement, Wagner fighters were given the option to join the Russian army or relocate to Belarus.
In July, a U.S. military spokesman noted that Wagner troops were no longer believed to be actively participating in hostilities in Ukraine.
Wagner’s Presence in Belarus
Reports suggest that between 3,500 and 5,000 Wagner mercenaries are stationed in Belarus, primarily based in military camps in the southern part of the country, particularly at Tsel and Brestsky. The Belarusian defense ministry indicates that they are involved in training the country’s territorial forces.
Wagner’s Activities in Africa
In July, Prigozhin announced plans to expand Wagner’s operations in Africa. An estimated 1,000 Wagner fighters have been stationed in Mali since December 2021, tasked with combating armed Islamist groups, effectively replacing UN and French peacekeeping forces. In the Central African Republic (CAR), approximately 1,000 Wagner fighters operate under the guise of the Officers Union for International Security, where they train soldiers to combat rebel forces and secure supply lines to cities. Video evidence suggests Wagner’s presence in Sudan since 2017, where they provide military training and support government efforts to suppress protests. Additionally, in Libya, Wagner’s troops supported the forces of General Khalifa Haftar. Wagner mercenaries have been active in Syria since 2015, assisting pro-government forces and guarding oilfields.