When Russia started its invasion of Ukraine over a year ago, few people had probably heard of the private military group Wagner. Now they are well-known names in the conflict and have been responsible for large parts of the fighting with Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.
At the start they received a lot of support in the form of ammunition and soldiers, with a large recruitment of Russian prisoners to supplement their forces. Now the relationship between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has taken a new turn.
– Prigozhin is said to have expressed that the Wagner group should concentrate on Africa, but he makes a number of such outbursts where he complains about a lack of support. When things don’t go so well in Bakhmut, and he doesn’t get as much support as he did last year, he probably feels more opposed, says Tom Røseth, head of the Norwegian Armed Forces’ research group in Ukraine and head teacher at the staff school. Russian TV anchor threatens immediate nuclear attack on any country that arrests Putin
The statements Røseth is referring to have been reproduced by the American media Bloombergciting anonymous sources.
Prigozhin himself has denied the plans to shift the focus away from the bloody battlefields in Ukraine. At the same time, there are many indications that the Russian defense leadership, led by Defense Minister Sergej Shoigu, wants to limit the influence of the Wagner chief, writes The Telegraph.
– If the Wagner group withdraws, the tasks will fall to the regular Russian forces. After all, Wagner had a successful mobilization and had great forces in Bakhmut. I probably think that Wagner has built up such a large role there, that Prigozhin wants to reap some profit from it. So I really doubt that he will withdraw now, says Røseth.
Facts about the Wagner group
* The Russian Wagner group is a private military company with mercenaries. The group is based in southwestern Russia, near the annexed Crimean peninsula.
* How many from the group have participated for Russia in the war in Ukraine is not known. According to British intelligence, around 1,000 soldiers from the Wagner group have fought in Ukraine, while other experts believe there are more than 20,000 people – many of them recruited from Russian prisons.
* The group has previously participated in conflicts in countries such as Syria, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique.
* Mercenaries from the Wagner group are accused of war crimes in Syria, Libya and Mali.
* The group was founded by the former GRU officer Dmitry Utkin and is probably financed by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin is sometimes referred to as Putin’s chef because he previously ran a catering company that delivered food to the Kremlin.
* The EU and Great Britain have imposed sanctions on the Wagner group, and Prigozhin is wanted by the FBI.
* On Friday 13 January, Andrej Medvedev, a former department manager in the Wagner group, was arrested in Pasvik. He has applied for asylum in Norway after being on the run after he escaped on 6 July when his contract with the group expired.
* On Friday, January 20, the United States came out and called the Wagner group “a criminal organization that continues to commit widespread atrocities and human rights violations.”
(Source: TT, BBC, NTB)
In a response to the allegations from Bloomberg, Prigozhin writes the following on the messaging service Telegram:
– It looks like Bloomberg knows better than us what to do. As long as our country needs us, we will continue to fight in Ukraine.
Nettavisen has not been able to verify the information provided by Bloomberg. At the same time, Wagner has been known for his assignments in Africa and is, among other things, accused of violating human rights there.
Prigozhin is also known for using sharp rhetoric towards the Russian defense leadership.
– These are probably primarily threats. If it is not favorable and they do not get the resources they need in Ukraine, then it may be a good idea to reduce the presence. He has also stated that the front line will collapse without the Wagner group’s contribution, but this is rhetoric. It may be that they have made a significant difference and if they disappear it will be a big problem, says Røseth.
What would the Wagner group possibly be doing in Africa?
– They still serve the Russian state’s areas of interest in conflict areas and, for example, hinder the French’s room for action in Mali. They often serve actors opposed to Western interests. They are partly an extended arm of the Russian state. At the same time, they also serve businessmen who give them the means to remove competitors. They can also take control of resources, which has been the goal in Bakhmut and surrounding areas, says Røseth.
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The power struggle
Nettavisen has previously discussed what has apparently appeared to be a power struggle within Russia. Among other things, there were rumors that the defense minister in the country formed his own private army. And on Monday morning Nettavisen mentioned a new potential competitor to the Wagner group.
– The Russian management sees that it is scary if Wagner gets too much space. Then they can compete for attention and collect victories on behalf of themselves rather than on behalf of Russia. As is well known, the regime is extremely sensitive to criticism, and Prigozhin has periodically criticized the Russian military, military leaders and the political leadership. And that is not something the authorities want, said Tobias Sæther, researcher at the Ukraine project at the Norwegian Defense Staff School, to Nettavisen in January.
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