How the Wagner Private Military Company commits extreme violence in Ukraine

February 17, 2023
Since 2014, mercenaries of the so-called “Wagner Group” have been waging wars involving Russia and have become a private army under the Kremlin’s control.

Wagner has become infamous for committing numerous war crimes in Ukraine, making threats to the West, recruiting prisoners from Russian prisons to take part in military actions, and executing its own soldiers for "betrayal."

However, this organisation could not have become so visible without its leader.

Wagner's founder, Yevgeniy Prigozhyn, has been affiliated with the Russian government for many years. His personality is shaped by two major features:

  • his the criminal history, as he served prison time for robbery and
  • his restaurant and catering business, which put him in proximity to the Kremlin, and even earned him the moniker  "Putin's chef."

However, catering business and income in, approximately, $3 billion earned with providing meals to state services - schools, kindergartens, hospitals, police and army are not the main activity of Prigozhyn - staying in shadow, he became the Kremlin's eminence grise and plays one of the key roles in Russian information war by creating the biggest "troll factory" and in invasions in different parts of the world - Syria, Sudan, Central African Republic, Madagaskar, Libya, Mali, Ukraine and other countries - with an aim to destabilise the situation and violate the territorial integrity and sovereignty..

Actually, the private military company Wagner appears to be a transnational military group that consists of the network of private military contractors, paramilitary organisations and fictitious companies.

According to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Russia's government has been using Wagner to recruit, train and involve mercenaries from all over the world to fight in armed conflicts where Russia has any interest or provide security and training for "friendly" regimes without involving the regular army.

These military groups have been also involved in the war in Ukraine since the annexation of the Crimea and occupation of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in 2014, operating under the guise of "volunteers" and "members of Donbas militia." However, they were in fact supported by the Russian GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate). The  leader of the first groups that built what would become Wagner is Dmitry Utkin, who served in the GRU's special operation forces. Wagner has been involved in Russian aggression  war in Ukraine ever since, and now this role has become even more visible.

In contrast to 2014, when its mercenaries pretended to be "volunteers" and "members of local militia," after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Wagner emerged as an independent military structure that took part in hostilities, but was independent from Russia's Ministry of Defense.

Another development from 2014 is that Wagner began to recruit prisoners from Russian penal colonies, who were offered amnesty and high wages in exchange for signing a contract to fight in Ukraine.

Prigozhin has come himself to penal colonies with the message, "Those who come here and on the first day say "I came to the wrong place," - we'll mark you as a deserter, and after that you'll be shot......I will take you from here alive, but you won't always return that way.".

This new strategy is legitimised by the lack of "victories" which Russia's official military has managed to achieve, and by Vladimir Putin's to achieve some sort of battlefield success, even if it means throwing enormous numbers of poorly-trained and under-armed soldiers to their deaths against Ukrainian defenders.

Another aspect which has made Wagner "famous" are its war crimes and executions of civilians, prisoners of war, and even its own mercenaries suspected of "betrayal." The first evidence of these crimes were documented in Syria in 2017, when a video emerged with Russian-speaking men in military uniform violently beating an unarmed man. A similar shocking video appeared in 2019 of an unarmed Syrian man who was tortured before the camera and then beheaded and burned.This pattern of grotesque violence has continued  in Ukraine, where there is evidence Wagner has carried out torture, maiming, and murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war and civilians in Russian-occupied territories.

A Wagner-connected millitant named Igor Mahgushev was recorded giving a speech holding the"skull of Azov soldier" where he described the invasion as a "war against the  idea of Ukraine as anti-Russian state" and as the "de-Ukrainization of Ukraine."

In addition to committing war crimes, Wagner mercenaries have made cruelty against its captives and "enemies" a defining feature of its way of war, releasing videos in which they mock their victims. One of the most infamous examples came when a Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel released a video of one of the organization's fighters who had been allegedly returned from Ukrainian custody was executed by having his skull crushed with a sledgehammer (a common Wagner symbol which emerged from its fighters' use of the weapon to brutally murder prisoners on video).  This murder, despite being recorded and publicly released, has garnered no investigation or punishment of those responsible.. Indeed, soon after the video was released, Wagner responded to demands by members of the European Parliament to place the organization on the EU terrorist list by sending a violin case containing sledgehammer smeared with fake blood to the body's headquarters..

Wagner has been built up in Russian propaganda in a way that legitimizes the cruelty within the group and portrays the mercenaries as "heroes." Wagner's typically doomed convict fighters are portrayed as honorable men who made mistakes but are redeeming themselves by fighting for their country, which attracts a certain popular respect and admiration.

In addition to legitimizing the invasion and hiding evidence of Russia's war crimes in Ukraine, these messages have also a key purpose: to create a fictional reality in which Wagner fighters are "heroes" who earn glory, good income, and respect in Russian society.

While Wagner's mercenaries continue to attack cities in Ukrainian-held Donetsk Oblast, particularly Bakhmut and Vuhledar,  they need new people to replace their enormous losses. Thus, Russian propagandists help recruit new mercenaries by arguing the benefits of joining Wagner and "becoming a hero during the special military operation." They try to sell men on joining the mercenary outfit with promises of camaraderie, good pay, and the chance to prove one's manhood in order to further Russia's savage aggression against Ukraine.

To sum up, Yevgeniy Prigozhyn has managed to create a private army that is under the Kremlin's control (but outside the control of Russia's Ministry of Defense) to take part in wars and conflicts where Russia has interests. It has become infamous for its war crimes, its recruitment of prisoners as cannon fodder, and the execution of its own soldiers. However, despite the horrors which Wagner boasts about committing, Russian propagandists keep portraying these war criminals as heroes fighting an honorable fight for their country.

In addition to trying to cultivate admiration for these men whose lives are treated as worthless and constructing an alternate reality for Russians to live in, these messages also serve to mitigate any pity or outrage that Russians might feel for these men who will be forced at gunpoint to mount suicidal attacks on Ukraine's fortress cities..

Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld