Recently decommissioned US intelligence suggests that the Russian mercenary group Wagner has assumed increased influence and is recruiting convicts – some with serious health problems – from prisons to supplement Moscow’s dwindling army.
The group recently received weapons from North Korea, a senior US official said, a sign of its growing role in the war in Ukraine.
And the United States believes Wagner could be locked in a power battle with the Russian military itself as it seeks to influence the Kremlin.
“In some cases, Russian military officials are actually subordinate to Wagner’s command,” said John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council. “It’s pretty obvious to us that Wagner is becoming a rival power center for the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”
The revelations about the Wagner Group came a day after Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky made a historic visit to Washington, where he thanked the United States for its military aid and said more was needed to repel Russian advances.
A bit of context: Wagner became a key player in the 10-month dispute. The group is often described as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s underground troops. It has expanded its global footprint since its inception in 2014 and has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.
Kirby said the United States estimates that Wager currently has about 50,000 personnel deployed inside Ukraine, 40,000 of whom may be convicts recruited from Russian prisons. He said the group was spending $100 million a month to fund its operations in Ukraine.
The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, even personally visited Russian prisons to recruit convicts himself to go to the front lines and fight. Some of them have “serious medical conditions,” Kirby said.
“It looks like Mr. Prigozhin is ready to throw the Russian bodies into the meat grinder in Bakhmut. In fact, about 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in the fighting in recent weeks, and we believe 90% of those 1,000 fighters were actually convicts,” Kirby said.
Prigozhin, sometimes dubbed “Putin’s leader”, already has close ties with the Russian president. But Kirby suggested he was working to strengthen those ties through his efforts to bolster Russian forces through his recruitment of mercenaries.
“It’s about how good he is for Mr. Putin and how highly he is regarded in the Kremlin,” he said. “In fact, one would go so far as to say that his influence is expanding.”
Last month, Wagner received a delivery of rockets and infantry missiles from North Korea, Kirby said, an indication of how Russia and its military partners continue to seek ways around Western sanctions and export controls.
It was Wagner, not the Russian government, that paid for the equipment. The United States does not believe this will significantly change the dynamics of the battlefield in Ukraine, but has suggested that North Korea may plan to provide more equipment.