February 21. 2024. 7:45

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‘For a long time Wagner were regarded as scruffy mercenaries. Western armies have finally woken up’

Yevgeny Prigozhin was, like Russian president Vladimir Putin, a street fighter in his youth in Leningrad in the former Soviet Union. He served nine years of a 13-year prison sentence for robbery, became a gangster and restaurant owner, government contractor, caterer to Putin, warlord, media mogul and propagandist.

These days Prigozhin rules over the Wagner mercenary group that has earned a sinister reputation in Ukraine, Africa and the Middle East.

Prigozhin’s mercenaries used the sledgehammer as a weapon of terror in Syria and Ukraine, so he turned it into their emblem. In January his television channel showed the heavyset, bald 61-year-old in combat fatigues distributing sledgehammers engraved with the words: Happy New Year 2023. “I brought you a new tool, a new weapon,” Prigozhin said mockingly. “Teach new recruits how to use it.”

When the European Parliament voted last November to declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, Prigozhin displayed a bloodied sledgehammer in a blue velvet-lined violin case which he promised to send to MEPs.

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After years in the shadows, Prigozhin admitted last September that he founded Wagner in May 2014. Asked about the lawsuits he’d filed against those who linked him to Wagner, including jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the Russian website Meduza, and the investigative website Bellingcat, Prigozhin said it was just sport.

“Prigozhin is a genius at marketing,” says Alexandra Jousset, co-director of a documentary entitled Wagner, Putin’s Shadow Army, which won France’s highest journalism award, the Prix Albert Londres, last November. Prigozhin “created the Wagner brand” by flooding social media with ultra-violent recruitment videos packed with action heroes, blood, flames, explosions and blaring music. “Then he hijacked representation of the conflict in Ukraine.”

By admitting authority over Wagner last September, Prigozhin guaranteed that his many enemies within the Russian system could not eliminate him discreetly. “And by putting himself in the limelight, he was able to say, ‘the war in Ukraine is me. The few Russian successes in Ukraine are me, Wagner, not the army’,” Jousset says.

If they were conscripts, the huge casualty numbers would be terrible for Putin. Because it’s Wagner, they don’t report their losses

Tracey German

Prigozhin has known Putin for many years, Jousset says. “He’s the man who does Putin’s dirty work, one of few people he really trusts. Putin has Prigozhin taste his food. Prigozhin serves Putin at [the] table. They have a close relationship, but not as close as men like Vladimir Yakunin, who served with Putin in the KGB.”

Tracey German, a professor of conflict and security at King’s College, London and co-author of a book on non-state actors in Ukraine, says Prigozhin moved from his former, covert role to a highly visible role on the front line in Donbas by arguing that Wagner was more capable than Russian ground troops and would succeed where they failed.

“Wagner plugged a gap,” German says. “When the official Russian military were struggling with manpower last summer, Wagner began taking on a frontline fighting role. In that respect, they have been very useful for the Kremlin.”

The British ministry of defence estimates there are 50,000 Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine. The US National Security Council says 80 per cent of them are convicts. Prigozhin leaked a video of his recruitment speech in a prison yard. He warned convicts they would probably die. If they survived, he promised they’d be well paid and gain freedom after six months.

“Initially Wagner used battle-hardened military veterans with experience in the Russian armed forces or security services,” German says. “Recruiting convicts diluted their effectiveness as a fighting force. I hate the term cannon fodder, but they just keep throwing fighters in waves, again and again. If they were conscripts, the huge casualty numbers would be terrible for Putin. Because it’s Wagner, they don’t report their losses.”

Until the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago, Wagner also offered the advantage of “plausible deniability”, German says. “The Kremlin could say: ‘No, no. Nothing to do with us’.”

‘Hammer of Revenge’

Wagner’s reputation for brutality, what German calls the fear factor, can also be an advantage. When the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Wagner in late January, it described the group as “a transnational criminal organisation…implementing Kremlin policy”. In the Central African Republic and Mali, it said, “Wagner personnel have engaged in a continuing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abduction and physical violence.”

Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, recently described Wagner as “the praetorian guard of military dictatorships”. In exchange for protecting Arab and African dictators, Prigozhin has secured access to petroleum fields, diamond and gold mines.

Videos of summary executions of alleged deserters in Syria in 2017 and in Ukraine last November left the deepest impression of Wagner’s barbarity. The scenes posted on social media were intended to instil terror and deter would-be deserters.

Mohammed Taha Ismail Al-Abdullah was accused of deserting from the army of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The modern-day gladiators spoke Russian on the video, did not attempt to hide their faces and have since been identified by Russian journalists. First the Wagner men bashed the Syrian with a sledgehammer. Then they dropped a grenade into his trousers, shot him, cut off his head and arms, hung his body upside down and set fire to it.

Dmitri Utkin, a veteran of the Chechen wars and Wagner’s top field commander, was placed under EU sanctions in December 2021 for allegedly ordering Al-Abdullah’s torture and murder.

Utkin is a former special forces officer in the GRU, Russia’s military foreign intelligence agency. Wagner’s training camp at Molkino, southern Russia, is adjacent to a GRU base. Utkin’s nom de guerre, Wagner, became the group’s name. He and three other Wagner commanders were photographed alongside Putin in December 2016, after he pinned medals on their chests.

Wagner posted its second such video, entitled “The Hammer of Revenge” on the Grey Zone Telegram channel last November 13th. Wagner operatives had captured Yevgeny Nuzhin, a convicted murderer and Wagner recruit, who defected in September.

“On November 11th I was hit on the head in a street in Kyiv and I lost consciousness,” Nuzhin recounts in the video. His head is bound to a piece of debris with clingfilm. “I woke up in this cellar where they told me I would be judged.”

A man in combat gear smashes a sledgehammer into the side of Nuzhin’s head and neck. He falls to the ground. The second blow crushes his head. “He did not find happiness in Ukraine and ended up meeting people who are hard but just,” Prigozhin said sarcastically. “This film should be called ‘a dog’s death for a dog’.”

Two Wagner defectors, Andrei Medvedev, now in hiding in Norway, and Marat Gabidullin, in France, have revealed that Wagner runs its own intelligence service, the Slujba Bzopasnosti (SB) that coordinates with the Russian FSB, the successor to the KGB. Within the SB a group called MED is responsible for liquidating traitors and unwanted witnesses. Medvedev said he knew of at least 10 such executions.

‘Unique criminal enterprise’

The fiction that Wagner’s crimes were somehow independent of the Kremlin was refuted in recent weeks when hackers pirated computers in Prigozhin’s galaxy of 400 companies, including his “troll farm”, a digital headquarters in St Petersburg called the Internet Research Agency, which spreads disinformation on the internet, his Concord restaurant and catering group, and Wagner.

Prigozhin boasted last autumn that he favoured Donald Trump’s election, saying: “Gentlemen, we interfered, we interfere, and we will interfere.”

Jousset and her co-director, the Russian journalist Ksenia Bolchakova, reported the Wagner Leaks in Paris Match and on Arte television. Welt am Sonntag and Business Insider shared the story. The biggest trove of Prigozhin documents was released on March 18th by Dossier Center, which belongs to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian billionaire who was jailed for a decade by Putin and now criticises the Russian dictator from exile in London.

The leaked documents show that, as Le Monde summarised it, Prigozhin’s vast holdings constitute “a quasi-Russian state company, but also a unique criminal enterprise”.

Prigozhin employees are vetted with a two-hour lie detector test, Dossier Center reported, to cut out anyone with opposition, media, or police contacts. Applicants are asked their opinions about the war in Ukraine. Affiliation with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups is not a problem.

Sources who know Prigozhin say his attitude remains that of an ex-convict. A European who worked in his restaurants in St Petersburg told Paris Match: “I’ve seen him thank us for our work by providing us with prostitutes, and I’ve seen him have guys beaten up by his thugs because they tried to find a job elsewhere.”

Prigozhin positions himself politically as pro-Putin, anti-elitist and ultra-nationalist. “Prisoners have a much higher level of consciousness than the Russian elite,” he replied to a written question from a website in Siberia. He condemns the elite for “choosing their own comfort over the good of the people” by refusing to send their children to fight in Ukraine.

Prigozhin and Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu disputed credit for the fall of the Ukrainian town of Soledar last January 11th. A Wagner militiaman waved the group’s black, red, and white death’s head flag from the window of a gutted building. Prigozhin posted a photograph of himself in combat gear, surrounded by fighters in a Soledar salt mine. “It was us and us alone who took Soledar,” he boasted, addressing himself to the Russian army. “Go fight and stop comparing your [sexual organs] to those of my fighters!”

Bakhmut, a rail and road hub 18km from Soledar, has seen the longest battle of the Russian invasion and is often compared to Verdun. Wagner mercenaries hold the eastern part of the now ruined city, while Ukrainian forces are dug in on the western side and have blown up bridges across the Bakhmutka River.

On February 22nd Prigozhin violated the taboo regarding Russian casualties by posting a photograph of about 50 Russian corpses lined up in the snow at Bakhmut. “Half my guys die because certain military bureaucrats don’t want to move their ass,” he complained in a voice message on Telegram. “Those who prevent us winning this war are working directly for the enemy, helping the enemy to break Russia’s back… Let us be clear: hundreds of thousands of soldiers have died on the front.”

Such outbursts fuel Prigozhin’s feud with the Russian military establishment. He and Shoigu have long been rivals, “for the simple reason that Shoigu also possesses a private military company called Redut”, Jousset says. “They have been in competition in Syria and elsewhere.”

At a time when many predict Prigozhin’s demise, others see him and his ally, the pro-Putin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, as possible successors to Putin.

Prigozhin and Kadyrov are not foolhardy enough to plot against Putin but could be considered alternatives by the ultra-right nationalist fringe of Russian politics if something happened to Putin. The Wagner Leaks revealed that Darya Dugina, the assassinated daughter of far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, was on Prigozhin’s payroll.

Wagner has spearheaded Russian expansion in Africa, reaping support for Russia in the UN and securing a hold on natural resources. “For a long time Wagner were regarded as scruffy mercenaries and not taken seriously,” says Jousset. “Western armies have finally woken up to the danger.”

Prigozhin’s propagandists in Africa emphasise the colonial crimes of the French and other Europeans and tell Africans that the West causes their poverty. The governments of Mali and Burkina Faso have expelled French forces from their countries and replaced them with Wagner.

Khodorkovsky says that westerners fearful of death are no match for Putin, who believes all problems can be solved through violence.

So how do you fight men who use sledgehammers as murder weapons? Nato sends arms to Ukraine, but isn’t fighting. In Africa the West is focused on the information war. “We didn’t engage enough in the battle against disinformation in the beginning,” Borrell told Le Monde. “This fight will continue, and we must continue to explain. It is about winning public opinion.”