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There is a growing rift at the top of the Russian government between Vladimir Putin’s official military and the unconventional mercenary force that has made some gains for Russia in Ukraine.
The oligarchic figurehead of private military company Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has openly criticized Russia’s military and bureaucracy.
Wagner recruits tens of thousands of fighters in Russian prisons and offers freedom and money after a six-month tour.
Videos of Prigozhin’s pitches in the prison yard have been shared on social media, and prison rights groups in Russia have accepted the offer by an estimated 30,000, according to an excellent analysis of What We Know about Wagner and Prigozhin by CNN’s Tim Lister. Read Lister’s story.
Brutal tactics for his fighters. A Ukrainian assessment of Wagner’s tactics suggests that the convicts are pushed to the front in a human wave. Wagner uses “convicts as cannon fodder trying to storm Ukrainian positions with almost no fire support,” CNN’s Fred Pleitgen said in a video report he filed after speaking with Ukrainian tank operators.
CNN’s Lister, Pleitgen and Victoria Butenko wrote about Wagner’s tactics after seeing the Ukrainian assessment. The focus is on small groups of fighters – a dozen or fewer – guided by drones.
Deserters are to be shot. The wounded are estimated to be left on battlefields for hours. Prisoners make up the bulk of Wagner’s casualties when pressed to storm Ukrainian positions. More experienced fighters with better equipment follow.
Key lines from their report:
Despite a brutal indifference to casualties – demonstrated by Prigozhin himself – the Ukrainian analysis says that Wagner’s tactics are “the only ones that are effective for the poorly trained mobilized troops that make up the majority of Russia’s ground forces.”
It suggests that the Russian Army may even be adjusting its tactics to become more Wagner-like, saying: “Assault units are proposed instead of the classic tactical battalion groups of the Russian Armed Forces.” Read more about the Ukrainian rating.
Seizure of power over the Russian military. US officials said Wagner appeared to be fighting with Russia’s military for power in the Kremlin.
“In certain cases, Russian military officials are actually subordinate to Wagner’s command,” John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council, said late last year. “It’s pretty obvious to us that Wagner is becoming a competing center of power for the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”
CNN’s Natasha Bertrand and Katie Bo Lillis wrote this month that the US assessment is that tensions between Russia’s defense ministry and Wagner are rising as Putin relies on Wagner in Ukraine. According to Kirby, around 50,000 Wagner Group fighters are currently stationed in Ukraine, most of whom are convicts.
The US government branded Wagner an important figure transnational criminal organization and imposed new sanctions on Wagner and affiliated groups last week. The United States first targeted the organization with sanctions in 2017.
Growing for years and active in Africa. CNN has followed Wagner’s development since its inception in 2014 surrounding the Russian invasion of Crimea. In 2019, Lister, Sebastian Shukla and Clarissa Ward published an incredible report discovering a Wagner Group training ground in the Central African Republic. Wagner is accused of human rights violations in Africa and Syria.
Defectors live in fear. People who leave Wagner behind on the battlefield can be brutalized. Video of the murder of Yevgeny Nuzhin, a Wagner defector who was recaptured by the Russians, with a sledgehammer has sparked fear among fellow militants.
Another defector, Andrei Medvedev, recently fled to Norway and spoke about his ordeal with Vladimir Osechkin, a Russian living in France who helps people defect.
Read about Osechkin and those he helped defect – who now fear being targeted by Russian spies known to use poison.
“When the person is at a very high level, they understand very well how the machinery of the Putin regime worked and they have a very good understanding of it when they open up [up about it]there is a very high risk of an act of terrorism involving novichok or hitmen,” Osechkin told CNN, referring to poison used in a 2018 attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England.
Tales of Wagner fighters. The New York Times on Monday ran a story about former convicts who joined Wagner and are now returning home free – alarming people in their local communities.
Many others do not return. Here is a CNN report about an African, Lemekani Nathan Nyirenda, a nuclear engineering student in Moscow sponsored by the Zambian government when convicted of unspecified crimes in 2020. Instead of serving his nine-year sentence, Nyirenda died in September as a Wagner mercenary on the front lines in Ukraine. Nyirenda was buried in Zambia this month.