By Miriam Berger and Adam Taylor

May 5, 2023

The Washington Post


Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head of the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group, a network of private security contractors that have taken up arms in Ukraine, put out a video Friday threatening to withdraw from the protracted, bloody battle over the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and railing against Russian military leadership for failing to supply his forces with sufficient ammunition.

It remains to be seen if he will indeed withdraw — a move that would be catastrophic for Russia’s campaign to take the city and would probably carry political consequences.

The United States has designated the mercenary outfit a “significant transnational criminal organization.” The group has been accused of “mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a statement this year.

The United States estimated earlier this year that about 50,000 Wagner fighters have deployed to Ukraine, the majority of whom were recruited from inside Russian prisons. Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has joined his men on the front lines in Ukraine’s east.

The group’s presence on the battlefield has irked Russian military leaders, who have either ignored or dismissed Prigozhin’s criticism of military leadership.

Here are some facts about the Wagner Group and what it’s doing in Ukraine.

The Wagner Group is not a single, traditional company, but rather a network of organizations providing fighters for hire — with the approval of the Kremlin. According to research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the group has probably operated in as many as 30 countries and has two training camps in Russia. It is ostensibly private, but according to CSIS, “its management and operations are deeply intertwined with the Russian military and intelligence community” under Putin.

One of Wagner’s key functions, according to the Soufan Center, a nonprofit think tank based in New York, is providing Russia with “a thin veneer of plausible deniability as it engages in the pursuit of finance, influence, and vigilantism not in keeping with international norms.”

In September, Prigozhin acknowledged for the first time publicly that he founded the Wagner Group, in a statement posted by his press service on the Russian social media site VK.

He said he formed the group to assist Russian forces in Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, and to help pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. “I flew to one of the training grounds and did it myself. I myself cleaned the old weapons, figured out the bulletproof vests, and found specialists who could help me with this,” he said. “From that moment, on May 1, 2014, a group of patriots was born, which later acquired the name ‘Wagner.’”

What is the Wagner Group doing in Ukraine?

In 2014, the Wagner Group helped train, organize and arm Russian-backed militias fighting for control of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Wagner operatives also participated in the fighting and in intelligence-gathering, according to CSIS, and were reportedly part of Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea. Wagner returned to Ukraine last year after Russia invaded. Russia’s military suffered significant losses, forcing it to rely on the group for help on the battlefield. Wagner in turn began recruiting from Russian prisons to bolster its ranks.

Beginning last summer, the group has played a major role in Russian efforts to capture the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. Analysts say that while the town has little strategic value, Prigozhin has pushed the policy to show the Kremlin that Wagner is capable of gaining new territory. “Wagner is becoming a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” John Kirby, communications coordinator for the U.S. National Security Council, told reporters in January. But the organization, he said, has been making “military decisions based largely on what they will generate for Prigozhin in terms of positive publicity.” Kirby also said North Korea has been sending arms to Wagner for use in Ukraine, including via rail over the small border Pyongyang shares with Russia.

What sanctions is Wagner already under?

The United States imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group in 2017, when the Commerce Department added it to its Entity List for export control in response to allegations that it was fueling the violence in eastern Ukraine. In December, the Commerce Department designated Wagner as a military end user, which requires exporters to request a license for any transaction with the group, except in some cases that include food or medicine. In 2020, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Prigozhin for “advancing Russia’s malign influence” in the Central African Republic. It imposed further sanctions on Prigozhin in 2021 for his alleged interference in U.S. elections. Then, shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, he faced further restrictions for his role in “bankrolling” Putin, Treasury said. On Friday, Kirby said that Wagner would be designated as a “significant transnational criminal organization” under Executive Order 13581 — and that the United States would impose “additional sanctions next week against Wagner and its support network across multiple continents.”

Where else has the Wagner Group operated?

In the past eight years, Wagner forces have been reported to be in Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Mozambique and Venezuela, according to CSIS. Often, they are employed as security for Russian assets or the host governments; other times, they have been engaged on battlefields. Soon after the Wagner Group first popped up in Ukraine, mercenaries tied to the group were also reported in Syria, where in 2015 Putin intervened on the side of President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war. In Syria, the paramilitary group provided security to Russian and Syrian military facilities and participated in some fighting, such as Assad’s campaign to recapture the city of Palmyra. Wagner forces there also were part of the deadliest U.S.-Russian confrontation since the Cold War, in 2018, when U.S. troops and their allies near Syria’s Deir al-Zour responded to an attack by fighters loyal to Assad with a counterattack that killed about 100 people — Russian mercenaries among them.

In oil-rich Libya, Wagner operatives have been fighting on the side of the renegade Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter in his battle to oust a U.N.-backed government, set up in 2015 to end the country’s civil war. As with the Syrian war, the fighting in Libya has become a front for

regional proxy battles — and the presence of Wagner fighters has signaled that Russia is seeking a stronger hand in the Middle East and North Africa.

Wagner and Russia also are expanding their political and financial reach in Africa. So far, the paramilitary group has been in 18 African countries, a number that represents more than half the nations where it has worked, according to CSIS. “Wagner comes in, further destabilizes the country, ravages the mineral resources and makes as much money as they can before they choose to leave,” U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Milton Sands, head of Special Operations Command Africa, told The Washington Post in early March. “The country is left poorer, weaker and less secure. Every time.” In recent months in Mali, whose relations with the West are at a low point, Wagner mercenaries have guarded the presidential palace and helped track extremists. In the Central African Republic, Wagner has been helping to prop up the country’s embattled government — and in exchange, a company linked to Prigozhin has been awarded licenses to mine gold and diamonds.


Miriam Berger is a staff writer reporting on foreign news for The Washington Post from Washington, D.C. Before joining The Post in 2019 she was based in Jerusalem and Cairo and freelance reported around the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa and Central Asia.  Twitter

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University. Twitter