MailOnline provides answers to the most asked questions about the Wagner Group. Who are they and what was their aim after the mercenary group started a ‘coup’ against Putin in the early hours of Saturday, June 24, 2023?
Who are the Wagner Group?
Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner is a mercenary group that was headed up by Russian oligarch and former close Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin until his reported death on August 23, 2023.
The group had for years acted as Putin’s personal band of enforcers, though it maintains connections with Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, the GRU.
Founded in 2014, the Wagner Group got straight to work following the annexation of Crimea, arming and organising separatist groups in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner (one of their logos pictured) is a mercenary group which for years acted as Putin’s personal band of enforcers and has been heavily involved in the war in Ukraine
Wagner Group’s name is believed to have derived from the callsign of the sinister former lieutenant colonel of Russia’s ‘Spetsnaz’ special forces, Dmitry Utkin. Wagner was the he was designated for his love of famed German composer Richard Wagner.
In the eight years between Crimea’s annexation and all-out war in Ukraine, Wagner mercenaries have been deployed abroad to covertly further Russian interests.
They were implicated in the Russian intervention in Syria where they helped to prop up the Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They went on to operate in countries throughout Africa including Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Sudan.
What work does the Wagner group do?
An integral part of most Wagner assignments is gaining control over the local population and elements hostile to the regime – something in which the mercenaries have proved particularly ruthless.
Wagner mercenaries are deployed to further Russian interests abroad by doing the jobs that no official military branch could be associated with and have earned a reputation for using sheer force and brutality to achieve their goals.
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pose for a picture as they get deployed near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023
A fighter of Wagner private mercenary group flashes a victory sign in a street near the headquarters of the Southern Military District in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023
The Wagner group as been deployed in a fighting capacity alongside regular Russian army soldiers in Ukraine, and has been credited with achieving much of Moscow’s success on the frontlines.
In autumn 2022, Prigozhin embarked on a mass recruitment drive in Russian prisons, signing up hardened criminals to swell his ranks and deploy them en-masse in Ukraine on suicidal missions to gain ground by using ‘human wave’ tactics.
According to Wagner chief Prigozhin, their aim for the ‘military coup’ in Russia was to overthrow military leaders and and take power following a prolonged period of tension between the group and the Russian Ministry of Defence.
What happened with the Wagner coup?
The chief financier and founder of PMC Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin once claimed his contractors were deployed across the border to help achieve the Russian president’s goal – the so-called ‘denazification’ of Ukraine.
For months the Wagner mercenary chief bombarded Russia’s military leaders with expletive-ridden rants slating and rebuking their competence in an ongoing rift that has weakened the country’s forces amid its assault on Ukraine.
The standoff between Yevgeny Prigozhin and the defence ministry then came to a head and the millionaire mercenary group boss called for an armed rebellion in direct challenge to the Kremlin.
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video released in the early hours of Saturday, June 24, that his forces have reached the strategically important city of Rostov-on-Don
Prigozhin (left), curried favour with Putin (centre) as a Kremlin caterer
Prigozhin said he would take all necessary steps to topple the country’s military leadership as he claimed his forces had ‘crossed state borders’ and were ready to ‘destroy anything that gets in the way’.
As the Wagner militia appeared to charge on Moscow, Prigozhin vowed to punish the military leaders whom he accused of killing 2,000 of his fighters after he claimed Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered a rocket strike on his field camps.
Putin denounced the rebellion as ‘treason’ and a ‘stab in the back’ and vowed to punish its perpetrators. But hours later a deal was made that saw an end to the mutiny in exchange for an amnesty for Prigozhin and his mercenaries and a permission for them to move to Belarus.
Two months later, Prigozhin and top Wagner officers were presumed dead after a plane crash that was widely seen as an assassination by Putin or the Kremlin.
Who was the Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin?
Born in Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, in the Soviet Union in 1961, Prigozhin spent some of his early life in prison after being convicted of robbery and fraud.
After being released from prison in 1990 after nine years of detainment, Prigozhin started selling hotdogs in the flea markets of his home city. He told the New York Times in 2018: ‘the rubles were piling up faster than his mother could count them’. And as the Soviet Union fell, Prigozhin set up several businesses.
After involvement with a grocery business and then a gambling business, Prigozhin later became a restaurateur. After the success of several outlets, Prigozhin started to earn lucrative Kremlin catering contracts with Russia’s elite.
This thrust him to the forefront of Russian politics and signaled his growing ambitions.
Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured) is the chief financier and unquestionable face of the Wagner group
He eventually grew close to Putin himself and is understood to have received hundreds of millions in government contracts feeding school children and government workers.
These contracts, some of them later involved in the military, are believed to have led him to start the Wager mercenary group, although information on its exact origins is sparse.
Prigozhin had long-refuted any association with Wagner, and had threatened to sue journalists who reported on his involvement with the group.
The group gained a reputation for doing the Russian military’s dirty work, leaving a trail of brutal violence, rapes and war crimes in its wake. For years after it was first established, the Russian government refused to even acknowledge the existence of the group.
Prigozhin was thought to have a net worth in excess of nearly £800million ($1billion). He generated more than a quarter of a billion dollars from his global natural resources empire – despite Western sanctions.
Who are the other senior figures in command?
There are five other important figures in the Wagner Group apart from founder and chief Prigozhin. However, a group of Wagner bosses were also reportedly killed in the plane crash that killed Prigozhin, including Dmitry Utkin.
Dmitry Utkin and Andrey Troshev
Utkin was an operational commander and behind-the-scenes leader of the Wagner group, who many believe was a co-founder of the organisation.
He received several Orders of Courage for his actions on the battlefield and served in the military until 2013.
He then deployed to Syria as part of the Russian intervention which beat back rebel groups and upheld the presidency of Bashar al-Assad via a Russian-operated, Hong-Kong-based private military company known as the Slavonic Corps.
Utkin was a staunch Russian nationalist who sported Nazi tattoos and was reportedly fascinated with Hitler’s Third Reich.
Dmitry Utkin is pictured. An SS lightning strike tattoo is visible on his neck
Andrei Troshev, a former armed forces Colonel who earned himself the title ‘Hero of the Russian Federation’, is believed to be one of Wagner’s top commanders
Utkin (right) and Troshev (second from left) are pictured with Vladimir Putin (centre) in this image from a 2016 honours ceremony in Russia
An investigation into Utkin led by Bellingcat concluded that Utkin may in fact have occupied more of a field commander in the Wagner group, reporting to a select group of ever-more senior operational leaders.
One of these is said to be Andrei Troshev, a former armed forces Colonel who earned himself the title ‘Hero of the Russian Federation’ for his military service – Russia’s highest military honour.
Troshev has been described by the European Union as the Wagner group’s ‘Chief of Staff’ and appears to hold seniority over Utkin in Wagner’s command structure, based on a series of intercepted communications analysed by Bellingcat investigators.
Pikalov, often referred to by his codename ‘Mazay’, is another Russian armed forces veteran who is believed to be in charge of the PMC’s operations on the African continent.
Konstantin Pikalov is widely believed to be the orchestrator of Wagner’s operations in Africa
The former colonel heads up the private security company Convoy, which is headquartered in St Petersburg and has provided security services to Russian consultants working with senior officials in several African countries including the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar and Mozambique.
But Pikalov, 55, is also believed to be orchestrating much of the Wagner group’s ongoing operations across Africa, using Convoy as a cover to operate as a liaison between Russian-backed African officials and Russia’s GRU.
According to a joint investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat, the former colonel was closely linked to the murders of three Russian journalists who had arrived in the CAR to investigate the extraction of minerals by Russian companies in 2018.
And the government of Ukraine described Pikalov as ‘responsible for serious human rights abuses committed by the Wagner Group in CAR and several African countries, which include torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings.’
Igor Kostyukov and Alexei Dyumin
Kostyukov, 62, is a decorated naval admiral and since November 2018 has been the chief of Russia’s GRU military intelligence unit.
Though he was not directly implicated in the creation or direction of Wagner group in its early years, the mercenary outfit’s close ties to the GRU mean Kostyukov is undoubtedly involved in the PMC’s operations.
His position as GRU head means all GRU officers and operatives including the aforementioned Utkin and Troshev ultimately report to him and would be required to carry out any orders the Admiral sees fit to dole out.
Director of Russian Military Intelligence Igor Kostyukov attends the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow, Russia on June 23, 2021
Alexei Dyumin, the current governor of Russia’s Tula region, is pictured in his official headshot
I am Rakesh Sharma, I associated with Elite News as an Editor, since 2021. I take care of all the news operations like content, budget, hiring and policy making.