Ukraine War: Private Wagner Group Mercenaries Boost Russia's Invasion

Russia is boosting its troops in Ukraine by sending 1,000 mercenaries from the private Wagner Group into eastern Ukraine, said the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

"Russian Private Military Company the Wagner Group has deployed to eastern Ukraine," the British Ministry of Defence tweeted in its latest intelligence update late on Monday.

"They are expected to deploy more than 1,000 mercenaries, including senior leaders of the organization, to undertake combat operations."

The Wagner Group—an elite, private military network aligned with the Kremlin—has been linked through the years to some of Russia's most chilling operations abroad, including in Syria, Libya and Mali. The group has been accused of committing torture, rape and extrajudicial killings while deployed abroad.

The shadowy nature of the group—which legally doesn't exist, as Sorcha MacLeod, head of the U.N.'s working group on the use of mercenaries, told The Economist—makes it hard to hold the mercenaries' actions during conflict into account.

According to the European Union, the group was founded by former Russian soldier Dmitry Utkin, who named the organization after Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler's favorite composer.

But the funding for the group is assumed by the EU to come from Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Vladimir Putin who has always denied any link to the group.

The deployment of mercenaries from the Wagner Group has not been confirmed and Russia has not yet commented on the issue. But their involvement in the Ukraine war has been rumored since the beginning of the Russian invasion.

The Times wrote on February 28 that 400 mercenaries from the Wagner Group had been sent to Ukraine to murder Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Ukraine has long claimed that the group was involved in fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014, when the two regions declared themselves "People's republics" independent from Kyiv.

During a press briefing on March 21, Pentagon spokesperson John F. Kirby told reporters about the Wagner Group's presence in Ukraine: "We know they're there. And we know that they want to increase their presence there in Ukraine."

Ukraine Russia Conflict Kharkiv
A Ukrainian serviceman walks in the village of Mala Rogan, east of Kharkiv, after the Ukranian troops retook the village on March 28. Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

In December 2021, the EU imposed sanctions on the group "for serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique."

"Wagner Group has recruited, trained and sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law," the EU said in the statement announcing the sanctions.

In that occasion as in others before that, Putin denied any link between the Kremlin and the group, saying the group didn't represent Russia and wasn't funded by the state. Private military contractors are illegal in Russia.

On March 24, the U.K. government added the Wagner Group to its latest list of sanctioned Russian entities and individuals considered responsible for supporting Russia in its campaign in Ukraine.

According to British officials, Russia "has highly likely been forced to reprioritize Wagner personnel for Ukraine at the expense of operations in Africa and Syria" due to "heavy losses and a largely stalled invasion."

U.K. intelligence has declared that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been "largely stalled on all fronts" since mid-March, a conclusion also drawn by observing U.S. officials.

But Moscow's officials have officially rejected these claims, saying that although the campaign in Ukraine is not yet concluded, it is going "according to plan," as declared by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week.

And yet, last week Russia announced a change of plan in Ukraine.

Last Friday, Moscow announced that the first phase of its "special military operation" in Ukraine was mostly complete and Russian troops would now focus on the "liberation" of the Donbas region.

The move to bring in the mercenary troops might be seen as an admission of failure so far in Ukraine, but could potentially allow the breakthrough in eastern Ukraine that Moscow's troops have been waiting for weeks.

If the strategic southern port city of Mariupol should fall, Russia would be able to relocate thousands of troops to a new front in the country.

Pro-Russian Rebel Donetsk
In this photo from February 25, a pro-Russian rebel paints the Novorossiya (new Russia) flag, a symbol regularly used by the 'Donetsk People's Republic', onto the side of an armoured vehicle in a factory compound where pro-Russian rebels of the Separate Repair and Refurbishment Battalion repair seized Ukrainian military vehicles and artillery in Donetsk. Pierre Crom/Getty Images