It’s believed that there are now tens of thousands of mercenaries fighting for Russia in Ukraine with the Wagner Group.
Recently, its troops played a major part in the long and costly fight to take the city of Bakhmut from Ukrainian forces.
The Wagner Group describes itself as a “private military company”, but now the Russian government seems to be taking steps to rein it in.
What is Wagner Group and who is fighting for it?
The Wagner Group (officially called PMC Wagner) was first identified in 2014, when it was backing pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
At that time it was a secretive organisation, operating mostly in Africa and the Middle East, and is thought to have had only about 5,000 fighters – mostly veterans of Russia’s elite regiments and special forces.
Since then, it has grown considerably.
“Wagner almost certainly now commands 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign,” the UK Ministry of Defence said in January.
It said the organisation started recruiting in large numbers in 2022 because Russia had trouble finding people for the regular army.
About 80% of Wagner’s troops in Ukraine have been drawn from prisons, the US National Security Council said at the start of this year.
Although mercenary forces are illegal in Russia, the Wagner Group registered as a company in 2022 and opened a new headquarters in St Petersburg.
“It is openly recruiting in Russian cities, on billboards, and is being named in Russian media as a patriotic organisation,” says Dr Samuel Ramani, of the Royal United Services Institute think tank.
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What is the Wagner Group doing in Ukraine?
The Wagner Group was heavily involved in Russia’s capture of the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops say its fighters were sent into attacks in large numbers over open ground, with many killed as a result.
At first, the defence ministry did not mention that the Wagner Group was involved in the fighting. However, it later praised its mercenaries for playing a a “courageous and selfless” role.
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How was the Wagner Group started?
A BBC investigation into the Wagner Group highlighted the believed involvement of a former Russian army officer, Dmitri Utkin.
A veteran of Russia’s wars in Chechnya, he is thought to have been Wagner’s first field commander and to have named the group after his former radio call sign.
The current head is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rich businessman nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because he provided catering for the Kremlin.
(Image: Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin walks past line of prisoners)
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has been seen in leaked footage addressing prisoners in Russia
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“The Wagner Group’s first operation was helping Russia annex Crimea in 2014,” says Tracey German, professor of conflict and security at King’s College London.
In the weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is thought Wagner carried out “false flag” attacks to give the Kremlin a pretext for invading.
How has Wagner clashed with Russia’s military commanders?
In recent months, Mr Prigozhin has repeatedly accused Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the army in Ukraine, Valery Gerasimov, of incompetence and of deliberately undersupplying Wagner units fighting in Ukraine.
The Russian Defence Ministry has now said that “volunteer formations” in Ukraine must sign contracts with it, by the end of June.
The Wagner Group was not named in the announcement, but the move is seen as an attempt by the government to gain more control over it.
Mr Prigozhin issued a furious statement declaring his forces would boycott the contracts.
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Where else is the Wagner Group operating?
Since 2015, Wagner Group mercenaries have been in Syria, fighting alongside pro-government forces and guarding oilfields.
There are also Wagner Group mercenaries in Libya, supporting the forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has invited the Wagner Group to guard diamond mines, and it is thought to be guarding gold mines in Sudan.
Wagner members have been operating in Syria
The government of Mali, in West Africa, is using the Wagner Group against Islamic militant groups.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is thought to make money from these Wagner Group operations. The US Treasury says he uses its presence to enrich mining companies, which he owns, and it has placed them under sanctions.
What crimes is the Wagner Group alleged to have committed?
In January, a former commander claimed asylum in Norway after deserting from the mercenary outfit. He claims to have witnessed war crimes in Ukraine.
Three Wagner Group mercenaries are alleged by Ukrainian prosecutors to have killed and tortured civilians near Kyiv in April 2022, alongside regular Russian troops.
German intelligence says Wagner mercenaries may also have massacred civilians in Bucha in March 2022.
The United Nations and the French government have accused Wagner members of committing rapes and robberies against civilians in the Central African Republic. In 2020, the United States military accused Wagner mercenaries of having planted landmines and other improvised explosive devic