Newly downgraded US intelligence shows Russian mercenary group Wagner has had an extensive influence and is recruiting convicts – including some with serious medical conditions – from prisonso additional pieces of Moscow’s chess pieces.
The group recently received weapons from North Korea, a top US official said, a sign of the group’s growing role in the war in Ukraine.
And the US believes Wagner could be stuck in a power struggle with the Russian military itself as it jostles for influence with the Kremlin.
“Under certain circumstances, Russian military officials are really dependent on Wagner’s orders,” said John Kirby, strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council. “It’s clear to us that Wagner is emerging as a center of power rivaling the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”
Revelations about the Wagner group come a day later Historic visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Washington, where he thanked the United States for military support and said more is needed to counter Russian advances.
Wagner has emerged as a key figure in the 10-month conflict. This group is often described as the army of President Vladimir Putin. It has expanded its footprint globally since it was founded in 2014 and has been accused of committing war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.
On Wednesday, the United States imposed new restrictions on Wagner’s access to technology exports.
Kirby said the United States estimates Wagner currently has about 50,000 personnel deployed inside Ukraine, of which 40,000 are likely prisoners recruited from Russian prisons. He said the group spent $100 million a month to fund its operations in Ukraine.
The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, even personally went to Russian prisons to recruit convicts to the front lines and fight. Some of them, Kirby said, have “serious illnesses”.
“It seems that Mr. Prigozhin is ready to throw the Russian corpse into the meat grinder in Bakhmut. In fact, about 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in skirmishes in recent weeks alone, and we believe 90% of those 1,000 fighters are in fact convicts,” Kirby said.
Prigozhin, who is sometimes referred to as “Putin’s chef,” has a close relationship with the Russian president. But Kirby suggests that he’s working to strengthen those relationships through an effort to bolster Russian forces through his mercenary recruitment.
“It’s all about how good he looks to Mr. Putin and how highly he is in the Kremlin,” he said. “In fact, we would go as far as to say that his influence is expanding.”
Last month, Kirby said, Wagner received shipments of infantry and missile missiles from North Korea, a sign that Russia and its military partners continue to seek to avoid sanctions and control. Western export controls.
Wagner, not the Russian government, paid for the device. The US does not believe it will significantly change the battlefield in Ukraine – but thinks North Korea may be planning to supply more materials.