Fierce battles in eastern Ukraine have thrown a new spotlight on Russia's Wagner Group, a private military company led by a rogue millionaire with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Wagner has spearheaded the push to jump-start Russia's stalemated offensive in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk province. The ferocious house-to house fighting has produced some of the bloodiest encounters since Russia sent troops into Ukraine, with Wagner personnel “marching on the bodies of their own soldiers” as Ukrainian authorities put it.
The U.S. this week expanded sanctions against Wagner for its role in Ukraine and mercenary activities in Africa.
Here is a look at the Wagner Group's history and its current role in the fighting.
WHO OWNS THE WAGNER GROUP?
Yevgeny Prigozhin, who received a 12-year prison term in 1981 on charges of robbery and assault, started a restaurant business in St. Petersburg following his release from prison. It was in this capacity that he got to know Putin, who served as the city's deputy mayor in the 1990s.
Prigozhin, 61, used his ties with Putin to develop a catering business and won lucrative Russian government contracts that earned him the nickname of “Putin’s chef.” He later expanded to other businesses, including media outlets and an infamous “troll factory” that led to his indictment in the U.S. for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Prigozhin denied any link to the Wagner Group before he acknowledged owning the company in September. This month, he declared he also founded, led and financed it.
WHERE HAS WAGNER WORKED?
The Wagner Group was first spotted in action in eastern Ukraine soon after a separatist conflict erupted there in April 2014, weeks after Russia's annexation of Crimea.
While backing the separatist insurgency in the Donbas, Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, Russia denied sending its own weapons and troops there despite ample evidence to the contrary. Engaging private contractors in the fighting allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of deniability.
Prigozhin's company was called Wagner after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Russian military's special forces.
It soon established a reputation for its extreme brutality and ruthlessness.
Along with Ukraine, Wagner personnel deployed to Syria, where Russia supported President Bashar Assad's government in the country's civil war. In Libya, they fought alongside forces of Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter.
The group also has operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Prigozhin has reportedly used Wagner's deployment to Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that the company was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to fund its operations in Ukraine.
Some Russian media have alleged Wagner's involvement in the July 2018 killings of three Russian journalists, who were shot dead in the Central African Republic while investigating the group’s activities there. The slayings remain unsolved.
WHAT IS THE GROUP'S REPUTATION?
Western countries and United Nations experts have accused Wagner Group mercenaries of committing numerous human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
In December 2021, the European Union accused the group of “serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings," and of carrying out "destabilizing activities" in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
Some of the reported incidents stood out in their grisly brutality.
A 2017 video posted online showed a group of armed people, reported to be Wagner contractors, torturing a Syrian man, beating him to death with a sledgehammer and cutting his head before mutilating and then burning his body. Russian authorities ignored requests by the media and rights activists to investigate the killing.
In November 2022, another video surfaced online that showed a former Wagner contractor getting beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to the Ukrainian side and was recaptured. Despite public outrage and a stream of demands for an investigation, the Kremlin turned a blind eye to it.
WHAT IS WAGNER'S ROLE IN UKRAINE?
The Wagner Group has taken an increasingly visible role in the war in Ukraine as regular Russian troops suffered heavy attrition and lost control over some previously captured territory in a series of humiliating setbacks.
Prigozhin claimed full credit this month for capturing the Donetsk region salt-mining town of Soledar and accused the Russian Defense Ministry of trying to steal Wagner's glory. He said Wagner was spearheading the attack on the city of Bakhmut, a nearby Ukrainian stronghold that Russian forces have tried to win for months.
Prigozhin has toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising inmates pardons if they survived a half-year tour of front-line duty with Wagner. He recently posted a video in which he congratulates the first group of convicts that received official pardons and the right to leave the company.
The U.S. estimates Wagner has lost about 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 of the convicts the company enlisted.
The U.S. assesses that Wagner is spending about $100 million a month in the fight and has taken delivery of weapons from North Korea, including rockets and missiles.
WHAT DO RUSSIA'S MILITARY BRASS THINK?
Wagner's reach for North Korean weapons may reflect its long-running spat with the Russian military leadership, which dates back to the company's creation.
A group of troops purported to be Wagner contractors on the front line in Ukraine recently recorded a video in which they showered the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, with curses for an alleged failure to provide ammunition.
Prigozhin himself castigated the top military brass in recent months, accusing top-ranking officers of incompetence. His remarks were unprecedented for Russia's tightly-controlled political system, in which only Putin could air such criticism.
Earlier this month, Putin reaffirmed his trust in Gen. Gerasimov by putting him in direct charge of the Russian forces in Ukraine, a move that some observers also interpreted as an attempt to cut Prigozhin down to size.
Prigozhin somewhat toned down his harangues against the military leadership after that, but remained defiant.
He also has increasingly raised his public profile, issuing daily messaging app statements to boast about Wagner's purported victories and sardonically mock his enemies.
Asked recently about a media comparison of him with Grigory Rasputin, a mystic who gained fatal influence over Russia’s last czar by claiming to have the power to cure his son’s hemophilia, Prigozhin snapped: “I don’t stop blood, but I spill blood of the enemies of our Motherland.”
HAS WAGNER BEEN SUBJECTED TO WESTERN SANCTIONS?
The U.S. slapped several waves of sanctions on Prigozhin and Wagner. The Treasury Department further ramped up sanctions against Wagner and affiliated companies and individuals on Thursday.
The European Union also has sanctioned Prigozhin and in December 2021 imposed sanctions on several people associated with Wagner and three Russia-based energy companies linked to the group in Syria.
Prigozhin mocked the Western sanctions.
“We have conducted an internal check to look into alleged crimes by Wagner but found no incriminating evidence,” he said, commenting on the latest U.S. round.
He challenged Wagner's accusers to send proof of wrondoing to his press service.