American newspaper: Can Wagner mercenaries make the difference in the Russian-Ukrainian war?

The New Yorker newspaper said for the past four years, the United States had tried to arrest Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Putin’s chef, whose companies allegedly financed the political and military adventures of the Russian leader.

In 2018, a US federal court issued an arrest warrant for Prigozhin for many crimes including  “conspiracy to defraud the United States.”

The court accused him of turning from a restaurateur into a billionaire, through his funding of the Internet Research Agency, which contributed to widespread interference in the political system of the United States, including the 2016 presidential election.

Last year, the FBI put Prigozhin on its wanted list, and offered a quarter of a million dollars as a reward to anyone who contributed to his arrest. The US Treasury also imposed sanctions on Prigozhin for running disinformation campaigns through a network of companies in other elections in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Last month, the United States imposed additional sanctions on Prigozhin, his wife and two children, and US President Joe Biden said, “We continue to impose very severe economic sanctions on Putin and everyone around him.”

Prigozhin is in the spotlight again this month as Putin, facing military setbacks in Ukraine, looks for ways to regroup on the battlefield. US and British officials say Russia is now seeking to mobilize mercenaries from the notoriously shadowy Wagner Group, which Prigozhin is said to be financing.

NATO recently estimated that up to 15,000 Russians were killed in just the first four weeks of the war, roughly the same as the Soviet Union lost during its decade-long invasion of Afghanistan.

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said last week that Russia is expected to redirect more than 1,000 Wagner Group mercenaries, including top commanders, from wars on other continents to Ukraine.

It added that it is very likely that Russia will have to re-prioritize the Wagner mercenaries for Ukraine at the expense of operations in Libya and Syria.

Under the Russian constitution, the use of PMCs is technically illegal. The Kremlin denies the existence of the Wagner Group.

Prigozhin also denied having ties to the organization, even though the European Union officially claimed in 2021 that it funds it.

Reportedly; Putin has made mercenaries part of Moscow’s military strategy since it first intervened in Ukraine, in 2014, to seize control of Crimea and support pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass.

The Wagner Group was set up to help and stand by Russian forces, and Moscow eventually recruited more than 13,000 fighters from several countries to fight in the Donbass, according to the Sovan Research Center.

Since then, Putin’s dependence on Prigozhin, the Wagner Group and other private military contractors has increased dramatically, with “suspected or confirmed” military operations in 30 countries on four continents, from Venezuela to Libya and Afghanistan, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Wagner Group recruited, trained and deployed agents around the world to undermine US power and increase Moscow’s influence, and in 2021, the Council of the European Union alleged that the Wagner Group was also used to “fuel violence, plunder natural resources and terrorize civilians in violation of international law”.

According to a US official, during the first ten days of its campaign in Ukraine, Russia deployed an estimated thousands of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, but they soon suffered losses as well.

About two hundred mercenaries, some of whom belonged to the group, had died by early March on the battlefield, the official said.

According to the newspaper, Russia is also recruiting Wagner mercenaries in Syria, where its forces have supported the country’s President Bashar al-Assad since 2015. The 11-year-old Syrian war has resulted in unofficial local militias as well as combat-savvy soldiers who earn at least $15 to $35 a month. Russia pledges $1,000 or more a month to fight in Ukraine.

However, experts say, Syrians alone may not make a strategic difference, they don’t speak the language and don’t know the terrain in Ukraine, and the Assad regime needs its foreign fighters, from militias in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as strategists from Iran and Russia.

The article concluded by saying that the Russian military is betting on foreign assistance. As of mid-March, “nearly 90% of the Wagner Group’s workforce and resources have been transferred from other countries to Ukraine,” the Sovan Center reported.

However; Moscow’s recruitment of foreigners appears to reflect desperation.

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