“The Wagner Orchestra is waiting for you,” says a poster in Yekaterinburg, Russia. “Motherland, Honor, Blood, Courage. WAGNER”, is written on another. According to the British “Guardian”, the billboards, which have appeared in several Russian cities, are part of a recruitment offensive by the Wagner Group. Specifically, Wagner is supposed to be looking for fighters for the Ukraine war. There should be around 20 regional recruitment centers. Among other things, a wage of around 3,900 euros is advertised there – the salary is higher than that of a regular Russian soldier.
“It looks like they have made a decision that they no longer want to hide their existence. Now everyone knows who they are,” Denis Korotkov, a former Novaya Gazeta journalist and longtime observer of the group, is quoted as saying in the Guardian. Especially in eastern Ukraine, Wagner mercenaries have recently appeared more frequently.
Beginnings in the Donbas
Wagner was also founded eight years ago with the aim of supporting pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas. The group’s name goes back to the nickname of its rumored founder, Dmitri Utkin. The neo-Nazi Utkin is said to have chosen this in reference to Richard Wagner, who was considered Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer – a piquant detail, given that Russia had justified the war of aggression against Ukraine with the “denazification” of the country.
Since 2014, Wagner mercenaries have been active in several countries of strategic and economic interest to Russia, including Syria, Mali, Sudan and the Central African Republic. They have repeatedly been accused of serious war crimes and human rights violations.
“Putin’s cook” as mastermind?
The second mastermind behind the organization is said to be the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s cook” and who is said to have good contacts with the Russian president. Prigozhin has repeatedly denied this in the past, calling the group’s existence a “legend”.
The Kremlin has also repeatedly denied working with the group, which has no company registration, tax returns, or organization chart. In the Russian public, naming the Wagner mercenaries was therefore taboo. In general, little is known about the structure of the group.
War brings Wagner in front of the curtain
“Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, has brought the group into the limelight,” writes the Guardian. According to British military intelligence, around 1,000 Wagner mercenaries were transferred to Ukraine at the end of March. The group seems to have grown in importance since then. As a result of the failed offensive on Kyiv, Russia had at least focused on eastern Ukraine.
According to estimates by the British secret service, Wagner may have played a key role in the capture of the eastern Ukrainian cities of Popasna in May and Lysychansk in June. At the end of July, Wagner mercenaries are said to have captured Ukraine’s largest coal-fired power plant in Wuhlehirsk.
London: Wagner Mercenaries fight as a regular unit
In general, according to Great Britain, the mercenaries in the Ukraine should fight in close coordination with regular Russian units. The Ministry of Defense in London announced at the end of July, citing intelligence information, that the fighters were probably given responsibility for their own sections of the front, in the way that normal army units are otherwise responsible.
“This represents a significant change from the group’s previous operations since 2015, when it typically conducted missions distinct from overt, large-scale regular Russian military activities,” it said. This integration undermines years of Russian government claims that there are no links between the state and private mercenary groups.
The role has probably changed because the Russian armed forces were trying to compensate for a glaring lack of infantry units, according to the Ministry of Defense in London. However, it was “highly unlikely” that Wagner’s forces were sufficient to change the course of the war significantly.
Report: Close ties with Ministry of Defence
According to a report by the independent internet portal meduza.io, the relationship between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the private group has recently deepened again. The Ministry of Defense has therefore taken control of most of the networks with which Wagner recruits soldiers, it is said.
The journalist Korotkov also notes how difficult it is to distinguish between Wagner mercenaries and regular Russian soldiers. “Most of the Defense Department has taken over Wagner and it looks more like a coordinated group now,” Korotkov said. It is therefore difficult to quantify the number of Wagner mercenaries.
Image politics in Russia
With the military successes in Ukraine, the image of the group in Russia gradually improved. In May, according to The Guardian, Wagner apparently first gained recognition on state television when a reporter, alluding to the group’s alias, said the Russian army had its “own orchestra” in Ukraine.
In addition, the alleged Wagner financier Prigozhin received the award as “Hero of the Russian Federation” in April for Wagner’s mission in the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk. At the end of July, the tabloid with the widest reach, Komsomolskaya Pravda, even dedicated the front page to Wagner’s capture of the Wuhlehirsk power plant.
Low recruitment standards
In fact, the fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas may have severely weakened the group. It was speculated, for example, that Wagner was now looking so offensively for new fighters because of the heavy losses. This leads to lower standards in recruiting new soldiers, including convicted criminals and previously rejected applicants. These new recruits would receive very limited training, which will likely reduce the force’s effectiveness and therefore its value as a support to the Russian military, British military analysts said.
“Even before the conflict, less than 30 percent of the Wagner soldiers were real professionals,” former Wagner commander Marat Gabidullin, who gives insights into the structures of the troops in his recently published book, is quoted in the “Guardian”. “Now the group consists mostly of amateurs. The circus of Russia goes on.”
Mozart group as a counter-movement?
Training instead of recruiting is the goal of the Mozart group, which is also active in the Ukraine. The group was recently formed by US war veteran Andy Milburn. Mozart and his up to 30 volunteer helpers don’t want to be an answer to Wagner. When choosing a name, however, inspiration was drawn and the name of a famous composer was also chosen. “I didn’t want to be associated or compared to the Wagner Group. We are not a counterpart to the Wagner Group,” said Milburn.
In addition to crash courses lasting several days for Ukrainian soldiers who had been sent to the front with little military experience, the group also provides humanitarian aid. The Ukrainian and Russian armies face similar problems, an aide in the Guardian finally notes – on both sides it is a largely poorly trained army.