Newly demoted US intelligence reports that the Russian mercenary group Wagner has expanded influence and is recruiting criminals – including some with serious medical conditions – from prisons to support Moscow’s flagging army.
The group recently received weapons from North Korea, a top US official said, a sign of its growing role in the war in Ukraine.
The US believes Wagner could be locked in a power struggle with the Russian military for leverage with the Kremlin.
“In some cases, Russian military officials have actually obeyed Wagner’s orders,” said John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator. “It is very clear to us that Wagner is emerging as a rival powerhouse for the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”
The revelations about the Wagner group came a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s historic visit to Washington, where he thanked the United States for military aid and said more was needed to stop Russian advances.
Wagner has emerged as a key player in the 10-month conflict. The group is often described as President Vladimir Putin’s off-the-books troops. It has expanded its footprint globally since its creation in 2014, and has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.
On Wednesday, the US applied new restrictions to Wagner’s access to technology exports.
The U.S. estimates that Wagner currently employs about 50,000 personnel inside Ukraine, Kirby said, of which 40,000 may be criminals recruited from Russian prisons. He said the group spends $100 million a month to finance its operations in Ukraine.
The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, personally traveled to Russian prisons and recruited criminals to go to the front lines and fight. Some of them suffer from “serious medical conditions,” Kirby said.
“Mr. Prigozhin looks like he’s ready to throw Russian bodies into a meat grinder in Bagmut. In fact, about 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in the fighting in recent weeks, and we believe 90% of those 1,000 fighters are actually criminals,” Kirby said.
Prigozhin, sometimes referred to as “Putin’s chef,” already has close ties to the Russian president. But Kirby suggested he was working to strengthen those ties through his efforts to bolster Russian forces through mercenary recruitment.
“It’s about how nice he is to Mr. Putin and how well-respected he is in the Kremlin,” he said. “In fact, we would go so far as to say that his influence is expanding.”
Last month, Wagner delivered anti-personnel rockets and missiles from North Korea, Kirby said, a sign of how Russia and its military partners are looking for ways around Western sanctions and export restrictions.
Wagner, not the Russian government, paid for the equipment. The U.S. doesn’t believe it will significantly change battlefield dynamics in Ukraine — but North Korea plans to deliver more supplies.
Prigogine said Thursday that Kirby’s claims that his group supplied weapons from North Korea were “nothing more than rumors and speculation.”
“Everyone knows that North Korea has long since stopped supplying weapons to the Russian Federation,” Prigozhin said in a statement posted on his Telegram channel. “And no other such attempt has been made. Therefore, these arms deliveries from the DPRK are nothing more than rumors and speculations.