Russia relying on Wagner in Ukraine that is hiring convicts, UK says

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A man stands with a bicycle next to apartment buildings destroyed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the city of Sievierodonetsk in the Luhansk Region, Ukraine June 30, 2022.

Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters

Russia’s war in Ukraine is being supported by a notorious private military contractor Wagner Group, which is now lowering its recruitment standards, British military intelligence said Monday.

In an intelligence update on Monday, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence said Wagner, a sprawling network of mercenaries to which the Kremlin denies any links, had been brought in to “reinforce front-line forces and to mitigate manning shortfalls and casualties.”

“Wagner has almost certainly played a central role in recent fighting, including the capture of Popasna and Lysyschansk. This fighting has inflicted heavy casualties on the group,” the MOD said.

“Wagner are lowering recruitment standards, hiring convicts and formerly blacklisted individuals. Very limited training is made available to new recruits.”

The MOD added that this will likely affect the future operational effectiveness of the group, but noted that Yevgeny Prigozhin — the Russian oligarch and close ally of President Vladimir Putin widely alleged to be the de-facto head of Wagner Group — had been made a Hero of the Russian Federation for Wagner’s performance in Luhansk.

Both Prigozhin and the Kremlin have denied any connection to Wagner. The Russian government did not immediately respond to request for comment.

“This, at a time when a number of very senior Russian military commanders are being replaced, is likely to exacerbate grievances between the military and Wagner. It is also likely to impact negatively on Russian military morale,” the statement added.

Wagner Group has long been implicated in conflicts in unstable countries around the world including Mali, Libya, Syria, Mozambique and the Central African Republic. Human rights groups accuse its mercenaries of perpetrating civilian massacres and other human rights abuses.

Although its structure and even existence is disputed, Wagner is believed to have first emerged during Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. The name has since become a catch-all term for an opaque and expansive network of businesses and entities.

The U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper reported Saturday that Wagner mercenaries had been implicated in a recent civilian massacre in Mali, while Ukraine has publicly accused two alleged members of war crimes.

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