Russia used private mercenaries to reinforce frontline, British intelligence says

·4-min read

LONDON — Russia has used private mercenaries from the Kremlin’s shadowy private military to reinforce its depleted frontline, British intelligence said Monday.

In its daily intelligence update, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said that members of the Wagner Group had “almost certainly” participated in fighting — especially in the cities Popasna and Lysychansk, which were captured by Russian forces this month.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimates that as of Monday, Russia has lost 38,450 army personnel in the 144 days of the war, with Russia claiming to have lost just 1,351.

British Defense Intelligence said Wagner had been reinforcing its forces on the frontline in a bid to mitigate “shortfalls and casualties.” The intelligence report also said that the group had been “lowering recruitment standards” and “hiring convicts and formerly blacklisted individuals” to help increase numbers.

A man stands on a dilapidated balcony of a brick building next to a Russian flag.
In this handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on July 4, a man sets a Russian national flag on a balcony of a residential building in Lysychansk, which is now territory under the Government of the Luhansk People's Republic control, eastern Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

In the past, Wagner mercenaries have been accused of committing war crimes in countries they have been found operating in such as Syria, Sudan and the Central African Republic. “This will highly likely impact on the future operational effectiveness of the group and will reduce its value as a prop to the regular Russian forces,” the statement read.

For the Wagner Group’s alleged work in the region of Luhansk — a breakaway region in eastern Ukraine and the now self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic — the reported head of the group was made a “Hero of the Russian Federation.”

The group is believed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and close friend to Russian President Vladimir Putin, also known as “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin is wanted by the FBI for his alleged involvement in the notorious troll farm that targeted and interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Prigozhin has been placed on both U.S. and EU sanctions lists for running disinformation campaigns to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He has previously denied any connection to Wagner.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, standing, lifts a lid from a plate of food in front of seated Vladimir Putin as Putin makes a judgmental face as though he's trying to determine whether it will be to his liking.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Vladimir Putin during dinner at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow, Russia, in 2011. (Misha Japaridze/Pool via AP)

Back in March, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry claimed that Wagner mercenaries took up arms — just three weeks into Russia’s brutal invasion. In a Facebook post this week, the Defense Ministry shared an image of a dog tag that allegedly belonged to a Wagner mercenary soldier. “Wagnerists are already dying on the territory of Ukraine,” the post read.

This claim was backed by Britain’s Ministry of Defense at the time. “The Russian state almost certainly maintains extensive links with Russian [private military companies], despite repeated denials,” a statement from the ministry said.

A report from the British newspaper the Times on Feb. 28 claimed that more than 400 mercenaries from the group had been deployed to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ukraine claims that as of March 9, Zelensky had survived at least 12 assassination attempts — two of which were allegedly orchestrated by the Wagner Group.

Two images of a dog tag held by someone's hand show both sides, which read, alongside writing in foreign languages: +936-931-425-624 Please help and contact us.
Dog tags said to belong to members of the Wagner Group as posted on the Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Facebook page.

The mercenaries, who are known for their heinous acts, have reportedly fought in many conflicts across continents, including the war in Syria. In March 2021, a lawsuit was filed against the Wagner Group by a Syrian man who claimed the group had committed war crimes.

The complaint is based on a video posted online in 2017 that reportedly shows an unarmed man being interrogated by Russian-speaking men in military uniforms. In 2019, another video reportedly showed the same man being beaten, tortured and beheaded, and his body being burned.

Last year, U.N. experts said Wagner had committed human rights abuses in the Central African Republic while fighting alongside government forces. The alleged violations included mass executions and torture during interrogation. A report from February 2021 stated that over 276,000 civilians had also been forcibly displaced since December 2020.

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images; Wikicommons.