Newly downgraded US intelligence suggests the Russian mercenary group Wagner has assumed expanded influence and is recruiting convicts – including some with serious medical conditions – from prisons to supplement Moscow’s flagging military.
The group recently took delivery of arms from North Korea, a top US official said, a sign of its growing role in the war in Ukraine.
And the US believes Wagner could be locked in a power battle with the Russian military itself as it jockeys for influence with the Kremlin.
“In certain instances, Russian military officials are actually subordinate to Wagner’s command,” said John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council. “It’s pretty apparent to us that Wagner is emerging as a rival power center to 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 its military assistance and said more was needed to fend off 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 on Wagner’s access to technology exports.
Kirby said the US estimates Wagner currently has about 50,000 personnel deployed inside Ukraine, of which 40,000 could be convicts recruited from Russian prisons. He said the group was spending $100 million per month to fund its operations in Ukraine.
The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has even traveled personally to Russian prisons to recruit convicts himself to go to the front lines and fight. Some of them suffer from “serious medical conditions,” Kirby said.
“It seems as though Mr. Prigozhin is willing to just throw Russian bodies into the meat grinder in Bakhmut. In fact, about 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in the fighting in just recent weeks, and we believe that 90% of those 1,000 fighters were, in fact, convicts,” Kirby said.
Prigozhin, who has sometimes been 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 his mercenary recruitment.
“It’s all about how good he looks to Mr. Putin, and how well he’s regarded at the Kremlin,” he said. “In fact, we would go so far as to say that his influence is expanding.”
Last month, Wagner received a delivery of infantry rockets and missiles from North Korea, Kirby said, an indication of how Russia and its military partners continue to seek ways around Western sanctions and export controls.
Wagner, not the Russian government, paid for the equipment. The US doesn’t believe it will significantly change the battlefield dynamic in Ukraine – but suggested North Korea could be planning to deliver further material.
Prigozhin said Thursday that Kirby’s claims that his group took weapons deliveries from North Korea are “nothing more than gossip and speculation.”
“Everyone knows that it’s been a long time since North Korea has supplied weapons to the Russian Federation,” Prigozhin said in a statement published on his Telegram channel. “And no other such attempts have even been made. Therefore, these arms deliveries from the DPRK are nothing more than gossip and speculation.”