What is the Wagner Group? Who are secretive mercenaries in Kyiv targeting Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky

The Wagner Group do not officially exist - but the shadowy network of mercenaries with links to the Kremlin has been named in the UK’s latest sanctions list

<p>Mercenaries from the Wagner Group are known to mingle with other pro-Russian troops without displaying any identifying insignia (Photo: Getty)</p>

Mercenaries from the Wagner Group are known to mingle with other pro-Russian troops without displaying any identifying insignia (Photo: Getty)

The UK Government has announced that the Wagner Group has been added to its Russia sanctions scheme, following reports that they were targeting Ukraine’s president.

Last month hundreds of mercenaries belonging to the secretive Wagner Group, which is seen as Vladimir Putin’s private army, were reportedly in Kyiv, with orders to track down and assassinate Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and prepare the ground for Russia to take control.

But what is the Wagner Group, who leads them, and who do they take their orders from?

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the nation via his smartphone in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday,

What is the Wagner Group?

The Wagner Group has variously been described as a private militia, a proxy force for the Russian Ministry of Defense and a "pseudo-private" military company which allows Russia to exert military influence abroad while ensuring ‘plausible deniability’ (where senior officials can deny knowledge of or responsibility for any unlawful actions).

Also known as PMC Wagner, ChVK Wagner or CHVK Vagner, their number is estimated to have grown to 6,000 by the end of 2017, according to Bloomberg.

The Wagner Group is mostly comprised of retired regular Russian servicemen, typically aged between 35 and 55.

The ‘plausible deniability’ is a key factor in their worth to Russia. In his book We Need To Talk About Putin, Mark Galeotti describes how they were used in Syria: “When they needed to send in ground troops to stiffen Syria’s wavering army, instead of regular forces they sent ‘mercenaries’ working for the Wagner Group, a front organisation set up by military intelligence.

“Even though most of Wagner’s soldiers were Russian, it meant that the Kremlin could reassure ordinary Russians that their boys would not be coming home from the Middle East in body bags, and that, if any did die at the hands of Americans, Moscow could pretend it had nothing to do with them.”

The Wagner Group of paid mercenaries has operated in conflicts including Syria, Libya and Sudan.

They were also active in Donbas in Ukraine in 2014, helping the separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.

Who is Yevgeny Prigozhin?

The Wagner Group is believed to be owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, to the extent that he is known as ‘Putin’s chief’.

He got to know Putin when he ran a restaurant in the president’s native Saint Petersburg, and like many Putin friends, he has done very well out of his ties to the regime.

His companies still provide food services to the Kremlin and other government agencies, and he was photographed back in 2010 showing Putin around his school lunch factory.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) shows Vladimir Putin his school lunch factory outside Saint Petersburg on September 20, 2010 (Photo: Getty)

Prigozhin, for his part, has denied any communication with the Wagner Group.

Kimberly Joy Marten, an expert at Columbia University, told ForeignPolicy.com: “I think he [Prigozhin] is the middleman, I think he is the contractor. I’m sure he gets a huge payment off the top by being the contractor, and then he has these companies which seem to be benefiting in cases where there are minerals or oil involved.”

Prigozhin is also believed to finance the Internet Research Agency - better known as the ‘troll factory’ - which interfered in US elections in 2016 and 2018.

Who is Dmitry Utkin?

A former GRU special forces officer, Dmitry Valerievich Utkin is considered to be the founder of the Wagner Group, and his own call-sign is reportedly ‘Wagner’.

The 51-year-old is believed to be a neo-Nazi (Richard Wagner was famously Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer) and he has been pictured with Nazi tattoos on his chest.

Upon retiring from the GRU, he joined the Slavonic Corps and fought on the side of Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian civil war in 2013.

With the Wagner Group, he has been seen both in Crimea and Donbas, where the Wagner Group were known to be fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists.

Utkin is known to both the US and the EU as the head of the Wagner Group, but he hasn’t been seen in public since 2016, when he was pictured at a ceremony in the Kremlin.

What is the Wagner Group doing in Ukraine now?

A total of between 2,000 and 4,000 mercenaries arrived in Ukraine in January this year, according to a source closely connected to the Wagner Group’s activities, The Times reports.

While some were deployed to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, another 400 entered from Belarus and made their way to Kyiv.

They have reportedly been offered “hefty bonuses” for the assassinations of key figures in the coming days, before a promise of safe passage out of Ukraine before the end of the week.

Who else is being targeted?

As well as President Zelensky, the Wagner Group is also reportedly targeting prominent Ukrainians such as the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko and his brother Wladimir, both former boxing champions.

The 24-strong hit list is also reported to include the prime minister and the cabinet.

Last week President Zelensky claimed that he was “target No.1” for Russian special forces in the capital.

Offered the chance by the US to escape the country, he said: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

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