What is Wagner Group? Who is behind rebellion in Russia - how many soldiers does Yevgeny Prigozhin have?

Vladimir Putin has warned that those involved in an “armed mutiny” led by the chief of the Wagner Group will be “punished”
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The head of Russia’s Wagner Group - a private mercenary organisation - says he has seized “all military facilities” in the city of Rostov-on-Don as he mounts what Vladimir Putin has called “an armed mutiny”.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the paramilitary force, announced he was taking this action as “revenge” on Russian defence chiefs, who he openly accused of launching a strike on a Wagner camp in Ukraine - and killing a “huge amount” of his men. Despite the extraordinary move, which has prompted very real fears of a civil war in Russia, Prigozhin has insisted his aim is “not a military coup but a march for justice”.

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Vladimir Putin has lashed out in response - warning that those involved in the “rebellion” will be “punished” as he accused them of “treason” and a “betrayal” of the people of Russia. “Any internal turmoil is a deadly threat to our statehood for us as a nation. It is a blow to Russia for our people and our actions to protect our homeland - such a threat will face a severe response,” the Russian President added.

Meanwhile, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced on Telegram on Saturday (24 June) that “anti-terrorist” measures to strengthen security were being carried out in the capital city as a result of “incoming information.” Russia’s official line on the accusations levelled by Prigozhin are that they are “untrue” - and simply “informational propaganda.”

The escalation comes after a long period of tension between Prigozhin and Russia’s military chiefs, particularly defence minister Sergei Shoigu who the Wagner Group leader has directly accused of “putting up helicopters to destroy our boys” and “killing children” by sending untrained soldiers to fight in the war in Ukraine.

But what exactly is the Wagner Group, what is its role within Russia, how many soldiers does the organisation have, and why is this all happening? Here’s what you need to know.

Russian police officers patrol in an area outside PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg, on June 24, 2023. Credit: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty ImagesRussian police officers patrol in an area outside PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg, on June 24, 2023. Credit: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images
Russian police officers patrol in an area outside PMC Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg, on June 24, 2023. Credit: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images

Who is the Wagner Group?

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The Wagner Group (officially called PMC Wagner) is a private army of mercenaries. Owned by Prigozhin, a 61-year-old previously known as “Putin’s chef” for catering state events with his business, the group was founded in 2014 - when it was backing pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

At this time, it was a secret organisation. It was thought to be relatively small, and mainly operating in the Middle East and Africa. But this changed when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Putin was having trouble finding people for his main army, so the Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, started recruiting large numbers of soldiers. About 80% of the group’s troops in Ukraine were drawn from prisons, according the US National Security Council.

Russia still did not publicly acknowledge that Wagner existed at this point, even though it registered as a company in 2022 and opened an official headquarters in St Petersburg (despite mercenary forces being illegal in Russia).

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However, Wagner then played a key role in Russia’s lengthy and costly capture of the city of Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine. Suddenly, on 27 July 2022, Kremlin-controlled media admitted that the Wagner Group was involved in the war - and the Russian defence ministry praised its mercenaries for playing a “courageous and selfless” role in the fighting.

How many soldiers does it have?

When the Wagner Group first started, it was thought to only have about 5,000 soldiers - mostly veterans of Russia’s special forces. But since it started recruiting for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has grown considerably.

The UK Ministry of Defence said in January that the group “almost certainly now commands 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the [war]”. This number recently appeared to be back up by Prigozhin, who, in a speech posted to Telegram on Saturday (24 June), claimed his members were “ready to die” as part of their rebellion - “all 25,000, and then another 25,000.”

It is unclear how many of these soldiers are currently in the city of Rostov-on-Don, which Prigozhin says he controls, or how many may be positioned elsewhere.

Why has the Wagner Group launched a rebellion?

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Wagner’s armed rebellion has been brewing. For months there has been tension between the group’s leader Prigozhin and Russia’s military chiefs, particularly defence minister Sergei Shoigu and army general Valery Gerasimovn.

Prigozhin has long been critical over how the invasion of Ukraine is being carried out, slamming chiefs over their “incompetence” and saying they have deliberately undersupplied Wagner soldiers fighting in Ukraine. The Wagner leader has also personally attacked Shoigu, claiming he has “killed children” by “throwing untrained soldiers, including conscripts, into war.”

Things escalated when Prigozhin publicly accused Russia’s military leadership of striking his forces - alleging there was a missile attack at its rear camps. He claimed that 2,000 of his men had been killed.

“Those who destroyed our lads, who destroyed the lives of many tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be punished. I ask that no one offer resistance,” Prigozhin said in a series of audio messages on Telegram on Friday (23 June). Russia denied the accusations - calling them “propaganda” - and its security service launched a criminal case against Prigozhin.

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Wagner has since started armed action - reportedly taking the city of Rostov-on-Don and saying action will continue until military chiefs Shoigu and Gerasimovn are handed over to him. But Prigozhin has denied claims this is an armed rebellion or mutiny, instead calling the action “a march of justice.”

The move has plunged Russia into crisis, with Prigozhin also publicly contradicting the Kremlin’s stance on the war in Ukraine and undermining Putin’s supposed reasoning for the invasion. “The war was needed so Shoigu could become a Marshal, so he could get a second Hero Star. The war wasn’t for demilitarising or de-nazifying Ukraine. It was needed for an extra star,” Prigozhin boldly said.

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