The Wagner Group of Kremlin-backed mercenaries has been pictured in Ukraine for the first time amid fears as many as 1,000 fighters have been deployed to the war.

The shadowy military company which has been linked to a string of killings, rapes and war crimes around the world is known as Putin‘s private army which carries out his dirty work at an arm’s length from the state.

Images taken yesterday show a soldier wearing the insignia of the paramilitary group which has been active in civil wars in Africa.

The soldier is seen carrying an AK-15 rifle used by Russian special forces in front of the Radisson-owned Park Inn hotel in Donetsk, which used to serve as the offices of the UN-recognised Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Pro-Kremlin war correspondent Semyon Pegov captured the image of the group who were known to be in Ukraine but had not been previously pictured there following the invasion.

The Wagner Group of Kremlin-backed mercenaries has been pictured in Ukraine for the first time amid fears as many as 1,000 fighters have been deployed to the war

Images taken yesterday show a soldier wearing the insignia of the paramilitary group which has been active in civil wars in Africa

Images taken yesterday show a soldier wearing the insignia of the paramilitary group which has been active in civil wars in Africa

Philip Ingram, a former British intelligence officer, told The Times: ‘The GRU use Wagner as their deniable dirty operations troops.

‘The fact that they are using AK-15s, the Spetsnaz’s new assault rifle, is a clear indication that they are being contracted and commanded by Russian special forces.’ 

The Wagner Group is said to have been tasked with assassinating Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior Ukrainian figures, including the Klitschko brothers, and has the reported motto: ‘Death is our business and business is good.’ 

The mercenary group, considered to be at the beck and call of Putin, is among the list of individuals and organisations sanctioned by Britain.  

The army-for-hire, allegedly run by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin – a close ally of the Russian president who is often dubbed ‘Putin’s chef’ – was flown into Ukraine several weeks ago and offered a huge sum for the mission. 

British intelligence sources said last week it had been deployed to the Donbas after Russia’s army sustained heavy losses.

An estimated 1,000 mercenaries and senior commanders are thought to be in the country.

It has previously been deployed to Africa, where it has carried out black ops operations that the Kremlin wants done while avoiding direct responsibility. 

The Wagner Group (pictured in Syria) has conducted covert operations across Africa and the Middle East, including in Syria, and they have most recently been on the ground in Ukraine to guide Russian tanks to the capital

The Wagner Group (pictured in Syria) has conducted covert operations across Africa and the Middle East, including in Syria, and they have most recently been on the ground in Ukraine to guide Russian tanks to the capital

In December, the EU accused Wagner of ‘serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique’. 

Russia has continually denied the group’s existence and its origins are murky, though it first appeared in 2014 in the Donbas.

Initially, it was made up of only a few hundred Russian army veterans. They were ordered to assassinate Donbas leaders who were broadly supportive of Russia, but refused to follow instructions from the Kremlin.

These assassinations were then blamed on Ukrainian forces, according to security experts. 

Wagner’s founder and leader is Dmitry Utkin, a shaven-headed former lieutenant colonel in Spetsnaz – Russia’s special forces. He named it after his Spetsnaz code name.

Utkin is seen as a neo-Nazi and was described by one Russian newspaper as having ‘an appreciation of the aesthetic of the Third Reich’, complete with tattoos of the Waffen-SS on his shoulder and an eagle on his chest.

Mercenaries are illegal in Russia but Putin used Wagner to crush Syrian rebels and even awarded Utkin a medal. 

Eventually, however, the Wagner Group became so dangerous that even the Russian government refused to pay them.  

Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured left) is nicknamed 'Putin's chef' because of his catering business which supplies services to the Kremlin

Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured left) is nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef’ because of his catering business which supplies services to the Kremlin 

This led to Putin appointing oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin to control the group. 

For Western observers, Wagner Group’s links with the Kremlin are in little doubt. Putin himself has been pictured at a Kremlin function with Wagner troops including lieutenant colonel Utkin. 

In 2020, investigative news site Bellingcat uncovered records revealing Wagner’s reputed boss Prigozhin had made 99 calls to Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff in eight months and frequently spoke to top officials at the Kremlin.

The Kremlin once again denied it has any influence over Wagner and suggested that Prigozhin only provides catering services to the Russian government.  

In 2017, Wagner employees tortured a deserter from the Syrian army. Sickening footage showed how they broke his legs with a sledgehammer and then crushed his chest, before cutting off his hands, his head and finally setting his corpse alight. 

In 2019, a man who filmed the torture and beheading was identified as Stanislav D, a soldier who was known to have been employed by Wagner in the country to help prop up its Kremlin-backed dictator, Bashar Assad.

Vladimir Putin poses with four alleged Wagner officers at a function at the Kremlin - which denies any involvement with Russian mercenary groups

Vladimir Putin poses with four alleged Wagner officers at a function at the Kremlin – which denies any involvement with Russian mercenary groups  

In 2020, investigative news site Bellingcat uncovered records revealing Wagner's reputed boss Prigozhin had made 99 calls to Vladimir Putin's chief of staff in eight months

In 2020, investigative news site Bellingcat uncovered records revealing Wagner’s reputed boss Prigozhin had made 99 calls to Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff in eight months

The global crimes of the notorious Wagner Group used by Putin for ‘dirty’ missions 

The notorious Wagner Group, a private military company, has committed war crimes across the globe. They have now been tasked with assassinating Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior Ukrainian politicians.

In December, the EU accused Wagner of ‘serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique’.

So what are some of the crimes the group has committed? 

Donbas, Ukraine: The Wagner group first appeared in 2014, to help Russia destabilise the Donbas region. 

Hundreds of members assassinated Donbas separist leaders who were not following Kremlin orders, with the killings blamed on Ukraine.    

Syria: Wagner was operating in Syria in 2015, where the Russians wanted to bolster the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad. 

In 2017, Wagner employees tortured a deserter from the Syrian army. 

Sickening footage showed how they    broke his legs with a sledgehammer and then crushed his chest, before cutting off his hands, his head and finally setting his corpse alight. 

The conduct of Wagner in Syria eventually became so bad that the Russian government refused to pay them, viewing them as dangerous cowboys. 

Wagner’s founder and leader is Dmitry Utkin, a shaven-headed former lieutenant colonel in Spetsnaz – Russia’s special forces. 

He is described as a neo-Nazi with  ‘an appreciation of the aesthetic of the Third Reich’. Utkin was sanctioned by the EU for ordering Bouta’s killing.

Central African Republic: Wagner mercenaries arrived in CAR to support President Faustin-Archange Touadéra against rebels in 2017.

Wagner employees were accused by the UN and France of carrying out human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings of suspected rebels.

There were also accusations of rape, robbery and torture against unarmed civilians. 

The United Nations is probing an alleged massacre during a joint operation by government forces and Wagner fighters.

One military source told AFP that more than 50 people died, some in ‘summary executions’

In 2018, three Russian journalists reporting on Wagner’s activities in CAR were ambushed and shot dead. Another Russian journalist investigating the group ‘fell’ to his death from his fifth floor flat. 

Sudan: Wagner mercenaries are believed to have trained government forces. 

The group also ‘spreads disinformation on social media and engages in illicit activities connected to gold mining’.

Mozambique: Wagner has supported the army in its fight against the Islamist militant insurgency in the north.

They have been accused of burning down villages, terrorising civilians and killing women and children. 

However, the group retreated in the face of jihadists after around a dozen men were killed in gruesome attacks by ISIS terrorists.

They were believed to have been killed in ambushes and botched operations. 

Mali: The Mali government employed 1,000 Wagner operatives in December.  

Russian operatives are believed to have helped train coup plotters who took over last year.  

In Libya, the BBC obtained a Samsung tablet owned by a Wagner fighter which revealed the group had been leaving unmarked mines in civilian areas – a war crime.

The investigation also uncovered a ‘shopping list’ of weapons and military equipment, including four tanks, hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles, and a state-of-the-art radar system.

A military analyst said some of the equipment could only have come from the Kremlin.

Shocking revelations also emerged about the conduct of Wagner fighters, with one former member openly admitting to killing prisoners because ‘no-one wants an extra mouth to feed’.

Meanwhile, one Libyan villager described how he played dead as his relatives were killed around him.

Wagner’s appearance in Mali was one of the reasons given by French president Emmanuel Macron for his decision to pull out 2,400 troops from the country, where they had been fighting jihadists.

Mr Macron suspected the mercenaries had struck a deal with Mali’s ruling junta.

He said Wagner was ‘arriving in Mali with predatory intentions, but why?’

‘Because the junta which is in power after two coups d’états considers them to be the best partners they can find to protect their power, not to fight against terrorism.’

Wagner fighters were welcomed into the Central African Republic (CAR) by President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to assist in his fight against rebels. 

Over the course of the campaign, both the UN and France said they had been responsible for raping and robbing unarmed civilians in the country’s rural areas.

In total, the UN documented more than 500 incidents in the country during the year from July 2020, including sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and torture. 

Although inspectors accepted some of the violence had been carried out by rebels, CAR’s Justice Minister Arnaud Abazene acknowledged for the first time that some abuses had been carried out by ‘Russian instructors’.

One military source told AFP that more than 50 people died, some in ‘summary executions’.

In 2018, three Russian journalists reporting on Wagner’s activities in CAR were ambushed and shot dead. Another Russian journalist investigating the group ‘fell’ to his death from his fifth floor flat. 

Wagner has also been involved in operations against ISIS in Syria and Mozambique.

In Mozambique, seven mercenaries were killed by ISIS-linked militants – including four who were shot and then beheaded.

Both attacks were ambushes in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado state, according to sources in the country’s military. 

The Times reported that between 2,000 and 4,000 Wagner Group mercenaries arrived in Ukraine back in January, but with different missions.

General Sir Richard Barrons, a former commander of Joint Forces Command, said: ‘They are very effective because they are hard to pin down.

‘They can appear from the shadows, do very violent things and then disappear again, without it being obvious who was responsible. They are not directly linked to the Russian government and therefore they are plausibly deniable.’

Sources said the militia were briefed about Putin’s plans against Ukraine back in December, long before the Russian army was told. 

The mercenaries were reportedly given a 24-person ‘kill list’ including the entire Ukrainian cabinet, mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko and his brother Wladimir – both boxing champions who have become iconic figures on the front lines of the capital.  

The attack was sabotaged after the plans reached the upper echelons of the Ukrainian government on March 5, prompting Kyiv to declare a 36-hour ‘hard’ curfew, ordering everyone indoors so that soldiers could sweep the streets for Russian saboteurs. 



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