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Story by Silja Thoms • Yesterday 11:06 PM

Russia’s best-known private military company, the Wagner Group, has been training soldiers, escorting politicians and allegedly committing human rights violations all over the globe for years.

In May, Wagner troops helped conquer the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut

In May, Wagner troops helped conquer the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut© Concord/Handout/REUTERS

The Wagner Group isn’t just active in Ukraine. It also has a presence in many other countries, including Syria or Mali. And it’s not the only Russian private military company either. Over the past few years, there has been an increase in these kinds of groups, also known as PMCs, in Russia, a report from the US-based think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says.

It is not always possible to accurately track the exact activities of the Wagner Group, headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, and other PMCs because they allegedly act independently of the Russian government and conventional military forces. However analysts believe that the group is likely active in more than 30 countries around the world.

In Europe

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the Wagner Group has increasingly appeared in headlines. The mercenary organization was first spotted in 2014, in the Donbas region of Ukraine, where it supported pro-Russian separatists. Since then the private army has steadily grown.

“Wagner almost certainly now commands up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign,” the UK’s Ministry of Defense wrote on Twitter earlier this year.

Prigozhin himself recently talked about just 25,000 fighters.

The Wagner Group has recruited extensively in Russia’s penal system and senior leaders include disgraced former members of the Russian military. In Ukraine, the mercenaries played an important role in the battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and declared victory there in May, saying they would hand the territory over to the regular Russian military.

In Africa

The Wagner Group is particularly active in Africa. The private military company is thought to act in Russian interests there by doing things like engaging in the extraction of raw materials, undermining democratic actors and investing in disinformation campaigns.

Sudan

Sudan is considered one of the African countries most influenced by Russia. The Wagner Group has been active in Sudan for years and supports the country’s military government. According to observers, the main aim of the Wagner Group here is to secure Russian access to valuable raw materials including gold, manganese, silicon and uranium deposits

“Yevgeny Prigozhin and his network are exploiting Sudan’s natural resources for personal gain and spreading malign influence around the globe,” former US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in 2020, while announcing sanctions on Prigozhin.

At the time, the US government also noted that a Russian company, M Invest, based in St. Petersburg, had links to the Wagner Group. It had been granted a concession in 2017 by the former Sudanese government to explore gold mining sites. Wagner operatives also provided security at the gold mines.

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (center) is known to be outspoken

Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin (center) is known to be outspoken© Concord Press Office/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

“M Invest serves as a cover for PMC Wagner forces operating in Sudan,” the US Treasury statement said, “and was responsible for developing plans for former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to suppress protestors seeking democratic reforms.”

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Mali

Mali’s military rulers, who took power in a 2021 coup, also work with the Wagner Group. Earlier this year, members of the United Nations’ Working Group on the use of mercenaries called for investigations into crimes committed by Wagner Group fighters and Mali government forces.

Since 2021, the UN experts had “received persistent and alarming accounts of horrific executions, mass graves, acts of torture, rape and sexual violence, pillaging, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances perpetrated by Malian armed forces and their allies,” a UN statement said.

Russia's presence in Mali has become stronger after European nations like France pulled out troops

Russia’s presence in Mali has become stronger after European nations like France pulled out troops© Florent Vergnes/AFP/Getty Images

Central African Republic

In a February 2023 interview, the Russian ambassador to the Central African Republic said that there were 1,890 “Russian instructors” in the country. Wagner Group fighters came to the country officially as advisors and military trainers and they also serve on the security detail of President Faustin-Archange Touadera. In return for this kind of support, the Wagner Group is alleged to have gained access to contracts to extract resources such as diamonds, gold and timber.

As in Mali, the incidence of reports of human rights violations by the Wagner Group has risen. A 2021 UN report noted acts like excessive use of force, rape, torture and widespread looting.

In Latin America

Venezuela

According to news agency Reuters, Wagner Group members were in Caracas in 2019 to provide security for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro after protests against him. The Wagner Group has also trained elite combat units in Venezuela.

Venezuela and Russia have had close ties, both military and economic, for years. Russia is one of the largest creditors of the Venezuelan government, extending about $17 billion (€15,6 billion) in loans to Caracas since 2006. Russia is also interested in securing access to Venezuela’s oil. The Latin American country has the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Longstanding ties: Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov meets his Venezuelan counterpart, Yvan Gil, in early 2023.

Longstanding ties: Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov meets his Venezuelan counterpart, Yvan Gil, in early 2023.© Jesus Vargas/AP/dpa/picture alliance

In Asia

According to analysis by various think tanks, the Wagner Group is also active in Asia. There are several PMCs working in Sri Lanka, a report by Molfar, a Ukrainian consultancy, said in a catalogue of 37 Russian military companies working abroad. Open source investigators have found links between Russian operators working for the PMCs based in countries like Sri Lanka and the Wagner Group. The network of connections is complex.

In the Middle East

Syria

Wagner Group fighters were first confirmed to be in Syria in late 2015 after a number of them were identified as having been killed by anti-government militias. Russia, a longtime ally of the country’s authoritarian government, had come to the aid of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad earlier that year.

Mercenaries from the Wagner Group fought alongside regular Russian soldiers during Syria’s civil war and saw active combat.

The Syrian conflict is now at a kind of stalemate and since the start of the war in Ukraine, fighters from Russia, including from the Wagner Group, have been pulled out of the Middle Eastern nation. At its peak, the Wagner Group is thought to have had more than 5,000 fighters in Syria.

Libya

In Libya, the Wagner Group has acted as a standalone force supporting one side in the country’s ongoing conflict. Since 2014, after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in a revolution, Libya has effectively been split into two. There are opposing governments located in the east and west of the country.

The UN accused Russian mercenaries in Libya of breaking international law by using mines in civilian areas

The UN accused Russian mercenaries in Libya of breaking international law by using mines in civilian areas© Hazem Turkia/AA/picture alliance

Wagner Group fighters are thought to have been in Libya since 2014 and were tasked with supporting the eastern-based government and its de-facto head, former Libyan warlord Khalifa Hifter with tasks like security and training. In 2019, they openly took part in Hifter’s attack on the western Libyan government based in Tripoli.

It’s unclear how many Wagner Group personnel remain in Libya — previously there were around 2,000 in the country — but it is thought that the group was able to extend its operations into countries like Sudan, from its base in Libya.

In both Libya and Syria, Wagner Group fighters have been accused of torture, indiscriminate killing and other war crimes.

It is also highly likely the Wagner Group has ties to individuals in the United Arab Emirates, the US Department of Defense has previously said. The US government believes that the Wagner Group was being paid by the UAE to support Hifter in Libya.

This story was originally published in German.

Author: Silja Thoms

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