A new U.S. intelligence report suggests that a declassified Russian mercenary group is expanding Wagner’s influence and recruiting prison inmates, including those with serious medical conditions, to supplement Moscow’s military.
The group recently brought weapons from North Korea, a senior US official said, a sign of its growing role in the war in Ukraine.
And the US believes that Wagner may have a power struggle with the Russian army to influence the Kremlin.
John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, said: “In some cases, Russian military officials are actually reporting to Wagner. “It is clear to us that Wagner is emerging as a rival powerhouse to the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”
The Wagner group’s disclosure comes a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a historic visit to Washington, where he thanked the United States for its military aid and said more was needed to deter Russian advances.
Wagner emerged as a key player in the 10-month-long scandal. The group is often described as President Vladimir Putin’s off-the-books military. It has expanded its footprint around the world since its creation in 2014 and has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.
On Wednesday, the US imposed new restrictions on Wagner’s access to technology exports.
According to Kirby, the United States has reported that Wagner has about 50,000 employees inside Ukraine, of which 40,000 may be convicts taken from Russian prisons. According to him, the organization spends 100 million dollars a month to finance its operations in Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the organization, visited Russian prisons and called on those convicted to go to the front and fight. Some of them suffer from “severe medical conditions,” Kirby said.
“Mr. Prigogine seems ready to throw the bodies of the Russians into the meat grinder at Bakhmut. “In fact, about 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in the fighting in recent weeks, and we estimate that 90% of those 1,000 fighters are actually convicts,” Kirby said.
Prigozhin, who is sometimes referred to as “Putin’s cook”, has a close relationship with the Russian president. But Kirby said he is working to strengthen those ties through efforts to bolster Russian forces through mercenary recruitment.
“It’s about how well he looks to Mr. Putin and how well he’s valued in the Kremlin,” he said. “In fact, we would go so far as to say that its influence is expanding.”
Last month, Wagner received a shipment of anti-personnel rockets and missiles from North Korea, Kirby said, an indication of how Russia and its military partners continue to seek Western sanctions and export controls.
Wagner, not the Russian government, paid for the equipment. The US does not believe it will significantly change the dynamics of the battlefield in Ukraine, but has suggested that North Korea may be planning to deliver additional supplies.
Prigogine said Thursday that Kirby’s claims that his group brought weapons from North Korea were “nothing more than hearsay and speculation.”
“Everyone knows that North Korea has been supplying weapons to the Russian Federation for a long time,” Prigozhin said in his Telegram channel. “And there were no other such attempts. Therefore, the delivery of these weapons from the DPRK is nothing more than rumors and speculation.