The Mysterious Mercenaries Flooding into Ukraine
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of Wagner Group, takes Vladimir Putin on a tour of his catering factory

The Mysterious Mercenaries Flooding into Ukraine

Lucy Woods

By Lucy Woods

Operating largely in the shadows, the Wagner Group has been dubbed the "Kremlin’s private army." Now in Ukraine, they are emerging from the shadows.

In late February, The Times reported that 400 mercenaries were sent to Kyiv by order of the Kremlin. They are said to be part of the shadowy Wagner Group, a private Russian militia who operate at arms-length from the Kremlin, allowing them to bypass the usual rules of war.

The mercenaries were reportedly flown in from Africa in early 2022. Their activities there included training local warlord’s paramilitary troops in exchange for access to high-net-worth assets such as goldmines.

Their mission: to assassinate the Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and "decapitate" his government. A handsome financial reward awaited them should they be successful.

So here is what we know (or at least we think we know) about the Wagner Group, and what we would like to find out.

Who leads the Wagner Group?

It is somewhat ironic, given President Vladimir Putin’s justification for waging his war is the "denazification" of Ukraine, that the Wagner Group is run by Dmitri Utkin, a former "Spetznaz" (special forces officer) with a "penchant for all things Third Reich."

Mr. Utkin himself sports a prominent tattoo on his chest depicting the Nazi Reichsadler (imperial eagle) badge. Even the name "Wagner" is believed to be a reference to the German composer much admired by Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Utkin was photographed  at a lavish event in December 2016 marking the Day of Heroes, an annual event honoring those who have been awarded state awards such as​​ Heroes of the Soviet Union and the Orders of Glory and St. George. The event was attended by Mr. Putin himself, who addressed the audience. Mr. Utkin was allegedly invited to the event as he holds the Order of Courage, a state decoration that recognizes selfless acts of courage and valor. It appears the Kremlin ties run deep.

The owner of the Wagner Group is none other than billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as "Putin’s chef" after making his fortune in catering and is a close ally of the President. Mr. Prigozhin, who also served time in prison for robbery, fraud, and involving teenagers in crime, is also known to have bankrolled some of Russia’s anti-Ukraine propaganda films including Solntsepyok, a 2021 film depicting a fictional Ukrainian massacre of Russians in 2014.

Ties to the Kremlin

As recently as 2020 Mr. Putin denied that the Wagner Group, who were fighting in Libya at the time, were representing, or had been paid by the state.

But The Times has reported that its fighters are believed to train at a military base in the Krasnodar region, close to where the GRUs 10th Special Operations Brigade is stationed. Some experts believe the group are in fact subordinates to the GRU.

The fighters have also been kitted with highly specialized and expensive equipment, including Mi-24 combat helicopters, fighter jets and anti-aircraft missile systems.

If the mercenaries are being paid directly by the Kremlin, this could implicate the Russian government in possible war crimes. This includes an incident during the Syrian conflict where alleged members of the Wagner Group committed acts of sickening violence and ultimately murdered a Syrian army defector.

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