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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Pjotr Sauer

How Russia is recruiting Wagner fighters to continue war in Ukraine

Yevgeny Prigozhin  surrounded by Wagner fighters holding Russian flag.
Yevgeny Prigozhin giving a video message in May surrounded by Wagner fighters. Photograph: Telegram @concordgroup_official/AFP/Getty

The Kremlin is moving to absorb former Wagner soldiers into Russia’s military structures as it seeks to take control of battle-tested fighters for its war in Ukraine more than two months after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary group’s founder.

Wagner halted recruitment in the chaotic months after Prigozhin’s failed march on Moscow in June as the Russian military leadership dismantled the group’s military base in the south of Russia and forced it to hand over thousands of tonnes of weaponry.

The faith of the Wagner group and its thousands of members, including many experienced and skilled soldiers, was thrown further into turmoil by the mysterious death of Prigozhin, whose private jet crashed north-west of Moscow, killing everyone on board, including two other top Wagner lieutenants.

Since Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny, which presented the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s 23-year rule, the Russian leader has walked a tightrope. Putin has cast the Wagner chief as a traitor but struck a much milder tone with regular Wagner soldiers, urging them to sign contracts with the military and swear an oath of allegiance to Russia.

A man visits the grave of Yevgeny Prigozhin in St Petersburg, Russia, with roses on top.
A man visits the grave of Yevgeny Prigozhin in St Petersburg, Russia. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty

Weeks after Prigozhin’s death, Putin met Andrei Troshev, a former senior Wagner commander, to discuss how its fighting force could be used in Ukraine. After the meeting, the Kremlin said that Troshev had signed a contract with the defence ministry.

But the regular army is only one of many pathways open to former Wagner soldiers, with Russia’s national guard, known as Rosgvardia, and several state-linked private military groups also poaching Wagner veterans.

The Guardian found that Rosgvardia, a militarised force separate from the army that answers directly to Putin, started to recruit Wagner fighters earlier this month for deployment in Ukraine. Using a Russian phone number, the Guardian called several former Wagner recruitment centres saying, if asked, they were inquiring about recruitment possibilities.

“We are urgently looking for new people this month. You will fight as Wagner but the contracts will be signed with Rosgvardia,” said Andrei Bulgakov, a veteran Wagner soldier who led the group’s office in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

Bulgakov said the Wagner formation at Rosgvardia would be commanded by Prigozhin’s son Pavel, who is little known. “Pavel Yevgenyevich is now in charge,” Bulgakov said, using Pavel’s patronymic as a sign of respect.

Wagner recruiters in Moscow and Volgograd gave similar details about Pavel’s role in the Rosgvardia recruitment process. Not much is known about Pavel Prigozhin, 25, who once featured, along with his sister, Polina, in a 2004 children’s book written by the future warlord.

Russia’s national guard, known as Rosgvardia (pictured)
Russia’s national guard, known as Rosgvardia (pictured), are poaching Wagner veterans as well as several state-linked private military groups. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

The US last year placed Pavel under sanctions for playing “various roles in Prigozhin’s business enterprise”, adding that he controlled at least three companies in St Petersburg.

According to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s social media posts, Pavel fought with Wagner in Syria and was awarded Wagner’s “black cross”, its own award for military service. Shortly after Prigozhin’s death, Telegram channels close to Wagner published what they said was the late warlord’s will, which left most of his estate to his son.

But Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner commander and assistant to Yevgeny Prigozhin, described Pavel as a “symbolic figurehead” who did not have the autonomy his father had enjoyed.

Gabidullin said: “In all my meetings with Priogzhin, I never saw Pavel present, he was not being groomed for succession. To me it is clear that the authorities are using Pavel’s last name to attract fighters. He does not have the authority to lead anything independent.”

People pay tribute to Yevgeny Prigozhin Wagner Centre in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
People pay tribute to Yevgeny Prigozhin in front of the Wagner Centre in St Petersburg in August. Photograph: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty

Denis Korotkov, a leading Russian expert on the Wagner group, also questioned whether Pavel would be able to retain some of his father’s multimillion assets at home and abroad. Much of Prigozhin’s catering empire, which provided meals to schools and the military across Russia, was “completely dependent on state orders”, he said.

He added: “[Yevgeny] Prigozhin was allowed to grow rich under Putin’s direct blessing. But that changed the moment Prigozhin marched on Moscow.”

According to Cheka-OGPU, a Telegram channel known for leaks from Russian security services, Russia’s defence ministry is negotiating the handover of Wagner’s assets in Syria and Africa with Pavel Prigozhin, in exchange for resolving Wagner’s debts and issuing veterans’ certificates to Wagner fighters.

Splitting up Wagner

The exact number of former Wagner soldiers is not clear. Korotkov estimates that at the time of the mutiny, Prigozhin controlled about 3,000 experienced Wagner soldiers who had joined before the war in Ukraine, and up to 25,000 fighters who had signed up with Wagner after the invasion, many of whom were former convicts.

Korotkov said: “The state will now be looking to recruit these fighters by appropriating the Wagner brand. But behind the banner, there is no organised structure any more. Wagner as an independent entity ceased to exist after Prioghzin’s death.

“No senior Wagner commander will ever be allowed to lead a brigade again after the mutiny,” he said.

Gabidullin similarly said: “Wagner was being chopped to prevent it from being the unified force it once was.”

Some Wagner fighters, who have been wary about signing contracts with the regular army given its past hostility with Prigozhin, have instead chosen to join other mercenary groups with close ties to Russian security forces and pro-Kremlin oligarchs.

The biggest among them is Redut, a private military company that has operated in the Middle East, Ukraine and most recently in Africa. Redut was founded in 2008 by Russian paratroopers close to Russia’s intelligence services, according to a former defence official with direct knowledge.

Redut is under the direct supervision of the defence ministry, according to a former fighter with the group, speaking on conditions of anonymity. The former Redut fighter, and a separate anonymous testimony in the British parliament, have said that Redut was financed by the Kremlin-connected billionaire Gennady Timchenko.

After Prigozhin’s rebellion, Redut started to openly recruit Wagner fighters eager to go to Africa. “Wagner is in the past. If you are really interested in real work in Africa, then the ministry of defence and the Redut PMC are your choice!” said one advertisement posted on the Russian social media network VKontakte on 18 August.

Leading the operation to replace Wagner in Africa, the former defence official said, is the veteran deputy defence minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov.

In a rare trip, Yevkurov toured Libya, Mali and Central African Republic, three African countries where Wagner has been most active, after Prigozhin’s death. Rybar, a popular Kremlin-affiliated military blogger, said Yevkurov’s tour was part of a coordinated effort to replace Wagner.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader
Several former Wagner troops appear to have signed contracts with Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, who openly feuded with Prigozhin before his death. Photograph: Chingis Kondarov/Reuters

In an unlikely twist, at least several former Wagner troops appeared to have signed contracts with Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader and rival warlord who openly feuded with Prigozhin before his death. Kadyrov claimed in a message on Telegram this week that a big group of former Wagner fighters were undergoing intensive training with his own Akhmat special forces.

Kadyrov said: “I am glad that today the ranks of the famous [Akhmat] unit have been joined by fighters who have excellent combat experience and have proven themselves as brave and efficient warriors.”

Ukraine appears to be unfazed by the return of some Wagner fighters to the battlefield. “Today, there are only former militants of the terrorist group who have scattered in all directions,” the Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said on X, formerly Twitter.

Serhiy Cherevatyi, Ukraine’s spokesperson for the eastern military command, said that Wagner no longer “constitutes any integral, systematic, organised force. As they say – game over.”

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