The leader of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died in a plane crash on August 23 in western Russia. Previously, Prigozhin led a failed mutiny against Russia’s military leaders, prompting a move to Belarus with hundreds of Wagner fighters. Wagner, founded in 2014, is a significant force with up to 25,000 fighters and has operated in various countries, including Ukraine, Syria, Mali, and Sudan. The group’s activities and intentions after Prigozhin’s death remain uncertain.
- Formation and Size of Wagner: Prigozhin established Wagner in 2014. Initially formed from Russia’s elite regiments and special forces, the group grew to 25,000 fighters, including prisoners from Russian jails who were recruited to fight in exchange for pardons.
- Operations in Ukraine: Wagner played a pivotal role in the capture of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine for Russia in May 2023. Discontent arose from undersupplying Wagner’s troops, leading to a mutiny involving 5,000 fighters with intentions to oust Russian military leaders.
- Activities in Belarus and Africa: Estimates suggest 3,500 to 5,000 Wagner mercenaries are in Belarus, training territorial forces. In Africa, Wagner has been active in Mali, the Central African Republic, and Sudan, engaging in combat, protection, training, and even profit-making ventures like gold mining.
- Controversies and Allegations: Wagner fighters have faced accusations of committing severe crimes, including the killing and torture of civilians in Ukraine and planting landmines in Libya. In 2023, the UK imposed sanctions on Wagner’s African operations due to alleged human rights violations.
- Plane Crash Details: The plane crash that killed Prigozhin and nine others, including Wagner’s first field commander Dmitry Utkin, is under investigation. UK defense sources suspect involvement from Russia’s FSB intelligence agency.