The US believes the Wagner mercenary group is expanding its influence and has taken over North Korean arms deliveries
A recent US intelligence downgrade suggests the Russian mercenary group Wagner took on an expanded influence and recruited convicts – including some with serious medical conditions – from prisonso supplement Moscow’s weakening army.
The group recently received a shipment of weapons from North Korea, a senior U.S. official said, a sign of its growing role in the war in Ukraine.
And the US believes Wagner could be embroiled in a power struggle with the Russian military itself as it jockeys for influence with the Kremlin.
“In some cases, Russian military officials are actually subordinate to Wagner’s command,” said John Kirby, coordinator of strategic communications at the National Security Council. “It’s pretty obvious to us that Wagner is emerging as a rival powerhouse for the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”
The revelations about the Wagner group came a day later The historic visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Washington, where he thanked the United States for their military aid and said more was needed to repel the Russian advance.
Wagner has emerged as a key player in the 10-month conflict. The group is often described as the unspoken troops of President Vladimir Putin. It has expanded its footprint globally since it was founded 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.
Kirby said the U.S. estimates Wagner currently has about 50,000 personnel in Ukraine, of which 40,000 may be convicts recruited from Russian prisons. He said the group spends $100 million a month to finance its operations in Ukraine.
The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, even personally traveled to Russian prisons to recruit convicts himself to go to the front lines and fight. Some of them suffer from “serious medical conditions,” Kirby said.
“It seems that Mr. Prigozhin is ready to just throw Russian bodies into the meat grinder in Bakhmut. In fact, about 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in action in recent weeks alone, and we believe that 90 percent of those 1,000 fighters have actually been convicted,” Kirby said.
Prigozhin, who is sometimes called “Putin’s chef,” already has close ties to the Russian president. But Kirby suggested he was working to strengthen those ties through his efforts to bolster Russian forces through the recruitment of mercenaries.
“It’s all a matter of how well he looks to Mr Putin and how well he is viewed 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 ways around Western sanctions and export controls.
Wagner, not the Russian government, paid for the equipment. The US does not believe this will significantly change the dynamics of the battlefield in Ukraine, but suggests that North Korea may be planning to deliver additional materials.
Prigogine said Thursday that Kirby’s claims that his group had taken arms shipments from North Korea were “nothing more than gossip and speculation.”
“Everyone knows that for a long time North Korea has not supplied weapons to the Russian Federation,” Prigozhin said in a statement posted on his Telegram channel. “And no other such attempts have even been made. Therefore, these arms deliveries from the DPRK are nothing more than gossip and speculation.
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