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In Ukraine, a Russian mercenary group steps out of the shadows

A mural seen on March 30 in Belgrade, Serbia, praises Russia’s Wagner Group. The notorious mercenary fighters are now a key part of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. (Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

For years, the Wagner private military company has done Moscow’s dirty work in eastern Ukraine, Libya, Syria and parts of Africa. The Kremlin always officially denied any relationship with Wagner, whose soldiers for hire have been accused of massacres and other human rights violations.

But now, Wagner and its mercenaries have suddenly emerged from the shadows in the Ukraine war, openly celebrated on Russian state media and lauded as heroes of President Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion. A recent special report on the most-watched state TV channel trumpeted the group’s gains on the Ukrainian front lines — an unthinkable acknowledgment of Wagner even just a few months ago.

Pro-Kremlin reporters lionize the members of the group, named for the right-wing German classical composer Richard Wagner, as “musicians” in an “orchestra.” And Wagner is using glitzy advertising across Russia to sign up new members. Its efforts include recruitment campaigns in prisons.

“This site was liberated by the specialists from Wagner PMC, the famed ‘musicians’ of the famed ‘orchestra,’ ” war correspondent Evgeny Poddubny said as he toured the Vuhlehirska power station in the Donetsk region, for the Rossiya 1 channel. Poddubny was accompanied by a masked mercenary wearing a helmet emblazoned with a skull and two crossed swords.

“If before everyone pretended such people don’t exist in general … now everything is different,” wrote the administrator of Special Task Channel, a popular pro-Kremlin Telegram blog. “It is not some vague volunteers or the general armed forces that are pushing ahead against the Ukrainian military. It’s Wagner doing it.”

The new public embrace of Wagner in many ways is the result of missteps and miscalculations by Russia’s senior political and military leaders, who wrongly expected that the country’s traditional armed forces would quickly conquer Ukraine. Those leaders also became wedded to the false narrative of a “special military operation” rather than acknowledging that Russia was at war.

The paramilitary group was not seen fighting in Ukraine in the early days of the campaign. But Russia’s invading forces were quickly stymied in their initial attempt to seize Kyiv and topple the Ukrainian government. The far heavier-than-expected losses of personnel and equipment quickly prompted the military leadership to seek the help of Wagner mercenaries hardened by years of surreptitious fighting in Donbas and Syria and in other far-flung locations.

Russian military leaders apparently believed they could win in Ukraine without Wagner’s help, an anonymous author of the Telegram channel Reverse Side of the Medal, which is popular with mercenaries, said in a YouTube interview. “But when serious trench wars began, they appealed to the one who shall not be named,” said the author, who claims to be a Wagner member.

Latest updates from the Ukraine war

A recent investigation by the Russian-language media outlet Meduza concluded that Wagner’s entry into the war was delayed by a falling-out between the group’s reputed financial backer, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, as well as other members of the Kremlin elite. Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s chef” because he made a fortune from government catering contracts, and is under U.S. and E.U. sanctions, has long denied any connection to Wagner.

Officially, the Kremlin also still denies any links between Wagner and the government. But Wagner’s operations in Ukraine are widely believed to be tightly coordinated with the Russian Defense Ministry.

The group is led by Dmitry Utkin, a 52-year-old former special forces officer and lieutenant colonel in the GRU, the foreign intelligence agency of the Russian military. Utkin, who is said to use “Wagner” as his personal call sign, was spotted at a Kremlin function in 2016 posing for a photo with other members of the mercenary group and Putin.

Vladimir Osechkin, the head of the Gulagu.Net human rights group, which tracks recruitment efforts among Russian prisoners, said Wagner and other private military contractors are effectively controlled by Russian defense and intelligence agencies. “They are sponsored by oligarchs like Prigozhin, who get lucrative state contracts with hiked-up prices and [are] told to spend this bonus revenue on mercenary funding,” he said.

Mercenaries have been spotted fighting alongside regular and separatist forces after the Russian military retreated from its attempt to take Kyiv and refocused the campaign on Ukraine’s eastern regions. Wagner also reportedly operates fighter jets. Members of the group have received Russian state awards for their service in various countries. Ukraine considers them criminals: The security service has charged three alleged Wagner fighters with murdering civilians near Kyiv.

Kanamat Botashev, a 63-year-old retired major general, was killed flying a warplane in Ukraine at the end of May, becoming the highest-ranking Russian pilot whose death has been publicly confirmed. The Ukrainian military’s general staff said that an SU-25 fighter jet that Botashev was flying was shot down over Popasna in the Luhansk region and that Botashev did not have time to eject.

Russian officials have not explained how a retired general who was dismissed from the military in 2013 after crashing an SU-27 fighter, which he did not have permission to fly, ended up in the skies over Ukraine.

But a few days after his death, Wagner-linked online groups began praising Botashev “as part of the Wagner’s aviation unit” in Ukraine. Footage from Botashev’s burial ceremony showed regional Russian officials holding a Hero of the Russian Federation award signed by President Vladimir Putin as well as a wreath adorned with a message: “To the Hero, the Man, the Fighter from Wagner PMC.”

The battle of Popasna, in which Botashev died, is believed to be one of Wagner’s first major successes in the Ukraine war and earned the group its first vague mention for a mainstream audience of millions of Russian television viewers.

“This front line boasts its own military ‘orchestra,’ one that is always deployed where it’s very hot but is never talked about,” state TV correspondent Sergey Zenin said in May, omitting the group’s name. Zenin also reported that several other special forces groups were based around Popasna and “controlled by one command” in the Defense Ministry.

A crucial roadway junction, Popasna became the site of a prolonged and bitter battle that started in mid-March and lasted for 1½ months. Throughout April, the Russian military’s advances stalled until reinforcements from Wagner helped achieve a breakthrough and, subsequently, the capture of the city in early May.

Last week, pro-Kremlin war correspondents reported that Wagner had established its headquarters in Popasna. Ukrainian officials said the base was struck Sunday by Ukrainian forces after correspondent Sergei Sreda posted photos on Telegram purportedly showing Prigozhin touring the area. Analysts said the photos had apparently allowed Ukrainian forces to geolocate and target the base.

In June, Wagner aided Russian forces in Lysychansk, which fell to the Russian invaders on July 3, enabling Moscow to proclaim the “liberation” of the entire Luhansk region.

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According to an assessment by the British Defense Ministry, Wagner suffered heavy losses near Popasna and Lysychansk.

Despite the casualties, or perhaps because of them, Wagner’s successes in the Luhansk area have been a turning point for the group’s leadership. In June, Prigozhin was granted a Hero of the Russian Federation medal, which the Kremlin hinted was done by secret presidential decree. And, suddenly, a path seemed to open up for Wagner’s more extensive involvement in the Ukraine war and for open discussion about the organization on state-controlled media.

The group is now actively and openly soliciting new fighters from across Russia through street banners and recruiters in at least 27 of the country’s 85 regions, according to a tally by The Washington Post.

“Do you want to spend an unforgettable summer with new friends and get profit? Travel company ‘Wagner Group’ offers tours in Europe, Africa and the Middle East,” proclaims one ad on Vkontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook.

A list of requirements sent to The Post by one of the recruiters said Wagner is seeking men ages 24 to 50, citizens of any country “except E.U., NATO and Ukraine” and free of diseases such as hepatitis. Convicts are welcome to apply unless they have been charged with terrorism, rape or drug smuggling.

Prospective fighters are in for “an at least four months-long” assignment, with monthly compensation of about $4,000. Recruits are trained at a camp in Molkino in the Krasnodar region, near a regular military base.

Despite Wagner’s links to the military, much of the group’s recruitment effort online relies on mockery of the bureaucracy and the poor planning by the regular forces, as well as sleek propaganda videos depicting the glory of previous battles in the Middle East. That effectively puts the mercenary group in direct competition with the Russian armed forces, which have struggled with volunteer recruitment.

Memes posted on mercenary community pages have ridiculed the reported delays in salary payments to regular Russian soldiers, while bloggers savagely criticize the Russian military’s botched attacks in February in the north and east of Ukraine.

Some find Wagner’s pitch appealing and sign up, even though mercenary service is outlawed in Russia and there are no legal protections to guarantee the promises made by a company that doesn’t exist on paper.

In recent weeks, Wagner’s recruitment effort has reached Russian prisons, Osechkin said. Inmates told Gulagu.Net that Prigozhin made a personal appearance in a number of penal colonies and offered convicts a presidential pardon if they were willing to fight in Ukraine.

A local news outlet in Yaroslavl quoted an inmate of the city’s correctional facility No. 2 as saying that Prigozhin was especially interested in recruiting “those convicted of premeditated murder and robbery.”

The mass enlistment of unprofessional soldiers who receive only about two weeks of training before they are thrown into battle has raised questions about the Wagner Group’s long-term capabilities in the Ukraine war and its overall standing.

“This will highly likely impact on the future operational effectiveness of the group and will reduce its value as a prop to the regular Russian forces,” the British Defense Ministry wrote in an assessment last month. “This, at a time when a number of very senior Russian military commanders are being replaced, is likely to exacerbate grievances between the military and Wagner. It is also likely to impact negatively on Russian military morale.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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