Russia: John Brennan discusses Putin and the Wagner Group

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Vladimir Putin’s Wagner Group is using “brutal tactics” to boost Russian influence in Africa, a military analyst has warned. Rumours abound about the force of well-paid mercenaries, with some members widely believed to have neo-nazi connections.

It was revealed this week the secretive private army, which is bankrolled by businessman and Putin adviser Yevgeny Prigozhin, is trying to recruit former Afghan special forces soldiers who once fought alongside US troops to fight in Afghanistan.

But as well as being deployed in Ukraine, specifically in the eastern city of Bakhmut, units are also operating in other areas of the world, notably the Central African Republic (CAR).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) subsequently accused them of mass executions, arbitrary detentions, torture, forced displacement of civilians, and attacks on humanitarian workers in the country.

The CAR has been in a state of crisis since 2012, when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels launched a military campaign against former President President François Bozize.

According to the UN, the regime of Mr Bozize’s successor, President Faustin-Archange Touadera, who was elected in 2015, signed a bilateral agreement on military cooperation with Russia in August 2018.

An investigation by Human Rights Watch published in April cited witnesses whom accused forces they identified as Russian of torturing, beating, raping and executing civilians between February 2019 and November 2021.

HRW investigators interviewed a total of 12 people about an ambush which involved armed Russian-speaking men in uniform who beat and summarily executed at least 12 unarmed men on the morning of July 21, 2021, on the road between the towns of Bossangoa and Nana-Bakassa.

Speaking about the Wagner Group’s operations internationally, Ed Arnold, a Research Fellow for European Security at the Royal United Services Institute, told Express.co.uk: “While the origins of Wagner stem from Donbas in Ukraine in 2014, the group has reportedly operated in Syria and Africa, most notably the CAR, Libya, Mozambique and Mali, often using brutal tactics on the ground.

“In Mali, the Wagner deal with the government last year effectively undercut French security provision and hastened the withdrawal of European militaries operating some of the overlapping missions in the Sahel.

“Wagner not only gets paid for these activities, but increases Russian influence in the region and also disrupts Western activities and influence.”

Asked to offer an assessment of a typical Wagner Group operative, Mr Arnold said: “It’s very difficult to identify the ‘average’ Wagner soldier as they have a broad quality threshold.

“At the higher end, they have Russian ex-special forces who are competent and experienced operators.

“However, as the group’s operations have expanded, recruitment has widened to those who failed selection or were kicked out of Russian regular units, and prisoners, diluting their quality and capabilities.”

Assessing their reasons for joining up, he added: “Their motivation is again mixed.

“Many at the core are ideological and there are many right wingers and neo-nazis, including their reported operational commander Dimitry Utkin and Rusich Task Force, in the ranks, or it can be financial incentives and the spoils of war.

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“For prisoners it is freedom. Their overall quality is below NATO standards and there is no equivalent force in NATO or its members.”

The Wagner Group is believed to be bankrolled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a 61-year-old businessman and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Arnold said: “Overall the group seems loyal to Prigozhin, who in turn is loyal to Putin for now, although there have been increasing disagreements on the way the Ukraine war has been prosecuted.

“Their equipment varies and as Wagner has expanded, the overall quality of their equipment has been diminished.

“In Ukraine, for instance, they have been used in a ground assault role, which is different to those of their other operations, such as reconnaissance, sabotage, and assassination.”

The actual number of Wagner troops was “hard to ascertain”, Mr Arnold stressed, partly because large numbers had been killed in Ukraine so far.

He added: “It is unlikely that they number more than 8000 and it has been reported that they have had to redeploy fighters from Africa to backfill losses in Ukraine.”

Tobias Ellwood, the Tory MP for Bournemouth East and the chairman of Parliament’s Defence Committee, said the Wagner Group was “just a clever way of Russia being able to distance itself from some of the more clandestine activity that Russians get up to”.

He explained: “They’re basically Russian mercenaries that can be sent out, and they’re paid well, they are ex-military usually and fight in a very barbaric way – they take no prisoners.

“They normally operate in difficult places such as Mali and elsewhere and allow Russia to be able to bend the rules on the rights and wrongs so they’re not operating under a UN umbrella.

“And if something goes wrong, Russia itself can distance itself from what the Wagner group is doing, because it can just say, ‘well, they went rogue, and that’s that’, and so forth.”

Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton, speaking to Express.co.uk from Washington via video link, said:

“They’re an adjunct to the Russian state they purport to be mercenaries from a private company. But I think they act at the direction of the Kremlin and they have been involved in Libya and other places in Africa and they are still there.

“But I think a substantial member of the total Wagner Group force is now in Ukraine although I don’t know exactly what the numbers are.

“They have they have a reputation for being very tough but I can tell you, it’s in the public record, in 2018 they approached an American position in Syria and they were told, ‘you’re facing off with Americans here, you better stay away’ and they kept coming and we called in air cover and killed between 300 and 400 of them. That’s the last time they’ve come against us.”

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