The Russian Wagner group is gaining global notoriety from Africa to Ukraine, but a schism is brewing at home

The private Wagner mercenary group, which is making headlines around the world, has proven crucial to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, but their achievements have also revealed divisions in Moscow’s war effort.

White House National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby told reporters Friday the US understands tensions are rising between Russia’s defense ministry and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has long had close ties to Putin.

Russia earlier this month claimed victory in the hotly contested battle for the town of Soledar in eastern Ukraine, showing glaring rifts between the Defense Ministry, which credited its troops with the victory, and Putin-leaning Prigozhin, who said the rare achievement was due to them his hired men.

A man lays flowers on the coffin during the funeral of Dmitry Menshikov, a mercenary of Russian private military company Wagner Group who was killed during the military conflict in Ukraine, at the Alley of Heroes at a cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia, March 12, 2017. 24th, 2022.

A man lays flowers on the coffin during the funeral of Dmitry Menshikov, a mercenary of Russian private military company Wagner Group who was killed during the military conflict in Ukraine, at the Alley of Heroes at a cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia, March 12, 2017. 24th, 2022.
(REUTERS/Igor Russak)

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The MoD, which has long distanced itself from the Wagner group, then issued an unusual statement, saying the city had been hit in a “mixed” attempt to snap off Soledar from the north and south.

The direct attack on city blocks “was accomplished through the courageous and selfless actions of the Wagner PMC’s volunteer assault troops,” the ministry added.

“We are seeing signs, including within the intelligence community, that tensions between Wagner and the Russian Defense Ministry are rising,” Kirby told reporters on Friday. “Wagner is becoming a rival center of power for the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”

For years, the Russian government has denied any connection with the private military company (PMC), despite reports ranging from first-hand accounts to UN-level records showing the shadow force was deployed to protect Kremlin-based interests from the To pursue the Middle East and Africa to Ukraine, in particular the interests of Putin.

“Wagner PMC was established as a military branch for hybrid operations outside Russia under the auspices of the FSB [Federal Security Services]’ Wagner expert Oleksander Kovalenko told Fox News Digital in reference to the intelligence agency that replaced the notorious KGB.

Kovalenko, a military chief of the information resistance group in Ukraine, which began countering propaganda after the 2014 Russian invasion, explained that Russia’s use of private military groups is nothing new.

People in military uniform, believed to be soldiers of the Russian mercenary group Wagner and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, pose for a photograph believed to be at a salt mine in Soledar in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.  10th, 2023.

People in military uniform, believed to be soldiers of the Russian mercenary group Wagner and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, pose for a photograph believed to be at a salt mine in Soledar in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. 10th, 2023.
(Press service of “Concord”/Handout via REUTERS)

“It all started in the days of the USSR,” he said, noting power struggles between the KGB and the Ministry of Defense over foreign campaigns.

“Priority for operational activities abroad has always been given to the military and military intelligence – the GRU,” Kovalenko said, noting that the KGB was pushing the GRU for more access and more budget.

“But everything changed with the arrival of Putin.”

Putin, who served as a foreign intelligence officer with the KGB for almost two decades, favored the FSB and allowed it more freedoms than historically allowed.

“With his blessing, the first steps towards establishing a PMC began,” added Kovalenko.

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The first signs of Putin’s mercenary force appeared during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. By 2015, the hired soldiers were fulfilling Putin’s orders in Syria to support his President Bashar al-Assad and achieve goals the Kremlin did not want its military associated with.

It is believed that Wagner is now not only in Ukraine and Syria, but throughout Africa in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Madagascar and possibly operating in Eritrea.

“At first glance, it seems that PMC Wagner’s presence in a certain African country is a business and nothing else,” explained Kovalenko. “In the Central African Republic, for example, it is not just the service of the local dictator and his protection for hard money.

This undated photo, distributed by the French military, shows three Russian mercenaries in northern Mali on the right.

This undated photo, distributed by the French military, shows three Russian mercenaries in northern Mali on the right.
(French Army via AP)

“It’s also control over deposits of precious metals and gemstones,” he added.

Kovalenko said that control over natural resources is just one of Russia’s goals.

“Russia’s goal is to expand its influence on the African continent, take control of local government, and ultimately create a pool of African states loyal to it [Moscow]Kovalenko said, noting that these tactics are carried out through information warfare, electoral interference and the general destabilization of societies.

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While an estimated 10,000 Russian mercenaries are spread across Africa, the Wagner enterprise has grown significantly since Putin invaded Ukraine.

About 50,000 Wagner forces are slated to operate in Ukraine, Kirby confirmed Friday, an achievement only possible because Prigozhin was able to turn to Russia’s penal system after the group suffered massive casualties early in the war.

Of the 50,000 hired soldiers in Ukraine, about 10,000 are professional contractors while 40,000 are convicts, Kirby confirmed.

After this shift in recruitment, Kovalenko explained, the group was split between professional mercenaries with combat experience, who generally work in Africa and the Middle East or train Russian troops in Belarus, and the penal recruits, who he said served as “living flesh,” bodies to fill the front lines.

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Oct. 11, 2022.

A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Oct. 11, 2022.
(AP Photo/Libkos, file)

Kovalenko said an estimated 20,000 Wagner mercenaries were sent to the Bakhmut Axis in Donetsk alone, although he noted the situation remains “fluid” and it is therefore difficult to know how many have been killed or refilled.

Ukraine estimates that Russia has lost over 120,000 troops, although it is unclear if this includes Wagnerian forces as mercenaries, who are not generally counted among military casualties.

Wagner forces and Russian troops do not usually work together. Despite the Defense Ministry’s statement regarding the joint effort to capture Soledar, the Russian government is keeping its distance from the mercenary group.

“PMC Wagner is dangerous because it has contacts with many radical groups around the world,” said Kovalenko, including groups in Donbass. “Wagnerites do not adhere to the Geneva Convention.”

The Wagner expert said that Prigozhin extorts captured Ukrainian soldiers for money and often sends them back “crippled, with horrific physical injuries,” though Fox News Digital has not been able to independently verify these exchanges.

“Therefore, at the official level, no direct connection between PMC Wagner and the Russian government will ever be recognized,” he added. “It makes it easier to ignore the crimes … not just in Ukraine, but around the world.”

This video footage shows soldiers burying bodies near an army base in northern Mali.  The French military says it has videos of Russian mercenaries burying bodies near an army base in northern Mali.

This video footage shows soldiers burying bodies near an army base in northern Mali. The French military says it has videos of Russian mercenaries burying bodies near an army base in northern Mali.
(French Army via AP)

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Despite alleged splits between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Wagner, they share an undeniable Kopacian relationship.

“Therein lies the paradox. Prigozhin mercilessly criticizes and attacks the Russian Defense Ministry, biting the hand that provides him with everything necessary for the war,” Kovalenko said.

“After all, where did PMC Wagner get its tanks, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, helicopters and airplanes, artillery and ammunition in huge quantities?” he asked “Is this FSB Prigozhin? No. All this is provided by the Ministry of Defense.”

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