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How Putin’s Mercenary Army Does the Dirtiest Work in Ukraine

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Human rights groups also took notice of Wagner and accused its personnel of perpetrating war crimes wherever they were deployed. But for Putin’s purposes, the mercenaries were deniable and cost effective.

The Wagner Group does not employ a public affairs officer to elaborate on its missions. Its employees are forbidden from giving interviews. As such, the Kremlin can always issue a boilerplate shrug that it had no knowledge of their presence in a war zone. But most believe that there exists no daylight between Wagner and the Kremlin. John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, says, “The Wagner Group’s operations are designed to provide Moscow with plausible deniability, but the opposite is true. They work closely with the GRU, the SVR foreign espionage service and the FSB, the post-Soviet KGB. They are irrefutable organs of the Russian state. Their deniability is purely implausible.”

Wagner Group illustration
Illustration by The Sporting Press

Wagner puts boots on the ground wherever natural resources and pro-Putin regimes with tenuous security situations need extra tactical muscle. Wagner units fought government forces in Libya. They deployed to the Central African Republic, Sudan and Madagascar. Wagner even has been detected in the Americas, in oil-rich Venezuela, supporting the narco-regime of President Nicolás Maduro. Wherever they are sent, civilians are tortured, raped and murdered. Moscow denies, but in the age of smartphones, hard evidence that Russian nationals are implicated in horrific atrocities is impossible to mask.

So, too, was the only conventional battle that has occurred between Wagner operatives and the U.S. military. On Feb. 7, 2018, approximately 600 Wagner fighters, supported by tanks and artillery, attacked a Syrian Democratic Forces position near Deir Ez-Zor in the eastern stretch of the desert near the Iraqi frontier. The SDF contingent, mainly Kurdish fighters, was bolstered by elements of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, including operators from Delta. AC-130 gunships unleashed airborne fire support from thousands of feet above the desert to assist the Americans and Kurds. What was not obliterated by air was left for the Delta operators to sort out on the ground. More than 300 Wagner Group fighters reportedly were killed in the lopsided battle. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis would tell Congress, “I ordered their annihilation.”

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