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The Kremlin’s False Portrayal of Wagner Mercenaries in Ukraine

The FBI search warrant for Evgeny Prigozhin, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, founder of PMC Wagner.
The FBI search warrant for Evgeny Prigozhin, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, founder of PMC Wagner.
RT, Russian state media outlet

RT, Russian state media outlet

“PMC Wagner is bravely defending the interests of the Russian world in the special military operation [in Ukraine], but the Western press calls them nothing other than ‘mercenaries’ and ‘soldiers of fortune.’ ”


On December 1, Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of the Russian state-owned MIA Rossiya Segodnya, published a video report praising the Wagner private military company (PMC) on her social media accounts in Twitter, Telegram and VKontakte.

Simonyan wrote that an RT news crew was the first and only TV team allowed inside Wagner’s training camp “somewhere in south Russia.” She said the “unique report” they produced promised a look inside the secretive world of the “orchestra” – the nickname often used in Russia for PMC Wagner.

Accompanied by dramatic music, the stylized, three-minute video is more like an extended advertisement than a news report. The video begins with RT journalist Anna Knishenko describing Wagner in heroic terms:

“PMC Wagner is bravely defending the interests of the Russian world in the special military operation [in Ukraine], but the Western press calls them nothing other than ‘mercenaries’ and ‘soldiers of fortune.’”

Except the portrayal is false. Not only is Wagner an aggressor in Ukraine (as are other Russian forces), and not a defender, but the company’s record of respect for human rights and the law is abysmal. Wagner is accused of war crimes in Ukraine, Syria and parts of Africa where it’s been a Kremlin tool.

Wagner’s manager and financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a long-time associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has personally recruited thousands of inmates from Russian penal colonies to fight in Ukraine. Many of those inmates had been doing life in prison for manslaughter and violent crimes.

Wagner has been operating inside Ukraine since conflict began in 2014. Since Russia launched its all-out invasion in late February, Wagner has increased the number of mercenaries there and taken on a bigger role in the fighting.

On December 1, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation to designate Wagner a foreign terrorist organization. The two main co-sponsors, U.S. senators Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, and Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, titled the measure the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries, or HARM, act.

In a statement, the two senators said:

“The Wagner Group is a paramilitary organization that employs thousands of mercenaries. It has been widely recognized for its work as a private military for Russian President Vladimir Putin, conducting terrorist operations in Ukraine, Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic that resulted in the massacre of civilians since 2014.

“The Wagner Group has also murdered and threatened journalists, kidnapped children, deployed nerve agents against civilians, committed acts of torture, and engaged in rape and sex trafficking of women and children.”

The United Nations, various governments, rights groups and journalists have gathered evidence of Wagner’s alleged violations of human rights, disregard for the laws of war and economic crimes around the world.

On December 2, the U.S. State Department added Wagner to its list of Entities of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act, based on the group’s actions in Central African Republic. The list also includes terrorist organizations like Islamic State and al-Shabab.

CNN cited a U.S. official as saying that Wagner “engaged in mass killings,” “disproportionally targeted members of religious minority groups,” and in “many instances did not discriminate between armed elements and ordinary civilians in religious minority communities.”

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Prigozhin. In 2018, the U.S. Justice Department indicted Prigozhin, who is also the principal of the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency, a cyber hacking and spying outfit that interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with the aim of aiding Donald Trump.

The European Union also imposed sanctions against Prigozhin and PMC Wagner in 2019 for “breaching a U.N. arms embargo,” and “threatening security, damaging stability, and undermining peace process in Libya.”

Canada sanctioned Prigozhin and members of his family in November for their role in Russia’s war on Ukraine. The United States and U.K. have also sanctioned Wagner and Prigozhin.

All the sanctions haven’t stopped Wagner infest Africa, the U.S. State Department conceded in May:

“Russia’s intensified application of disinformation and the use of the Wagner Group across Africa has spread a trail of lies and human rights abuses. Despite U.S., EU, and UK sanctions and exposure of Prigozhin-linked entities that spread disinformation, these actors continue operating in Africa, exploiting turbulent situations through disinformation to sway public support for the Russian government to expand its influence.”

On December 2, a European investigative journalism collaboration said that Prigozhin has been extensively involved in the Central African Republic “blood diamond” trade with Belgium, using Wagner and a proxy firm called Diamville.

Asked to respond to the evidence, Prigozhin issued a statement sarcastically claiming French President Emmanuel Macron was the actual “frontman” of the operation with the involvement of special NATO “racketeering units.”

Since Wagner’s arrival in war-torn Mali in late 2021, violence and civilian deaths have spiked, analysts say. A recent report by NewsGuard, a U.S. disinformation fighting site, found that TikTok was hosting dozens of videos glorifying violence by Wagner mercenaries, including executions. The videos are used as recruiting tools and evaded TikTok’s content guidelines, NewsGuard said.