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The Wagner Group's Metamorphosis Through the Lens of Putin's Lies

Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. (REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko)

On the evening of June 23, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia's Wagner Group private military company, whose mercenaries have been fighting Ukrainian government forces in Ukraine, announced a "march for justice" aimed at forcing the resignation of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff.

Wagner Group forces crossed over from Ukraine into Russia and, the following morning, took control of southern Russia's largest city, Rostov-on-Don (pop. 1,135,000), including the Russian military headquarters located there. Prigozhin then announced that his forces would march to Moscow.

The "march" ended when, with the Wagner mercenaries just 200 kilometers from the Russian capital, Prigozhin and the Russian authorities reached an agreement under which those mercenaries who wanted to remain members of the private military company could "leave for Belarus."

On June 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted for the first time that his government had allocated hundreds of billions of rubles (several billion U.S. dollars) for the Wagner Group's maintenance:

"…I want everyone to be aware of the fact that all of the funding the Wagner Group received came from the state. It got all its funding from us, from the Defense Ministry, from the state budget.

Between May 2022 and May 2023 alone, the Wagner Group received 86,262 million rubles from the state to pay military salaries and bonuses... Insurance premiums totaled 110,179 million.

…the state covered all of the Wagner Group's funding needs…"

Russian officials had repeatedly denied the Russian government's involvement in financing the group.

During his annual news conference in December 2018, President Vladimir Putin was asked about the Wagner Group's possible involvement in the murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic.

In his response, Putin discussed the legal status of private security companies in Russia but said nothing about the Russian government's ties to Wagner.

Asked by journalists in June 2019 about the Wagner Group's activities in Syria, Putin denied the private company had any connections with the Russian state:

"As for private companies, including private security companies, under the auspices of which the people you mentioned operate there, and they are really present there, this is not the Russian state, and they are not participants in hostilities, unfortunately or fortunately."

During a January 2020 joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin was asked how many Wagner Group mercenaries were in Libya. He again denied any Russian government involvement with Wagner:

"If there are any Russian citizens there, they neither represent the interests of the Russian state, nor receive funding from the Russian state."

During a February 2022 news conference following Russian-French talks, Putin insisted the Russian authorities had nothing to do with the Wagner mercenaries present in Mali:

"I have already made it clear that the Russian state has nothing to do with this (Wagner's presence in Mali). I am saying this quite responsibly without any hidden agenda. Local authorities invite them at the state level, thank them for their work, and so on."

In May 2022, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Wagner forces were taking part in Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He added that the Wagner Group was a private military company with no connection the Russian state:

"I think that the talk about the presence of Wagner in Ukraine is due precisely to the desire to divert attention from what our Western colleagues are doing … Wagner is a private military company that has nothing to do with the Russian state."

In May 2023, Putin congratulated Wagner mercenaries for the capture of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which was almost entirely destroyed by Russian artillery strikes.

In an interview with the CBS News program "Face the Nation," aired on June 25, 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Russia bore full responsibility for the crimes of the state-funded Wagner Group:

"Both Putin and Prigozhin are responsible for committing terrible acts in Ukraine against Ukrainian civilians. But also, in the case of Wagner, in country after country in Africa, wherever Wagner is, death and destruction and exploitation follow."

On June 27, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on four companies and one individual associated with the Wagner Group and Prigozhin, adding to sanctions already imposed by the United States, the European Union, Canada and the United Kingdom:

It said in a statement:

"The Wagner Group exploits insecurity around the world, committing atrocities and criminal acts that threaten the safety, good governance, prosperity, and human rights of nations, as well as exploiting their natural resources."