Russian private military firm Wagner Group has likely been given responsibility for specific sectors of the front line in war-torn eastern Ukraine, in a similar manner to normal army units, according to the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence.
“This is a significant change from the previous employment of the group since 2015, when it typically undertook missions distinct from overt, large-scale regular Russian military activity,” the ministry said on Friday in a regular intelligence bulletin on Twitter.
This new level of integration between the shadowy group and the Russian army “further undermines the Russian authorities’ long-standing policy of denying links between [private military companies (PMCs)] and the Russian state”, it added.
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine – 29 July 2022
Find out more about the UK government's response: https://t.co/CD3LU2jI92
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) July 29, 2022
Britain’s intelligence attributed the change to Moscow’s major shortage of combat infantry, but said it was unlikely that Wagner forces could be sufficient to make a significant difference in the war.
Preparing for annexation
Analysts have observed the Kremlin is increasingly relying on Wagner to maintain its presence in occupied parts of Ukraine and prepare for annexation into Russia.
“The Kremlin has likely been unable to recruit many Ukrainians to enforce occupation laws and combat resistance efforts in occupied territories,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said, adding that private military companies are employed to support “sham annexation plebiscites” and other integration efforts.
The think-tank noted on Monday that geolocated social media footage showed Wagner troops advancing into Novoluhanske, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Russia is also thought to be importing fighters from other areas of operation to fight in Ukraine.
Commander of United States Africa Command General Stephen Townsend said on Wednesday that Wagner had transferred an unspecified number of forces from Libya, where they had been supporting renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) in the country’s civil war.
The European Union last year imposed sanctions on Wagner, as well as on eight individuals and three other energy companies in Syria accused of helping finance the mercenaries in Ukraine, Libya and Syria.
What is the Wagner Group?
According to US and European officials, Wagner is led by Dmitry Utkin, a veteran of the Chechen wars and former head of Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency.
Its management and operations are alleged to be deeply intertwined with the Russian military and intelligence community, despite the Kremlin denying any connection with the state.
“Wagner Group now provides a range of services, including military and paramilitary capabilities, covert media, and political manipulations,” the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in its assessment of the military firm.
Wagner, the best known among several private military companies in Russia, was initially deployed to Ukraine in 2014, where it helped seize the Crimean peninsula, before moving into Syria in 2015.
Since then, it has been known to have intervened in Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali, Mozambique and Sudan.