With Russian troops rumbling towards Kyiv, little attention is being paid to Vladimir Putin’s “shadow army”, says John Lewis-Stempel in UnHerd: the Wagner Group, a 6,000-strong mercenary force that arranges “military solutions” for the Kremlin. Named after Hitler’s favourite composer by its Nazi-obsessed founder, the group has more than 400 soldiers of fortune in Kyiv right now, with orders to “kill President Zelensky and dismember his government”.
This is not their first rodeo. Since the group’s distinctive skull logo first surfaced in Crimea in 2014, Wagner operatives have been spotted in conflict zones including Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali. Reports of their conduct are “shocking”: in 2017, four Wagnerians mutilated and beheaded a Syrian army deserter with a spade. A fifth mercenary filmed the atrocity. In Libya, the BBC found a Samsung tablet belonging to a Wagner fighter, which showed he had been hiding unmarked landmines in a civilian area – “an unalloyed war crime”.
Subcontracting to Wagner allows the Kremlin “denial of causality” when things go wrong, and avoids the humiliation of admitting troop losses at home. As many as 600 Wagnerians have died fighting in Syria alone, including 200 casualties when Wagner troops attacked an outpost manned by American special forces. They’re also cheap: Wagner “creatively self-finances” by taking a cut of seized booty.