Shadowy operators: Russia’s mercenaries at war in Ukraine

The Wagner Group were already known for their brutal tactics but Nuzhin’s murder has intensified international scrutiny of the mercenary fighters, as has the fact that the group has become increasingly important to the Russian war effort in Ukraine.
Shadowy operators: Russia’s mercenaries at war in Ukraine

A former commander with the Russian mercenary outfit known as the Wagner Group has claimed asylum in Norway after deserting the controversial organization. Andrey Medvedev, 26, was arrested by border guards after entering Norway near the Pasvikdalen valley. The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration confirmed that Medvedev sought shelter in the country but declined to comment further.

Medvedev is not the only member of the Wagner Group to defect. In September, Yevgeny Nuzhin, a former convicted murderer who had joined the group as a mercenary, surrendered to Ukraine. He gave a series of interviews, criticizing Russian leadership and revealing the dire conditions on the front lines that led him to defect. After being exchanged as a prisoner of war, a horrifying video appeared on the Telegram messenger service showing Nuzhin being executed with a sledgehammer.

The Wagner Group were already known for their brutal tactics but Nuzhin’s murder has intensified international scrutiny of the mercenary fighters, as has the fact that the group has become increasingly important to the Russian war effort in Ukraine.

Where did the Group come from?

The Wagner Group has come under the spotlight for its role in the war in Ukraine. The group was founded in 2014 and one of its first known missions was in Crimea, Ukraine, that same year, where mercenaries in unmarked uniforms helped Russian-backed separatist forces take over the area.

After Russia’s official invasion of Ukraine last spring, Moscow initially used the mercenaries to reinforce frontline forces but has since come to increasingly rely on them in critical battles, such as those around the cities of Bakhmut and Soledar.

The company, its owner and most of its commanders have been sanctioned by the US, UK and EU. The Wagner private military company existed long before the war in Ukraine broke out and was made up of a few thousand mercenaries. Most of these were believed to be highly trained former elite soldiers. But as Russia’s losses in the Ukraine war began to mount, the company’s owner, Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, began to expand the group, recruiting Russian prisoners and civilians, as well as foreigners.

In a video circulating online from September 2022, Prigozhin is seen in a Russian prison courtyard addressing a crowd of convicts, promising that if they served in Ukraine for six months, their sentences would be commuted. The Wagner Group is now estimated to have as many as 20,000 soldiers fighting in Ukraine. 

Despite its increased presence in the war, the Wagner Group’s effectiveness is not clear, with analysts suggesting the group suffers a large number of casualties without making significant advances.

Operating in a legal gray zone

The establishment of private military companies is illegal according to the Russian constitution, which states that the responsibility for security and defense lies solely with the state. Russia’s Criminal Code prohibits citizens from serving as mercenaries but state-run companies are allowed to have private armed security forces. Such loopholes in Russian law allow the Wagner Group to operate in a semi-legal gray zone.

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