Three billboards in the Uralic city of Yekaterinburg shed light on what was once one of Russia’s most obscure organizations, private military contractor Wagner.
“Fatherland, Honor, Blood, Bravery. WAGNER,” read one of the posters.
Another, which locals say first appeared on the outskirts of the country’s fourth-largest city in early July, depicts three men in military uniform alongside the words “Wagner2022.org”.
The billboards, which can be seen in several Russian cities, are part of Wagner’s efforts to recruit fighters to join his ranks in Ukraine.
They also testify to the transformation the group has undergone since Moscow launched its invasion more than five months ago, from a covert mercenary organization shrouded in mystery to an increasingly public extension of Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine.
“It looks like they’ve decided not to try to hide their existence anymore. Now everyone knows who they are,” said Denis Korotkov, a former Novaya Gazeta journalist and longtime Wagner watcher.
Wagner was established in 2014 to support pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The United States and others say it is funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a powerful businessman with close ties to Vladimir Putin who is under Western sanctions. Prigozhin denies any connection with the group.
The group has since played a prominent role fighting alongside the Russian military in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and has been spotted in several African countries – places where Russia holds strategic and economic interests. . He has been repeatedly accused of war crimes and human rights violations.
Despite its global reach, much of the group’s inner workings have remained secret from the outside world.
On paper, it doesn’t exist, with no company registration, tax return, or organizational chart to be found. Top Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly denied any connection between Wagner and the state.
Private military companies are officially banned in Russia, and the semi-legal framework within which mercenaries operate also means that family members of deceased Wagner agents have often been silenced when seeking information about their loved ones.
And while Wagner gradually embarked on a public relations campaign, with Prigozhin-linked companies funding propaganda films glorifying the deeds of “military instructors” in Africa, any mention of the group remained largely taboo in the public sphere. Journalists like Korotkov who investigated the group were harassed for their work.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, however, brought the group out of obscurity.
In late March, British intelligence claimed that around 1,000 Wagnerian mercenaries had gone to Ukraine. The group’s role in the war appears to have since increased significantly after Moscow refocused its efforts eastward after its failure to capture the capital, Kyiv.
Wagner is believed to have played a pivotal role in the capture of Popasna in May and Lysychansk in June, two strategically important towns that Russia largely razed to the ground in their capture of the eastern Luhansk region. On Wednesday, British intelligence said Wagner played a role in capturing the giant Vuhlehirsk power plant in eastern Ukraine.
As Wagner’s role in Ukraine grew, his public image also grew in his country.
In May, Wagner received what appeared to be his first recognition in state news when a correspondent alluded to it on a national broadcast, saying the military had its “own orchestra” in Ukraine.
Wagner is often referred to by his followers and members as “the orchestra”, a reference to German composer Richard Wagner. The group’s alleged founder, Dmitry Utkin, has been linked to the far right and is said to have named it after Hitler’s favorite composer.
British intelligence has also suggested that Prigozhin, who was photographed in eastern Ukraine in April, was recently named a Hero of the Russian Federation in recognition of the group’s role in the invasion.
Last week, Wagner received its biggest recognition yet when Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country’s most widely read tabloid, ran a front-page story about the group’s storming of the Vuhlehirsk factory.
Wagner publicly bragged about his involvement in the war with a post on his website stating, “They have already liberated Popasna, join us in liberating all of Donbass!” Go on your first combat campaign with living legends of the industry!
When the Guardian contacted the email address published on Wagner’s website, an individual claiming to represent the group said he had launched his recruitment campaign because “we have seen the support for our business is huge. , and many of them want to join”.
“But nothing changes, there is no Wagner and there never was, it’s just a legend. There are only Robin Hoods who protect the poor who are oppressed by the rich,” the person added in an email exchange characteristic of Wagner’s tongue-in-cheek public stance.
The website has since been taken down by Hostinger, the Lithuania-based internet domain provider that hosted it. A Hostinger representative said they took action when they discovered the site was “cloaking” itself with fake identities, VPNs, and crypto payments.
Wagner also appears to have established regional recruiting centers in more than 20 cities, posting recruiters’ phone numbers on popular social networks linked to the group.
Advertisements say Wagner offers soldiers more than 240,000 rubles (£3,370) a month, several times more than the typical salary of regular soldiers.
The Guardian contacted several of the recruiters whose numbers were listed. Some have used the mercenary band’s symbols as profile pictures on WhatsApp and Telegram, and none have denied their association with Wagner.
Asked about Wagner’s mobilization efforts, a recruiter from the Nizhny Novgorod region in central Russia, who declined to be named, sent a list of documents needed to enlist, which included a passport from any country that “was not NATO or Ukraine” and several medical certificates.
The recruiter also sent a list of items to bring once accepted by Wagner, ranging from shower gel to tourniquets and other medical equipment.
“See you in Molkino,” the post concluded, referring to the town in Russia’s Krasnodar district where Wagner would be headquartered near a major Defense Ministry base.
Military analysts have argued that Russia’s reliance on groups like Wagner shows how the country’s regular army, which has lost up to a third of its combat strength, has struggled to achieve its goals. in Ukraine.
“Wagner’s private military contractors would have played a vital role in the fighting. Indeed, it is fair to wonder whether some Wagner detachments…are in fact more elite and capable than ordinary Russian motorized rifle units,” Michael Kofman and Rob Lee, two leading Russian military specialists, wrote in a recent briefing for the War website. on the rocks.
The war in Ukraine and Russia’s military failures also seem to have accelerated Wagner’s cooperation with the Ministry of Defense. Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner commander, told the Guardian in an earlier interview that his troops worked closely with the Russian Defense Ministry during the fighting in Syria.
This relationship seems to have deepened since the start of the war in Ukraine. According to an investigation by independent media outlet Meduza, the Russian Defense Ministry largely took control of the networks Wagner used to recruit new soldiers.
Korotkov, the Wagner expert, said it was difficult to distinguish between soldiers fighting for Wagner and those in the regular army.
“The Defense Ministry largely co-opted Wagner, and now it looks more like a coordinated group,” Korotkov said, adding that such cooperation made it difficult to estimate the number of Wagnerian soldiers in Ukraine.
And while Wagner’s role in the invasion has made the group mainstream, some say his latest recruitment push threatens to lower its overall military standards.
According to investigative outlet iStories, Wagner resorted to recruiting prisoners and offering high salaries and potential amnesties for six months of service.
“Wagner is lowering its recruitment standards and hiring convicts and formerly blacklisted people, which could impact Russian military effectiveness,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence briefing. last week.
“Even before the conflict, less than 30% of Wagner’s soldiers were true professionals,” said Gabidullin, Wagner’s former commander. “Now the band will be mostly made up of a bunch of amateurs… The circus that is Russia continues.”