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Examining the Wagner Group, a private military company that Russia has relied on

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The first year of Russia's war in Ukraine revealed a lot about the invaders military. It exposed many Russian shortcomings, from logistics to leadership to training. It also exposed a supposedly private company that has advanced Russian interests around the world. Andras Racz studies the Wagner Group.

ANDRAS RACZ: Even before Ukraine, we had considerable knowledge about how the Wagner Group operates. And their activities in Ukraine has enriched this knowledge considerably. Many of them have been taken to prisoners. There have been sizable amount of signal intelligence received and then publicized about how the Wagner Group functions.

INSKEEP: Racz is a senior fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations, and he studies the Vagner (ph), or Wagner, Group.

RACZ: The Wagner Group is formally a private military company operated by an ex-officer of Russia's intelligence services, Mr. Dmitry Utkin. The first so action and when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time in 2014 - thereafter, Wagner played a key role in Russia's war in Syria. They been active in several African countries, advancing and fostering their Russian state interest, the interest of Russian-state companies and also some Russian oligarchs.

INSKEEP: You said they are formerly a private military contractor. In reality, are they something else?

RACZ: In reality, interestingly enough, the Russian law doesn't allow the existence of private military companies. So Wagner is registered abroad and not as a single entity, but as a complex network of shell companies. Wagner is more a proxy force of the Russian military, very closely connected to Russia's military intelligence. So it's more a foreign intelligence service proxy than a real private company. They played a key role in Venezuela in 2019. When Nicolas Maduro was about to lose his power, basically, Russia saved Maduro's power by sending Wagner Group operatives to Venezuela, which - operatives helped the Venezuelan president stabilized his power.

INSKEEP: Where did they get the expertise to do these things? Were these mostly former Russian military people?

RACZ: Most of them are former military. Many of them come from the Russian police, some of them from the Russian special services, few of them from foreign militaries. There have been Serbian Wagner operatives. That had been a few French among the ranks of the Wagner. But most of them are Russians, and most of them are former Russian military, but not exclusively.

INSKEEP: Were they good at what they did?

RACZ: When it comes to fighting in - let's say, in African theaters or in Ukraine in 2014, so fighting against not-too-well-organized and not-too-well-armed enemies, Wagner performed fairly well. However, since last year, when they have to fight the Ukraine against the well-equipped, well-trained, highly motivated Ukrainian regular army, their performance level, of course, drops a lot.

INSKEEP: What has their mission been in the last year in Ukraine once Russia accelerated its invasion there?

RACZ: In the beginning of the invasion, Wagner operatives were tasked to neutralize Ukrainian president and part of the Ukrainian government. They sent sabotage groups into Kyiv, aiming at taking out President Zelenskyy. They failed in this task. Most of these sabotage groups were destroyed by the Ukrainians. And since summer last year, Wagner has been engaged in high-intensity fighting in the eastern Ukrainian front line, primary around Bakhmut.

INSKEEP: I wondered at the beginning of the war how it was that President Zelenskyy was able to survive. And you're telling me part of the reason was the Wagner Group was not good enough at their job.

RACZ: Ukrainians were better.

INSKEEP: And you said high-intensity fighting. That sounds like a very different thing than a commando raid or some creative operation.

RACZ: It indeed is different. And Wagner has not been performing so well in this high-intensity fighting like they performed in their previous tasks, in other front lines, in other theaters. This is particularly because in order to do high-intensity fighting, Wagner didn't have the necessary numbers. So since last summer, Russia facilitated the Wagner Group recruiting tens of thousands of Russian prison convicts, criminals who were recruited from prisons and being sent to fight in Ukraine. The deal the prisoners received - that after a short time of fighting, they were promised to get an amnesty, so their crimes forgiven, and also some cash.

And by these promises, tens of thousands of them were convinced, lured, persuaded in one way or another to join Wagner. And the end of last year, the rough numbers of the Wagner group - they're, like, 10,000 professional mercenaries, and around 40,000 ex-convicts. Out of this 40,000 ex-convicts, by now 80% of them are either dead or seriously wounded. So these ex-convicts didn't perform well at all in the battlefield.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about another aspect of Wagner's identity. The United States has now labeled it a transnational criminal organization. Do you think it meets that definition in terms of the way that ordinary people would use the words?

RACZ: To a certain extent, certainly, yes. I mean, Wagner Group has been engaged in large-scale systemic human rights violations basically in every theater that they operated. In Ukraine, it's documented that Wagner operatives committed outright war crimes. And Wagner Group and the service the Wagner Group provides has contributed also to large-scale siphoning off of wealth from several African countries, particularly via trading raw materials. So, yes, I think Wagner Group largely fits the definition of a transnational criminal organization. It's indeed transnational, and it's highly criminal.

INSKEEP: Well, this leads to one final question then. You have described this company that became an arm of the Russian state, a way for Russia to project power in Venezuela or Central Africa or Syria, any number of places. Is that Russian tool, global tool now damaged or broken because of its failures in Ukraine?

RACZ: This particular tool is indeed damaged. However, I think that the Russian state will keep needing ambiguity, so the need for ambiguity is not going to disappear. Most probably now that the volunteer groups ambiguity is gone, now that the volcano group is basically uncovered, Russia will probably set up other similar proxy organizations which will fill the void that they leave behind.

INSKEEP: Andras Racz is a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Thanks so much.

RACZ: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.