Three days ago, the Grey Zone Telegram channel released a video, the authenticity of which is in question, featuring Dmitry Yakushchenko being debriefed before being struck with a sledgehammer, although the part of the video where the hammer makes contact with his head was censored. Yakushchenko, who was serving a 19-year sentence for robbery and murder in Crimea, had reportedly defected to Ukraine as the video accused him of doing so. However, the authenticity of the video, as well as another video showing Yakushchenko alive and uninjured, is uncertain. Whether staged or not, the clip is a chilling demonstration of the terror tactics employed by the Wagner group, which is on par with the barbarity of ISIS.
The Wagner Group's continued dissemination of deliberately brutal extrajudicial execution videos and graphic content is normalizing a level of thuggishness and brutality within the domestic Russian information space. The group has institutionalized excessive and performative violence as a necessary tactic of military practice, a pathology that has no place in modern society.
The Wagner Group, a Russian Private Military Company (PMC), which its origins is at the center of a contentious founder dispute between Dmitry Utkin and Yevgeny Prigozhin. Utkin, a former commander of a special forces unit within the GRU, is believed to have been involved in the conflict in Ukraine before leaving the military to establish Wagner. Meanwhile, Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with close ties to the government, is also known as "Putin's Chef" due to his catering business's provision of meals to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking officials.
Wagner first made headlines in 2014 when it was reported to have played a role in Russia's annexation of Crimea by using "little green men" to skirt international law. Since then, the company has been implicated in various conflicts, including the Syrian Civil War, where it provided military support to the government of Bashar al-Assad. The group has also been linked to heavy assaults on the Ukrainian towns of Soledar and Bakhmut, in which it has faced a fierce resistance from the Ukrainian military.
Prigozhin's successful marketing of the Russian way of war to both domestic and international audiences has earned him outsized political influence in Russia. After years of operating in the shadows, the acknowledged leader of the Wagner Group is now making regular appearances on camera and in the headlines. Whether or not the group succeeds in its endeavors on the Ukrainian battlefield, it has already proven to be a powerful instrument in the Kremlin's efforts to rally the Russian public and capture the attention of Russia's rivals.
Candace Rondeau, director of Future Frontlines at New America, has led a five-year intensive research effort exploring data from across Arizona State University, including the Center on the Future of War, the Data Mining and Machine Learning Lab, the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies, and the School for Complex Adaptive Systems. The findings indicate that the Wagner Group was intentionally designed as a diversionary force from its inception, with its primary strategic mission being to misdirect attention. Its secondary tactical purpose is force mobilization, together with diverting funds away from Russia's state coffers, in light of the intensified sanctions imposed by the US and its Western allies.
The Wagner Group is a key instrument in Russia's new generation warfare, (cf. Gibridnaya Voyna or гибридная война and hybrid warfare) energizing the country's ultranationalist base and masking the stealth mobilization of thousands of irregular contract soldiers around the world. This highlights the group's significance as a major player in the ongoing geopolitical landscape.
More Brutality and Ascending Political Influence
The (staged?) execution of Yakushchenko by sledgehammer is not the first time such brutality has been attributed to the controversial Russian private military company. In November of last year, an ISIS-style video surfaced, featuring a man named Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was shown with his head tied to a block of cement. Nuzhin was a former prisoner who had been recruited into the Wagner Group and, after being captured in Ukraine in September, had decided to "fight against the Russians." He later escaped briefly before being abducted in Kyiv in October and traded back to Moscow in a prisoner swap with Kyiv. Apart of such brutality, the Wagner Group is well-known for its war crime and serious human rights violations, such as sexual violence, rape, and mass killings.
The European Parliament responded to news of the on-camera execution by passing a resolution urging the EU Council and also the US to designate the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization. In response, Prigozhin circulated a video of one of his company representatives delivering a bloodied sledgehammer to the EU parliament.
In the same month, the Wagner Group announced the grand opening of its new headquarters in a massive skyscraper in central St. Petersburg, sparking speculation that Prigozhin might be angling for a political appointment. These developments underscore the controversial nature of the Wagner Group and its role in Russia's geopolitical ambitions.
Recently, a report has emerged on the uneasy relations between Putin and Prigozhin. The Kremlin has attempted to keep a low profile on the actions of the Wagner Group by signaling some military bloggers not to discuss the group, and to attribute the success of operations more to the military. This has sparked anger among pro-war Russian audiences. Dozens of powerful and influential pro-Russian Telegram channels covering the conflict, including four Wagner-associated channels, have some of the clearest ties to the Wagner Group, such as RSOTM, the Grey Zone, Topaz Speaks, and Task Force Rusich.
According to reports, the Wagner Group and other Russian PMCs have registered both domestically and internationally, including in Cyprus and Hong Kong. These companies are often dissolved and reconstituted under new management and names, often to obscure their true ownership.
There are numerous PMCs operating in various countries around the world. These firms are sometimes referred to as private security companies (PSCs) or private military and security companies (PMSCs). While the majority of PMSCs are based in the United States, many operate internationally and provide services to a wide range of clients, including governments, non-governmental organizations, and private corporations. In addition to the Wagner Group, there are several well-known PMSCs, such as Blackwater (renamed as Academi in 2011, now merged with Triple Canopy, a subsidiary of Constellis Group since 2014,) G4S, Aegis Defense Services, Olive Group, and Unity Resources Group. It is worth noting that the use of PMSCs has been controversial, with concerns raised about their accountability, transparency, and impact on conflict dynamics.
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