The White House on Thursday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly turning to Wagner, a Russian mercenary group, for military support 10 months into his invasion of Ukraine.
The White House estimates that Wagner currently has 50,000 personnel deployed to Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts from Russian prisons, according to downgraded information shared by national security spokesman John Kirby.
The owner of Wagner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, and other officials within the company have been recruiting convicts from prisons to fight on the front lines because they are experiencing challenges in recruiting other Russians, Kirby said. Some of those prisoners have “serious medical conditions,” he added.
Additionally, Prigozhin is spending more than $100 million per month to fund Wagner’s operations inside Ukraine, with his private army fighting alongside Russian forces.
“It’s pretty apparent to us that Wagner is emerging as a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries,” Kirby said.
Kirby also said North Korea completed an initial arms delivery to Wagner, and Wagner paid for the equipment. That delivery follows another one last month from North Korea that included infantry rockets and missiles sent to Russia for Wagner to use.
“North Korean officials have said publicly that they would not support Russia’s war in Ukraine — and yet here they are delivering arms to Wagner, in direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Kirby said.
Kirby said that the U.S. plans to raise violations from North Korea with the Security Council.
Also, the Department of Commerce plans to designate Wagner as a military end user to ensure it can’t access equipment anywhere in the world. He said that further sanctions against Wagner would be announced “in the coming weeks.”
Kirby said that Wagner is playing a “major role” in Bakhmut, the city in eastern Ukraine where President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the day before traveling to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. The city has experienced intense Russian shelling for weeks.
About 1,000 Wagner soldiers have been killed in the fighting in Bakhmut, according to Kirby, and 90 percent of them were convicts.
“Wagner is on the ground playing a significant role there, where its ill-equipped and ill-trained forces are, quite frankly, suffering heavy casualties. It seems as though Mr. Prigozhin is willing to just throw Russian bodies into the meat grinder in Bakhmut,” he said.
Kirby said Prigozhin is motivated by a desire for influence and his relationship with Putin.
“For him, it’s all about how good he looks to Mr. Putin, and how well he’s regarded at the Kremlin and in fact, we would go so far as to say that his influence is expanding,” Kirby said. “Wagner’s independence from the Russian defense ministry has only increased and elevated over the course of the 10 months of this war.”
The new intel on Wagner comes a day after Zelensky visited Washington for a historic visit. He delivered a speech to Congress and met at the White House with President Biden, during which Biden vowed to help Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
Source: The Hill