Published: 02:35 BST, 9 April 2023 | Updated: 02:42 BST, 9 April 2023
A trove of classified documents leaked this week have revealed that a Russian mercenary group is operating in Haiti – under the United States’ nose.
The terrifying group went viral in 2022 after a video of members beating a deserter to death with a sledgehammer spread online, has allegedly offered to help Haiti’s embattled government take on violent gangs, the documents detailed.
The Wagner group has already established a foothold for Russia in at least half a dozen African countries in addition to ties in Turkey and Syria.
While the Kremlin’s depleted military capacity was exposed in the intelligence breach, the mercenary group appeared to remain a powerful force.
Officials say it may be impossible to track the original source of the leak because possibly thousands of U.S. government officials have the security clearances needed to access the documents.
A trove of classified documents leaked this week have revealed that a Russian Wagner mercenary group is operating in Haiti – under United States’ nose
Founder of Wagner private mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted that he founded, led and financed the group last year after he denied it for years
For years, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close confidant of Russia’s President Putin, denied any connection to the Wagner Group. But in September, he admitted that he founded, led and financed the group.
He has since been the face of the group, which was had established a reputation for its extreme brutality and ruthlessness.
In November 2022, a video surfaced online that showed a former Wagner contractor Hamadi Bouta, a Syrian army deserter, getting beaten to death with a sledgehammer after he allegedly fled to the Ukrainian side and was recaptured.
The leaked documents claim that Prigozhin created an army of 22,000 of recruited freed Russian convicts in the area of Bakhmut.
The group also entered NATO territory and secretly met with ‘Turkish contacts’ in February, in search of weapons for the fight against Ukraine. It is not clear if they collected any weapons.
Hamadi Bouta was a Syrian deserter who was executed by the Wagner group in 2022
Wagner group has already established a foothold for Russia in half a dozen African countries
But the documents pointed to the West African nation of Mali being an outpost to acquire the weapons from Turkey.
A Wagner employee was cited in the documents as revealing there are more than 1,645 Wagner personnel in Mali.
‘This is a very interesting sign that there’s a degrading of their capabilities,’ Candace Rondeaux, an expert on Wagner who is a senior director at New America, a Washington think tank, told the New York Times.
‘Going further afield certainly suggests impact U.S. and European sanctions are starting to have on degrading the pipeline.’
WHO OWNS THE WAGNER GROUP?
Yevgeny Prigozhin, who received a 12-year prison term in 1981 on charges of robbery and assault, started a restaurant business in St. Petersburg following his release from prison. It was in this capacity that he got to know Putin, who served as the city’s deputy mayor in the 1990s.
Prigozhin, 61, used his ties with Putin to develop a catering business and won lucrative Russian government contracts that earned him the nickname of ‘Putin’s chef.’
He later expanded to other businesses, including media outlets and an infamous ‘troll factory’ that led to his indictment in the U.S. for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Prigozhin denied any link to the Wagner Group before he acknowledged owning the company in September.
Prigozhin is a close confident of Russian President Vladimir Putin
The documents, which included reports from late February to early March, also unearthed probes in several other nations, including South Korea, Iran and the UK
WHERE HAS WAGNER WORKED?
The Wagner Group was first spotted in action in eastern Ukraine soon after a separatist conflict erupted there in April 2014, weeks after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
While backing the separatist insurgency in the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, Russia denied sending its own weapons and troops there despite ample evidence to the contrary. Engaging private contractors in the fighting allowed Moscow to maintain a degree of deniability.
Prigozhin’s company was called Wagner after the nickname of its first commander, Dmitry Utkin, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Russian military’s special forces.
It soon established a reputation for its extreme brutality and ruthlessness.
Along with Ukraine, Wagner personnel deployed to Syria, where Russia supported President Bashar Assad’s government in the country’s civil war. In Libya, they fought alongside forces of Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter.
The group also has operated in the Central African Republic and Mali.
Prigozhin has reportedly used Wagner’s deployment to Syria and African countries to secure lucrative mining contracts.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that the company was using its access to gold and other resources in Africa to fund its operations in Ukraine.
Some Russian media have alleged Wagner’s involvement in the July 2018 killings of three Russian journalists, who were shot dead in the Central African Republic while investigating the group’s activities there. The slayings remain unsolved.
WHAT IS THE GROUP’S REPUTATION?
Western countries and United Nations experts have accused Wagner Group mercenaries of committing numerous human rights abuses throughout Africa, including in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali.
In December 2021, the European Union accused the group of ‘serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings,’ and of carrying out ‘destabilizing activities’ in the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.
Some of the reported incidents stood out in their grisly brutality.
A 2017 video posted online showed a group of armed people, reported to be Wagner contractors, torturing a Syrian man, beating him to death with a sledgehammer and cutting his head before mutilating and then burning his body. Russian authorities ignored requests by the media and rights activists to investigate the killing.
WHAT IS WAGNER’S ROLE IN UKRAINE?
The Wagner Group has taken an increasingly visible role in the war in Ukraine as regular Russian troops suffered heavy attrition and lost control over some previously captured territory in a series of humiliating setbacks.
Prigozhin claimed full credit this month for capturing the Donetsk region salt-mining town of Soledar and accused the Russian Defense Ministry of trying to steal Wagner’s glory. He said Wagner was spearheading the attack on the city of Bakhmut, a nearby Ukrainian stronghold that Russian forces have tried to win for months.
Prigozhin has toured Russian prisons to recruit fighters, promising inmates pardons if they survived a half-year tour of front-line duty with Wagner. He posted a video in which he congratulates the first group of convicts that received official pardons and the right to leave the company.
The U.S. estimates Wagner has about 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 of the convicts the company enlisted.
The U.S. assesses that Wagner is spending about $100 million a month in the fight and has taken delivery of weapons from North Korea, including rockets and missiles.