WASHINGTON — Russian mercenaries with combat experience in Syria and Libya are gearing up to take an increasingly active role in a phase of the war in Ukraine that Moscow says is now its top priority: fighting in the east of the country.
The number of mercenaries sent to Ukraine by the Wagner Group, a private force with ties to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is expected to more than triple to at least 1,000 from about 300 a month ago just before the invasion. , a US official said Friday. The official added that the mercenaries would focus on defeating Ukrainian forces in the country’s Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been waging war since 2014, and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.
Sending trusted Russian mercenaries to aid in a crucial part of the Russian invasion underscores the Kremlin’s efforts to regroup and refocus its weakening months-long military campaign that has so far failed to meet Putin’s initial goals, US officials said. and other western officials.
The Russian military indicated on Friday that it could lower its war ambitions and focus on the eastern Donbas region, although military analysts said it remains to be seen whether the move constituted a meaningful shift or a maneuver to divert attention. lead ahead of another offensive.
Wagner is the best known of a series of Russian mercenaries, who have become more formalized over the years and behaved more like Western military contractors.
“The Wagner Group is a private military contractor for Russia,” John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said this week. “We know they are interested in increasing their footprint in Ukraine.”
Wagner’s fighters have gained military experience in conflicts in the Middle East and serve as security advisers to several governments, including in the Central African Republic, Sudan and, most recently, Mali. Though loosely affiliated with the Russian military, they operate remotely, allowing the Kremlin to try to shirk responsibility when the fighters’ behavior comes under scrutiny.
To underscore how seriously Wagner considers his role in the conflict in Ukraine, senior Wagner leaders are expected to engage in the separatist enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk to coordinate efforts on behalf of Russia, the US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential operational reviews.
Wagner is not only moving some of his mercenaries in Libya and Syria to Ukraine, but also artillery, air defense and radar the group used in Libya, the official said. The Russian military supports these transfers by providing military cargo planes to move personnel and equipment.
While Wagner’s numbers are small compared to the more than 150,000 troops Putin gathered on Ukraine’s borders and eventually sent into the country, their presence is an indication that Putin took a page out of his playbook in 2014, when the Kremlin deployed. Russian mercenaries, mostly veterans of the Russian army, to bolster rebel forces in eastern Ukraine.
Earlier this year, Western intelligence agencies discovered that the first small groups of Wagner mercenaries left Libya and Syria and arrived in Russia-controlled Crimea. From there they seeped into rebel areas.
But their first appearance on the battlefield was decidedly inauspicious, as they faced harder-than-expected resistance from Ukrainian soldiers. As many as 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in late February, the US official said.
The original purpose of the mercenaries’ deployment was the subject of debate. Some European and US officials said the mercenaries were in the rebel areas to engage in sabotage and stage false flag operations designed to make it appear that Ukrainian troops were attacking civilian targets.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
But a Ukrainian military official said just before the invasion began that the mercenaries were mainly used to fill the ranks of the separatist forces, to make it appear as if local fighters were leading the attack.
Now the mercenaries are taking on a more direct combat and leadership role in eastern Ukraine, the US official said.
In 2017, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Dmitri Utkin, the founder of the Wagner Group, for his role in recruiting soldiers to join separatist forces in Ukraine. In 2021, a United Nations report found that Wagner mercenaries, based in the Central African Republic, had murdered civilians, looted homes and shot worshippers in a mosque.
Several years earlier, Wagner fighters in Syria teamed up with pro-government Syrian forces to launch a massive artillery fire against American commandos at a redoubt in the desert, apparently in an attempt to capture oil and gas fields that were protecting the Americans. In response, the Americans called in air strikes, killing 200 to 300.
In both cases, the Russian government denied involvement.