"Wagner group": Putin’s key player is becoming increasingly brutal – why prosecution is difficult

The brutal mercenary group “Gruppe-Wagner” is considered Putin’s shadow army. Image: IMAGO/SNA


Anne Kathrin Hamilton

The brutal fighters of the Wagner Group are Putin’s ace up his sleeve. They are becoming more important to the Kremlin chief and his war of aggression in the country from day to day Ukraine. Putin has personnel problems in his regular army, which is why he is now increasingly using the mercenary group. This is also reported by the British secret service, referring to the capture of the eastern Ukrainian cities of Popasna and Lyssychansk. Without the use of the “Wagner Group” the Russian troops would have been less effective.

A shocking video that is currently circulating on the Internet shows that the group is probably becoming more and more brutal. It shows how a Mercenaries from the “Group Wagner” cutting off the genitals of a Ukrainian prisoner with a knife. He then places these on the man’s face before being shot. The recording is unverified, but Wagner Troupe fighters are known for atrocities like this one.

They excite the public with their acts of violence, terrify civilians – Methods reminiscent of the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (IS). IS terrorists keep posting videos of beheadings and torture on social media.

Does the “Wagner group” have the character of a terrorist organization and can the mercenaries be convicted for their crimes? Watson spoke to Ulf Laessing about this. He is head of the Sahel regional program in Mali for the CDU-affiliated Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation.

The profit-oriented Wagner company

The crimes of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s shadow army are increasingly coming to light – not least because of their current deployment in Ukraine.

The mercenary unit also operates covertly in Mali, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Sudan. To this day, the Russian private security and military company operates unhindered and with impunity in the world.

But you can at the “Group Wagner” now speak of a terrorist group?

No, says expert Laessing to watson. According to him, the “Wagner Group” is by no means a terrorist organization, but a company that offers mercenaries as a service. “Terrorist groups usually pursue political or religious goals, with Wagner it’s all about making a profit” explains the former foreign correspondent of the news agency Reuters. He has worked in the Middle East, among others, and has devoted himself to issues such as military missions, terrorism and jihadists.

“They are specifically recruited by governments in conflict zones to actively fight […] Whatever the cost, no matter what the cost.”

Ulf Laessing, foundation representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Mali for the Sahel region

As the owner and financier of "Wagner group" The Russian entrepreneur and Putin confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin (also known as "Putin's cook" known).

The owner and financier of the “Wagner Group” is the Russian entrepreneur and Putin confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin (also known as “Putin’s cook”).Image: IMAGO / ITAR-TASS / Mikhail Metzel

According to Laessing, while the Wagner company is part of Russian foreign policy, it operates like a typical one company. Governments, such as in Africa, that “buy” Wagner mercenaries have to pay for them. Laessing explains that this is done by exploiting raw materials such as gold or diamonds or for cash. Wagner mercenaries are repeatedly associated with acts of violence, for example when fighting rebels – according to the expert, the fighters are not pursuing any political goals: They work for anyone who pays them, no matter what the conflict environment.

“The truth always comes out. You can’t cover up massacres of civilians.”

Ulf Laessing, foundation representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Mali for the Sahel region

From soldier to mercenary – kill at any cost

Many of the Wagner mercenaries have formerly served in the Russian Armed Forces, including as special forces. “They are specifically recruited by governments in conflict zones to actively fight, for example to put down rebels. No matter what the cost and regardless of the losses”explains Laessing.

He further elaborates:

“The Wagner fighters in Africa are repeatedly associated with serious human rights violations, for example when mining residential areas in the Libyan capital Tripoli. More than 100 people were killed there by mines. In the Central African Republic, the United Nations and human rights groups also documented many attacks by the Wagner mercenaries on civilians.”

Trail of devastation by Wagner militia

According to Laessing, the activities of the Wagner company and their numerous business relationships are not easy to uncover. The company operates covertly and denies any relationship with the Russian state. To opinion Laessings still applies: “The truth always comes out. You can’t cover up massacres of civilians – word of the attacks is spreading even in remote regions of Africa.”

In the meantime, human rights groups have documented the activities of the Wagner mercenaries in various countries and the company’s business model with the help of eyewitness accounts. “Sure, it takes time, and this is a jigsaw puzzle, but ultimately the trail of Wagner’s devastation always comes to light,” says Laessing. However, the criminal prosecution of Wagner mercenaries is very difficult.

Criminal prosecution of Wagner mercenaries

Laessing gives the following reasons why the mercenary unit cannot be prosecuted for their crimes:

  • Missing witness statements
    It is virtually impossible to get reliable testimony from victims against individual combatants.
  • Hardly distinguishable from soldiers
    Soldiers are mostly protected from criminal prosecution during regular combat operations. The Wagner Group fighters operate covertly as supposedly regular soldiers stationed under bilateral military agreements. They are difficult to distinguish from regular soldiers, especially since they also wear uniforms (without insignia). This often gives them virtual immunity. Even when it comes to human rights violations, the Kremlin could always argue that the mercenaries fought terrorists – and thus legitimize the atrocities.

“The ‘Wagner Group’ does not transact its profits through accounts in the EU, so the impact of such sanctions is limited.”

Ulf Laessing, foundation representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Mali for the Sahel region

The logo of "Wagner group"

The logo of the “Group Wagner”Image: imago images / imago images

Wagner company immune to sanctions

Another way to stop the mercenary unit are sanctions. This is how the West has reacted in the past with these measures to curb the activities of the Wagner Group. According to Laessing, however, this is not an effective means: “The mercenaries mostly operate in countries like Sudan or the Central African Republic, where corruption is rampant and there are hardly any business relationships with Western banks. The ‘Group-Wagner’ does not transact its profits through accounts in the EU, so the impact of such sanctions is limited.”

“Some countries are now even more unstable thanks to the mercenary unit. This is ice-cold profiteering.”

Conflicts and poverty feed the business model of the “Wagner Group”

Laessing demands that Germany and the Western partners are stepping up the offensive against their African allies to outlaw the militia’s crimes. The “Group Wagner” takes care of it force and exploit raw materials without wanting to stabilize the crisis countries in which it operates. “On the contrary, thanks to the mercenary unit, some countries are now even more unstable. This is ice-cold profiteering,” warns Laessing.

After Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Africa, several Western countries like the United States announced plans to visit the continent with high-ranking government officials. According to Laessing, this is the right way to expose Russian propaganda and warn of the dangers of sending mercenaries.

He says:

“Germany should increase its engagement in the region in response to Wagner, especially in the area of ​​development cooperation. Many conflicts in Africa and the Sahel region are driven by poverty and hopelessness of young people who are either joining jihadists or trying to make their way to Europe to get through. Governments invite Wagner mercenaries in order to then solve conflicts militarily. We have to help fight the causes of such conflicts, such as poverty.”

The “Wagner Group” can hardly be prosecuted under criminal law, but according to Laessing, since Germany and the western partners are working on the causes of the conflict, there is an opportunity to take away the business model from the mercenaries.

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