Russia-Ukraine: Who are Wagner Group? UK sanctions on Russian mercenaries and links to Putin, explained

After Boris Johnson announced new UK sanctions targeting the Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries, here’s what you need to know about the organisation and its links to Vladimir Putin
Russia-Ukraine: Who are the Wagner Group? UK sanctions on Russian mercenaries and Wagner Group links to Putin, explained (Image credit: Felipe Dana/AP)Russia-Ukraine: Who are the Wagner Group? UK sanctions on Russian mercenaries and Wagner Group links to Putin, explained (Image credit: Felipe Dana/AP)
Russia-Ukraine: Who are the Wagner Group? UK sanctions on Russian mercenaries and Wagner Group links to Putin, explained (Image credit: Felipe Dana/AP)

As the war in Ukraine continues, the UK has revealed that Russian paramilitary group, the Wagner Group, is among the 65 new entities and oligarchs sanctioned for links to Vladimir Putin and attacks on Ukraine.

The sanctions came amid increased international concern over the possibility of chemical weapon attacks by Russian forces in Ukraine, with more than 100,000 people reportedly stranded in the city of Mariupol amid “constant bombing”, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

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The Wagner Group is an organisation of groups and companies said to be involved in Russian operations in Ukraine, with mercenaries associated with the group reportedly sent to Ukraine to assassinate President Zelenskyy.

Here’s what you need to know about the Wagner Group, who they are and the UK sanctions targeting the paramilitary organisation.

Who are the Wagner Group?

According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an American think tank, the Wagner Group is a Russian private military organisation and network of companies, mercenaries and troops known to have played a role in conflicts on Russia’s behalf.

First identified in 2014 during Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the group has featured among Russian military operations as an extended, semi-independent branch of its military.

The mercenary group is believed to have more than 6,000 members, but according to the CSIS and international private law experts, the group is not registered in Russia or any other country – meaning it doesn't appear to exist legally as a single entity.

But it’s existence as a private military company which has previously acted alongside Russian operations in Syria, Sudan and the Central African Republic has been said to allow President Putin extend military actions with an indirect, arms-length approach.

Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close ties to Putin and allegedly runs a major Russian troll farm, is believed to be the owner of the Wagner Group but denies any involvement with the military organisation.

Have the Wagner Group been active in Ukraine?

According to The Times, up to 400 mercenaries associated with the Wagner Group were sent to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to assassinate President Zelenskyy, with possibly thousands more making their way to Ukraine since tensions escalated in January.

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In response to the threat posed by Wagner Group mercenaries to the Ukrainian leader, the government introduced a hard 36 hour curfew in the capital on February 26, warning that anyone who could be seen as a potential threat would be ‘liquidated’ by armed forces.

Ukrainian officials have previously said that mercenaries from the Wagner Group have been active in the Donbas region, and particularly in the Russian-occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Why has the UK sanctioned the Wagner Group?

Boris Johnson hit the paramilitary Wagner Group - seen as Vladimir Putin's private army - in a raft of new sanctions as he urged allies to "step up" support against the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine.

The Prime Minister is using a Nato emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday to commit to a new package, including 6,000 more missiles for Ukraine and pressing to prevent the Russian president using his gold reserves.

Mr Johnson will be joined by world leaders, including US President Joe Biden, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for worldwide demonstrations to mark a month since Russia launched its attack.

Mr Zelensky will remotely address the meeting, which is expected to sign off on the formation of four new battlegroups in eastern Europe, adding thousands more troops.

Speaking to broadcasters after landing in Belgium's capital, Mr Johnson said: "Vladimir Putin is plainly determined to double down on his path of violence and aggression."

Describing Mr Putin's treatment of Ukrainians as "absolutely brutal", he added: "We've got to step up. We've got to increase our support.

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"We've got to tighten the economic vice around Putin, sanctioning more people today, as we are, sanctioning the Wagner Group, looking at what we can do to stop Putin using his gold reserves, and also doing more to help the Ukrainians defend themselves."

The Foreign Office said it was sanctioning 65 more entities and individuals, including Russian billionaire Eugene Shvidler and Galina Danilchenko, who was installed by Moscow as the mayor of occupied Melitopol in south-east Ukraine.

The Wagner Group plans to assassinate Mr Zelensky as his forces continue to put up a far stronger resistance than many anticipated, it has been warned.

Western officials had expected to be supporting a Ukrainian insurgency at this point in the war, rather than the nation's army, which is holding up.

Mr Johnson said: "We're moving, really, from a programme of supporting resistance to supporting the Ukrainian defence of their own country."

Praising him as "one of the most extraordinary war leaders of recent times", Mr Johnson said Mr Zelensky wants tighter sanctions on Mr Putin's regime and "very specific defensive military support" for his armed forces.

"And that, we're determined to provide," Mr Johnson said.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who was travelling with Mr Johnson, said: "These oligarchs, businesses and hired thugs are complicit in the murder of innocent civilians and it is right that they pay the price.

"Putin should be under no illusions - we are united with our allies and will keep tightening the screw on the Russian economy to help ensure he fails in Ukraine. There will be no let-up".

Additional reporting by PA

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