Back in 2019, a stomach-churning video went viral. It showed four Russian-speaking men in military fatigues surrounding a man lying on the ground.
They broke his legs with a sledgehammer and then crushed his chest, before cutting off his hands, his head and finally setting his corpse alight. The man was Hamadi Bouta, a deserter from the Syrian army.
His torturers were employees of the notorious Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC) – that is, mercenaries. The same mercenaries who are now said to be tasked with assassinating Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Wagner Group filmed this vicious attack in 2017 in Syria, including the aftermath when they kicked the man’s head around like a football.
Last December, the EU sanctioned the group and three companies and seven individuals connected to it, for what it called ‘serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique’.
But now death squads from the Wagner Group are reported to be back in Ukraine. And Zelensky is said to be number one on their kill list, while his family are number two.
There are reportedly another 23 targets including cabinet members and the mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, alongside his brother Wladimir who are, like Zelensky, leading figures in the fight against Russia. I don’t doubt the truth of these reports.
Wagner are a vicious bunch of thugs who act with impunity. They are not really a PMC but a shadowy, sinister arm of the GRU – Russia’s military intelligence service.
They do Vladimir Putin’s bidding, carrying out dark deeds in which he denies involvement.
The Wagner Group, a private military company (PMC), who are now said to be tasked with assassinating Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky
Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during dinner at Prigozhin’s restaurant outside Moscow in 2011
As an expert in Russian security, I learnt of Wagner soon after it first appeared in 2014 in the Donbas region of Ukraine, which Russia was then trying to destabilise.
Rather than send in regular forces, the Kremlin wanted mercenaries whose actions they could disavow.
Then numbering only a few hundred Russian forces veterans, they were ordered to assassinate separatist leaders who were pro-Russian but not following the Kremlin’s orders. The killings were blamed on Ukrainians.
Wagner’s founder and leader is Dmitry Utkin, a sinister shaven-headed former lieutenant colonel in Spetsnaz – Russia’s special forces. He named it after his Spetsnaz code name.
Hitler’s favourite composer was an ideal nickname for Utkin because, as one Russian newspaper put it, he has ‘an appreciation of the aesthetic of the Third Reich’ – that is, he is a neo-Nazi. Utkin was sanctioned by the EU for ordering Bouta’s killing.
Wagner was operating in Syria in 2015, where the Russians wanted to bolster the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Knowing that sending his troops would be unpopular with the Russian people, Putin ordered Wagner to help crush the Syrian rebels.
Mercenaries are illegal under Russian law so Putin denies using them – implausibly, since Wagner has the use of a Russian army special forces training camp. Putin has even awarded Utkin a medal.
But his men operated to their own agenda in Syria and eventually Russia’s ministry of defence, viewing them as dangerous cowboys, refused to pay them. Putin then turned to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a thuggish oligarch with a criminal past, to run Wagner.
The Russian dictator calls upon Prigozhin whenever he wants something dirty done, such as running the computer ‘troll farms’ that disrupted the 2016 US election by flooding the internet with disinformation.
Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef’, is called upon whenever Putin wants something dirty done, writes Professor Mark Galeotti
Vladimir Putin poses with four alleged Wagner officers at a function at the Kremlin – which denies any involvement with Russian mercenary groups
In recompense, Putin hands Prigozhin lucrative contracts, including the catering contract for the Russian army – hence his nickname ‘Putin’s chef’.
With the president’s backing, Wagner expanded to some 4,000 to 5,000 operatives and began deploying in Africa, where they have been implicated in horrific atrocities –indiscriminately shooting civilians taking shelter in a mosque, executions, torturing civilians and attacking humanitarian organisations.
In 2018, three Russian journalists reporting on Wagner’s activities in the Central African Republic were ambushed and shot in cold blood – a Wagner speciality.
Another Russian journalist investigating the group ‘fell’ to his death from his fifth floor flat.
Wagner’s recruits include many discharged on disciplinary grounds, who won’t hesitate to burn down villages, terrorise civilians or kill women and children as they recently did in Mozambique.
About two months ago, around 500 Wagner operatives left their various postings around Africa ‘on leave’ and headed for Ukraine to undertake ‘false-flag’ operations, such as committing atrocities while wearing stolen Ukrainian uniforms, then blaming them on Ukrainian forces.
They’re also there to assassinate Ukrainian leaders. Utkin himself is reportedly there, commanding the kill squads.
It will be hard for Zelensky to remain both visible to his people and hidden from his enemies.
The Kremlin will have supplied Wagner with cutting-edge military equipment, including tracking devices. They may also have informants in place to tip them off about his whereabouts.
They could use a bomb to blow up his vehicle and the death squad would then emerge from hiding to put a bullet in each person’s head to ensure everyone is dead. Or Zelensky could be shot with a long-range precision sniper rifle.
But Putin won’t want Zelensky to become a martyr. Better to snatch him back to Russia and use him as a bargaining chip, or torture him until he confesses to being a ‘Western pawn’.
Whoever captures Zelensky will be richly rewarded. It may not even be Wagner. Bands of violent Chechen fighters have also been unleashed in Ukraine and are also tasked with going after him.
We must pray that Zelensky continues to evade these men and the terrible fate they plan for him.
- Mark Galeotti is an honorary professor at University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies and author of We Need To Talk About Putin.
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