Russia’s shadowy mercenary collective, the Wagner Group, continues to expand to “up to 50,000” fighters in Ukraine, amid reports that the organization’s main financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is becoming “increasingly bold” in his criticism of the Russian military—posing a problem for Vladimir Putin.
The private mercenaries have been heavily involved in the fighting in Ukraine, and have claimed credit for the recent fall of Soledar, a strategic town in the Donetsk region, nine kilometers north of Bakhmut. Prigozhin, a billionaire oligarch who has been a long-time ally of Putin’s, has used the capture of the town to discredit Russia’s army.
The British ministry of defense gave an update on the Wagner Group in its daily intelligence update on Friday, where it noted that the group registered as a legal entity at the end of last year, signaling its rapid expansion.
“The registration continues the remarkably rapid development of the traditionally opaque group’s public profile. Prigozhin only admitted to founding Wagner in September 2022; in October 2022, it opened a glossy HQ in St Petersburg,” the ministry said.
“Wagner almost certainly now commands up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign. The registration likely aims to maximize Prigozhin’s commercial gain and to further legitimize the increasingly high-profile organization.”
The group first appeared in Ukraine in 2014, when it participated in the annexation of Crimea. In January, reports emerged that said the Wagner Group was resorting to recruiting prisoners from Belarus to fight in Ukraine.
In an assessment of the Russian offensive campaign on Thursday, the Institute for the Study of War said that Putin is likely increasingly siding with adversaries of Prigozhin and his group, in a possible effort to reduce the businessman’s influence in Russia. The U.S.-based think tank noted that Putin on Wednesday met with St Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov—”one of Prigozhin’s overt enemies”—for the first time since March 2022, to discuss the city’s role in the Ukraine war.
Putin recently reappointed Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, the former commander of the Central Military District (CMD), as the chief of staff of the Russian Ground Forces, despite Lapin being heavily criticized by the siloviki—around five million people in the country’s security forces that include state security, the police, the investigative committee, and other agencies—a faction of which the Wagner Group founder is a prominent member.
Prigozhin, along with another close Putin ally, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, criticized the Russian military’s new ban on soldiers having beards.
Viktor Sobolev, a retired lieutenant-general and member of Russia’s parliament, defended the ban on beards, personal smartphones, and tablets as an “elementary part of military discipline,” in an interview with RBC News on Wednesday.
Prigozhin called the retired general’s remarks “absurd” and “archaisms from the 1960s.”
He also said “beards are customary for many Muslim and Orthodox Christian fighters” and personal electronic devices were necessary for “modern warfare.”
Newsweek has contacted the Kremlin for comment.