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Teresa Cebrian Aranda
Teresa Cebrian Aranda
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The battle for Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine has been notable for several reasons, its length, its savagery and for the man who's pressed the fight for the Kremlin, the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. As Stephanie Sy reports, Prigozhin and his Wagner Group are now the tip of the spear for Russia in Ukraine.
The battle for Bakhmut in Eastern Ukraine has been notable for several reasons, its length, nine-plus months, it savagery — tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians, mostly soldiers, have died there — and for the man who's pressed the fight for the Kremlin, the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin.
As Stephanie Sy explains, Prigozhin and his Wagner paramilitary group are now the tip of the spear for Russia in Ukraine.
In Russian-occupied Bakhmut, one man has stolen the spotlight. Days after declaring victory, Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin congratulate his fighters and orders them to leave.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group Chief (through translator):
We're pulling units out of Bakhmut. We're transferring positions, ammunition to the military, everything. But if the military are in a tough situation, of course, we're leaving those who played a crucial part in capturing Bakhmut.
Prigozhin's private military group has led the fighting in the monthslong bloody battle that turned Bakhmut into a ruin.
Most of Wagner's fighters are convicted Russian criminals. This video went viral last year of a man believed to be Prigozhin recruiting prisoners from a penal colony. They were promised freedom for six months of front-line service, their lives treated as expendable.
Prigozhin says 20,000 Wagner mercenaries were killed in Bakhmut.
Candace Rondeaux, Senior Director, New America:
This is a military that is so challenged with its manpower, with its ammunition, with its supplies that it has had to turn to the use of prisoners and thrown them into what Prigozhin has called the Bakhmut meat grinder.
Candace Rondeaux has been writing a book on the Wagner Group.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is a complex man with a complex history and very complex ambitions. He served a 10-year sentence for violent crimes that he committed in St. Petersburg as a young man. He worked in hard labor camps.
And when he came out, he kind of transformed himself into this kind of mafia entrepreneur.
One of his first ventures was a catering company that fed the Kremlin. Prigozhin became known as Putin's chef.
Cooking up disinformation came next with the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm which was instrumental in Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Prigozhin has now transformed into a warlord under the auspices of Vladimir Putin. He's used social media to accelerate his brand. Videos show him overseeing training sites, he appeals to new recruits with ultranationalist propaganda.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (through translator):
Guys, sign up for Wagner Group private military company. World War III is already nigh.
On the battlefield, he flaunts the coffins of dead Ukrainian soldiers. And he brazenly calls out Russia's Ministry of Defense for the death of his fighters, hurling insults at the defense minister and chief of staff and calling them out by name.
We have a 70 percent shortage of ammunition. Shoigu, Gerasimov, where is the ammunition? Look at them.
His latest provocative proclamation, that Russia could lose the war and face a revolt.
And when you hear Prigozhin saying there is not enough ammunition, we're not getting the help that we need, we don't have the supplies that we need, you should be hearing the voice of Putin. He says things that Putin isn't able to say politically about what's going on with the war. And we certainly have seen that in bold display in recent days.
The Wagner Group started in 2014 as a secret arm of Russian intelligence.
Originally made up but former special forces soldiers, the group was first deployed to Ukraine in 2014 during Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, then to Syria, where Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad's government. Wagner serves as Russia's military proxy in far-flung areas of the world.
Journalist Andrei Soldatov has reported on Russian intelligence for over two decades.
Andrei Soldatov, Russian Journalist:
What the military intelligence wanted to do in 2014 is to have a group of people supervised by the military intelligence, but not officially part of Russian — of the Russian military, and to be able to send these people to Syria, to Ukraine, and to Africa, and maybe to some other regions.
Before the recent fighting in Ukraine, Wagner left Russian footprints across Africa, spreading Moscow's influence and feeding instability.
Researchers say there are thousands of Wagner mercenaries in about a dozen countries. It has links to the ongoing conflict in Sudan. The U.S. said it gave weapons to Sudan's paramilitary faction. It has also fueled the civil war in the Central African Republic and aided the anti-Western pro Russian military junta in Mali, accused of war crimes.
The Kremlin uses Wagner as a tool, says New America's Candace Rondeaux.
They're really important for Putin, in terms of diverting attention away from Russian activities in places where they're not supposed to be operating.
They fulfill the role of circumventing sanctions. And they turn to the Wagner Group as the kind of enforcer and sort of mercenary service provider. And, in exchange, they get gold, diamonds, oil, gas, things that are exportable and that can be turned into hard dollars, hard cash, which is extremely important for Russia.
The war in Ukraine helped Prigozhin bring the Wagner Group out of the shadows and grow it into a private military empire.
Because of this war, and because of ambitions of — the ambitions of Prigozhin, quite quickly, the group emerged as the most visible part of the Russian military. Now we have billboards advertising Wagner on the streets of Russian cities, a completely unprecedented thing.
Despite his audacious outbursts against the Kremlin elite,Putin needs Prigozhin, at least for now.
The thing people need to understand is that Prigozhin is always conscious of the fact, like many who are close to Putin, that he is expendable, that, at any time, Putin could decide: I don't need you anymore, that your services are no longer useful to me, or, more importantly, you're becoming a danger to me, you're becoming a threat to me.
Make no mistake of who is in charge, she says. Prigozhin's power only exists at the mercy of Putin.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.
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Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
Zeba Warsi is Foreign affairs producer, based in Washington DC. She's a Columbia Journalism School graduate with an M.A. in Political journalism. Prior to the NewsHour, she was based in New Delhi for seven years, covering politics, extremism, sexual violence, social movements and human rights as a special correspondent with CNN's India affiliate CNN-News18.
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