Nobody in Ukraine acts as brutally as the fighters of the Wagner group. The mercenaries do the bloody dirty work for the Kremlin. The motivations are money, parole, power and influence.

Bachmut’s “meat grinder” claimed thousands of lives. The Russians have sacrificed soldiers en masse as cannon fodder on the front lines around the Ukrainian city in the Donetsk region. Behind the brutal war strategy are the fighters of the Wagner mercenary group. They do the particularly bloody dirty work for the Kremlin to overwhelm Ukraine. According to an anonymous US official, Wagner has suffered more than 4,100 deaths and 10,000 wounded. Including more than 1000 dead between the end of November and the beginning of December on the Bachmut front alone.

Until a few months ago, the Kremlin denied the existence of the Wagner group. Meanwhile, the mercenaries are fighting on the front line in Ukraine. They are not officially part of the Russian army. “Basically, one can say that Wagner has become a kind of Waffen-SS of the Russian army. A force that is simply smarter than the limp Wehrmacht, to stay with the image from back then,” compares security expert Joachim Weber on ntv.

The militia first appeared in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea. In the years that followed, Wagner fighters were also deployed in eastern Ukraine.

Since then, the field of application has spread to other countries. The mercenaries have already been sighted in Armenia and Belarus, also in Venezuela, and especially on the African continent: in Sudan and South Sudan, in Libya, Mali, Chad, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, in the Central African Republic, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau , Congo and Madagascar.

Almost everywhere where Russia wants to assert its geopolitical interests or is actively waging war, Wagner’s fighters are also deployed. Like in Syria. The regular Russian military has fought IS from the air in recent years, and the mercenaries have been used as ground troops.

It is unclear how many fighters Wagner has in his ranks. There are different estimates of this. The US assumes there are tens of thousands of mercenaries in Ukraine alone. Among them are said to be non-Russian citizens: The Berlin “Tagesspiegel” reported that two Germans who apparently earned good money were arrested during the fighting in Bakhmut. One of them reported that he was paid up to $7,000 per month from Wagner with allowances. For every foreigner killed, a mercenary gets an extra $10,000, but only if he can produce the killer’s passport as proof.

An American, a French, a British and a Syrian mercenary are said to have been arrested near Bakhmut. These are clear indications that Wagner is not a purely Russian troupe, although the vast majority of mercenaries are of course Russians.

In 2014, men with experience in the Russian military or secret service were initially recruited. Criminals and delinquents who are lured with the prospect of getting out of prison early – if they survive the operation at all – are now also fighting for Wagner. “From the Russian point of view, it’s cannon fodder. That sounds inhuman, and it is. You let them run into the fire to bring in more Ukrainian forces and then shoot them with your own artillery,” explains Colonel Markus Reisner of the Austrian Armed Forces, explaining the strategy the Russians.

Private mercenaries are actually forbidden under Russian law. But the reality is different: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin apparently gives them a free hand in Ukraine. As a result, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozchin is now much more open and self-confident. In the fall, he publicly admitted the founding of the group for the first time. The mercenaries now also have an official headquarters. The magnificent Wagner Technology Center is in St. Petersburg.

Those who wish may soon be able to invest in the brutal Russian shadow army: as the BBC found out, Wagner was registered in December as an AG for “corporate and management consulting, publishing, media, scientific development and leasing of ships and aircraft”.

“We can see very clearly that Wagner is playing an increasingly important role. Prigozhin demands his place at the table because, from his point of view, he makes a significant contribution to Russia being able to continue this war,” Reisner analyzes the role of the Wagner boss.

For several months now, the increasingly influential mercenary boss has been criticizing the Russian military leadership in Moscow, while at the same time he usually praises his fighters effusively. Yevgeny Prigozhin was angry when the Russian leadership announced that the small town of Soledar was being taken, but did not mention the Wagner mercenaries. Prigozhin complained to Telegram that “constant attempts are being made to steal the victories” of his group. The Russian Defense Ministry cuddled and released a statement praising the “courage” of the Wagner fighters at Soledar.

In the meantime, it is even suspected that Prigozhin could use the mission in Ukraine to position himself for higher tasks in Russia. Supposedly even as Vladimir Putin’s successor in the Kremlin.

ntv Russia correspondent Rainer Munz still sees no competitor for the Russian president in the mercenary chief. “Wagner is financed by Prigozhin, but all this only works because the Kremlin allows it and the weapons come from the Russian army. I don’t see that he can be a competitor for Putin. If Prigozhin was really serious, Putin would have enough opportunities to take him out immediately.”

It is possible that a kind of change in strategy has already begun in the Kremlin: recently, the Russian army in Ukraine is said to have taken on more and more of the tasks of the Wagner mercenaries. Military observers like the Institute for the Study of War say that regular Russian soldiers are supposed to completely replace the weakened mercenaries on the Bakhmut front.

And the recruitment of new fighters has also apparently stalled. According to the non-governmental organization “Russia Behind Bars”, only 10,000 of the approximately 50,000 mercenaries recruited in Russian prisons are still with the troops. The recruited prisoners were “killed, injured, missing, surrendered or deserted”.