News U.S. believes Wagner mercenaries are expanding influence and taking North Korean weapons


The latest downgrade of U.S. intelligence suggests that the Russian mercenary group Wagner is expanding its influence and is recruiting criminals from prisons — including some with serious illnesses — to supplement Moscow’s flagging military.

A senior U.S. official said the group recently received weapons from North Korea, a sign of the group’s growing role in the war in Ukraine.

The U.S. believes Wagner could be drawn into a power struggle with the Russian military itself in a battle for influence with the Kremlin.

“In some cases, Russian military officials actually followed Wagner’s lead,” said John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator. “It was clear to us that Wagner was becoming a competitor to the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”

The Wagner group revelations came a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s historic visit to Washington, in which he thanked the U.S. for military assistance and said more was needed to fend off Russia attack.

Wagner has emerged as a key figure in the 10-month conflict. The group is often described as President Vladimir Putin’s covert army. Since its founding in 2014, it has expanded its footprint globally and has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the United States imposed new restrictions on the export of Wagner’s access to technology.

Kirby said the United States estimates that Wagner currently has about 50,000 personnel deployed in Ukraine, 40,000 of whom may be convicts recruited from Russian prisons. The group spends $100 million a month to fund its operations in Ukraine, he said.

The organization’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, even traveled to Russian prisons to personally recruit criminals to fight on the front lines. Kirby said some of them had “severe medical conditions”.

“It seems that Mr. Prigozhin is willing to throw Russian corpses into Bakhmut’s meat grinder. In fact, in just the last few weeks, about 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in combat, and we believe that 90% of these 1,000 fighters were actually Criminals,” Kirby said.

Prigorzhin, sometimes referred to as “Putin’s cook,” has close ties to the Russian president. But Kirby said he was working to strengthen those ties by recruiting mercenaries to bolster the Russian military.

“It all depends on how good he is in Mr Putin’s eyes and how well he stands in the Kremlin,” he said. “In fact, we could even say his influence is growing.”

Last month, Wagner received infantry rockets and missiles from North Korea, Kirby said, demonstrating how Russia and its military partners continue to seek ways to bypass Western sanctions and export controls.

Wagner, not the Russian government, paid for the equipment. The U.S. does not believe this will significantly change the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine – but has suggested that North Korea may be planning to provide more supplies.

Prigozhin said on Thursday that Kirby’s claim that his group got weapons from North Korea was “nothing more than gossip and speculation.”

“Everyone knows that North Korea has not supplied arms to the Russian Federation for a long time,” Prigozhin said in a statement on his Telegram channel. “And there have been no other similar attempts. So these North Korean arms deliveries are nothing more than rumor and speculation.”

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