Prigozhin – who also controls the notorious St Petersburg internet “troll farm” that allegedly disrupted the 2016 US election – has been a vocal critic of the Russian defense establishment’s handling of the war in Ukraine.
His mercenary-like army has been carrying out operations, ostensibly private but implicitly approved by the Kremlin, in Syria, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic and other countries in Africa.
In several locations they have been accused of participating in atrocities.
In Ukraine, the group has served as an elite special forces-type operation that has better training, equipment and supplies than the mainstream Russian military.
CONVICT RECRUITS SENT TO FRONT
But Wagner has taken significant casualties, and Prigozhin has relied on prisons to supply Wagner with convicts to fill out its ranks.
Kirby estimated that the Wagner force now numbers about 50,000, including 10,000 skilled “contractors” and 40,000 convicts.
In Bakhmut and other areas of heavy fighting, Ukraine forces say that the relatively untrained convicts have been forced to the front, where many have been killed or injured.
According to US information, Kirby said, 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in the fighting in recent weeks, 90 per cent of them convicts.
“It seems as though Mr. Prigozhin is willing to just throw Russian bodies into the meat grinder in Bakhmut,” he said.
Kirby said Prigozhin appeared more interested in “influence peddling at the Kremlin” than protecting his troops.
“For him, it’s all about how good he looks to Mr. Putin, and how well he’s regarded at the Kremlin,” Kirby said.