Wagner still recruiting mercenaries for Ukraine war despite Prigozhin exile

Russia: Wagner group confronted by public in Rostov

The Wagner Group is still recruiting fighters across Russia despite its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin being effectively exiled to Belarus.

A BBC investigation found that the group’s recruiting offices are still signing up fighters for its private army despite the Kremlin backlash against it following the mutiny that prompted Vladimir Putin to raise fears of civil war.

Recruiting offices insisted that any new members would continue to sign up for Wagner, not the Russian army, despite the Kremlin demanding that the mercenaries transfer to the defence ministry. That move sparked the armed uprising that challenged Putin’s authority, although the Kremlin has since attempted to redefine his response as strong and decisive.

The BBC pointed out that the criminal case against the mutineers has been dropped in a country where large numbers of opposition activists are serving long prison sentences just for speaking out against the war on Ukraine.

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Using a Russian phone number, the BBC called more than a dozen recruitment centres saying, if asked, that it was inquiring on behalf of a brother.

All those who replied confirmed that it was “business as usual” and none believed that the group was being disbanded.

In the Arctic city of Murmansk, a woman at the Viking sports club confirmed to the BBC that she was still signing fighters for Ukraine.

“That’s where we are recruiting for, yes,” she said. “If someone wants to go, they just have to call me and we’ll set a day.”

Many of Wagner’s contact points are based at fight clubs, including martial arts schools and boxing clubs, and several people who spoke to the BBC stressed that new members would sign contracts with the mercenary group, not the Russian defence ministry.

“It’s absolutely nothing to do with the defence ministry,” a man at the Sparta sports club in Volgograd said. “Nothing has stopped, we’re still recruiting.”

A female recruiter in Krasnodar, southern Russia, claimed: “We are working. If something had changed, they’d have told us. But there’s nothing.”

Wagner pays 240,000 roubles (£2,175) a month for contracts that are for six months. Earlier today, the chair of the defence committee in Russia’s parliament had insisted that Prigozhin had been warned that the deadline for Wagner to be subsumed by the defence ministry was non-negotiable.

“The defence ministry said all groups…must sign contracts, and they all began doing that. Everyone except Mr Prigozhin,” Andrei Kartapolov commented, branding the mutiny as an act of treason.

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“He was informed that Wagner would not participate in the Special Military Operation. It also would get no financing or material resources.”

Last weekend, following the mutiny, Putin enacted a law that means only the defence ministry can recruit in Russian prisons, previously a source of fighters for Ukraine for Wagner. But the group’s recruitment drive continues, and in Volgograd, a recruiter told the BBC that if someone signed up today, “I could deploy him tomorrow.”

Earlier this week, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko said that Wagner fighters were welcome in his country and suggested that the Belarusian army had much to learn from them. But a woman in Saratov, central Russia, insisted that she was still recruiting men to fight in Ukraine.

“Everything’s the same as before, for now. Nothing’s changed,” she told the BBC. “Everyone goes to Molkino, as usual. To the training centre. They get all the information there.”

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