Is Russia’s Wagner Group recruiting US veterans to fight in Ukraine?
The Wagner Group has been designated as a “significant transnational criminal organization” by the US government.
The Wagner Group, Russia’s notorious private military company accused of war crimes and identified as a “significant transnational criminal organization” by the U.S. Treasury Department, may be trying to recruit American veterans as mercenaries.
A video being shared on social media is purportedly a Wagner recruiting commercial that targets U.S. military veterans. However, it is unclear whether the video was produced by Wagner or someone else.
Set to a pulse-pounding techno soundtrack, the video features ample B-roll footage of U.S. service members training and fighting, especially Marines. In fact, it appears that whoever made the video lifted footage directly from the Marine Corps’ 2012 recruiting commercial “Toward the Sound of Chaos.”
A narrator with a thick Russian accent appeals to veterans who joined the military because they “dreamed of doing much to make America great again,” only to be disillusioned by witnessing countries destroyed and civilians killed.
After sprinkling some news footage of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot, the video uses a scene from the 2000 Mel Gibson movie The Patriot as the narrator explains how the United States is no longer the country its Founding Fathers dreamed of. Instead, it has become “the focus of the evil that is destroying the whole world.”
Next comes a shot of Nazis with torches marching in the shape of a swastika juxtaposed with the flag of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, which has been linked to neo-Nazis, as the narrator says the only country fighting this evil is — wait for it — Russia.
The narrator then urges any American who is a “true patriot” to “join the ranks of the warriors of Russia,” as the video shows the badge that Wagner mercenaries wear along with the company’s owner Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The video closes by warning it may eventually be too late to defeat evil as it shows a scene from the movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day, in which a nuclear explosion destroys Los Angeles.
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U.S. government officials had little to say when Task & Purpose asked if Wagner is trying to recruit American veterans.
“We are aware of the video but don’t have anything additional to offer at this time,” said Marine Lt. Col. Garron Garn, a Pentagon spokesman.
Garn referred further questions on the matter to the State Department, which has sanctioned people and entities linked to Wagner and Prigozhin. But neither the State Department nor the National Security Council provided any comment for this story.
Experts told Task & Purpose that the video looked like something Wagner would produce, but they have not seen it posted on any websites or social media accounts owned or linked to the private military company.
“I do not know if it is 100% authentic – in a sense that it was created by Wagner – or not,” said Sergey Sukhankin, a senior fellow with the Jamestown Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., who has conducted research into Russian private military companies. “But given Prigozhin’s prior involvement in cyber operations I would not rule it out.”
Prigozhin is one of 13 Russians who were indicted by a grand jury in February 2018 for allegedly spreading disinformation in the United States during the 2016 presidential election. Prosecutors initially claimed that Prigozhin’s company, Concord Management and Consulting, had funded a Russian troll factory.
But in March 2020, the Justice Department abruptly dropped its prosecution of the company, in part because Concord Management and Consulting had failed to comply with subpoenas and Prigozhin had provided prosecutors with a “misleading, at best” affidavit, the Washington Post reported at the time.
Jason Blazakis, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said he believes it is highly likely that either Wagner or an associate of the company produced the video that targets American military veterans.
“The video is fitting with the high-end productions the group has produced in the past; it is also a propaganda piece aimed at American audiences – and we know that this is a common Prigozhin tactic dating back to the 2016 elections,” said Blazakis, director of the institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism.
One reason why Wagner may be trying to recruit American veterans is that they could be running low on people, said Molly Dunigan, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
Up to 50,000 Wagner mercenaries may be fighting in Ukraine right now, Dunigan told Task & Purpose. That’s a major increase from past conflicts. At most, Wagner had around 5,000 mercenaries in Syria at one time.
While Wagner was able to recruit Ukrainians, Moldavians, and Serbians, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, people from those countries have been less likely to join the company since the war started, she said.
“They are recruiting extensively and haphazardly across the Russian population,” Dunigan said. “You see these reports of them recruiting amongst the prisons there. Eventually, they are going to run out of people.”
U.S. intelligence officials believe Wagner has recruited 40,000 prisoners to fight in Ukraine. A video posted in September shows a man who looks like Prigozhin telling a group of prisoners that Wagner is careful about allowing prisoners convicted of sex crimes to join the company, but he added that Wagner understands that “mistakes happen.”
Wagner initially recruited special operators from the Russian military and intelligence services, Dunigan said. Now, they treat prisoners and other recruits as cannon fodder and promise a brutal death for anyone who tries to desert.
In November, a video emerged showing Wagner killing a former member of the group by hitting the man in the head with a sledgehammer.
“This has several implications if they are trying to recruit U.S. veterans,” Dunigan said. “The first is: What are the veterans’ backgrounds? If they have any sort of Special Forces training, they might actually be able to essentially learn and steal U.S. Special Forces operational art from them, and they certainly would probably treat them like cannon fodder.”
“But, if they are pulling down U.S. veterans who are less skilled,” Dunigan continued, “I would not be surprised if they are treated like cannon fodder as well.”
However, the video may have been produced by the FSB, Russia’s domestic security agency, which has become very concerned about Prigozhin’s growing influence, said Olga Lautman, an expert on Russia and Ukraine who works with the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C., and The Institute for European Integrity in Brussels, Belgium.
Lautman said the FSB could be trying to discredit Prigozhin. She noted the only Russian media outlet that reported on the video was Moskovskij Komsomolets, which is reportedly linked to the FSB.
Moreover, the news article mentioned the U.S. government has designated Wagner as a transnational criminal organization without defending the company, Lautman said.
“They do the same thing with various other terrorist organizations,” Lautman said. “When they write someone said something from the Taliban or ISIS, they always put a reminder that this is a terrorist organization. In this case, just to mention it; if they were solely using it for propaganda, then the article would have a different tone, like: Oh look, we’re going to have Americans fighting for Wagner’ – without the reminder that it’s a TCO [transnational criminal organization].”
Any American who ends up becoming a mercenary for Wagner would be risking severe legal consequences for themselves and their families, said Adam Pearlman, an attorney with Lexpat Global Services, an international law firm.
“For starters, Treasury has designated Wagner as a TCO not just once, but three times,” Pearlman told Task & Purpose. “That indicates a pragmatic appetite to ensure the sanctions match the realities of the situation on the ground. Violations for some of these sanctions can be up to $1 million and 20 years in prison.”
Authorities can also seize the assets of anyone who violates those sanctions, and that would leave their families in economic distress, Pearlman said.
Separately, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation that would designate Wagner as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, Pearlman said. Working for or providing other support to such a terrorist organization is a federal crime that carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison — or a life sentence if someone dies as a result of the offense.
Since Ukraine has outlawed mercenaries, Americans who fight for Wagner could also find themselves prosecuted under Ukrainian law, Pearlman said.
The Justice Department did not provide a comment for this story.
If American veterans join Wagner, they could lose their benefits as well as their U.S. citizenship, said Chad Lennon, a military law attorney with the Tully Rinckey law firm.
“If a veteran goes out — or even if a citizen goes out — and supports another country’s military and receives benefits, that individual could lose benefits afforded to them through this country,” Lennon said. “If you are looking at somebody who has, let’s say, a military retirement, they could lose that retirement; they could lose any VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] benefits by allying themselves with another country because they’ve joined their military.”
Even though veterans who fight for Ukraine could face the same legal risks, Americans who join Wagner are more likely to be prosecuted because the U.S. government considers Russia as an adversary, while Ukraine is viewed as a partner.
“Obviously, it’s definitely advised for someone who is an American citizen to not go and look to join Wagner or the Russian army or the Russian military,” Lennon said. “I would even say I probably wouldn’t advise someone to go and join the Ukrainian army because of what could potentially happen.”
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