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Is Wagner Group trying to recruit American veterans?

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A recently surfaced video, supposedly from Russia’s Wagner Group, is trying to recruit Americans to fight for Russia in Ukraine. The identity of the video’s creator has not been verified.

The video mixes in some archival Marine Corps recruiting videos, clips from the Capitol riots on January 6, Nazi references to Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, and clips of Braveheart and Terminator 2. “The only country fighting this evil is Russia,” the video states. 

“If you’re a true patriot of the future Great America, join the ranks of the warriors of Russia!” the video paradoxically says while also referencing former President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign motto.

According to Molly Dunigan of the RAND Corporation, the reason that Wagner is recruiting among the US veteran population is that its pool of recruits from other countries has dried up since the Ukraine invasion began. 

As the Russian military suffered tremendous casualties and equipment losses last summer, it turned to Wagner. The group was believed to have about 5,000 mercenaries under contract at the outset of the war. It then grew to 50,000 troops, most of whom had very little training and equipment. These men were used as disposable troops, according to the U.K. Defense Ministry. 

Related: Russia’s Wagner Group: An orchestra of violence

The owner of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who for years denied any connection to the group, appeared at Russian prisons last fall, exhorting convicts to join Wagner and promising a pardon for any crimes and high pay in exchange for six months of fighting in Ukraine. He also threatened the convicts that if they had sex with Ukrainian women, drank alcohol, or tried to escape, they would be executed.

Wagner mercenaries have been taking horrendous casualties — as high as 80 percent, according to some estimates — by undertaking full-frontal assaults against Ukrainian positions.

US designates Wagner as a criminal organization following the group’s crimes

Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic, 2019. (Photo by Florence Maïguélé/Corbeau News Centrafrique)

The Wagner Group has been accused of war crimes in several places in Ukraine, including in Bucha where dozens of civilians were murdered, and near Kyiv. It has also been accused of human rights abuses in many other countries where it is present.

In Mali, UN experts have received numerous reports of “horrific executions, mass graves, acts of torture, rape and sexual violence, pillaging, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances perpetrated by Malian armed forces and their allies” believed to be the Wagner Group, the UN wrote.

In response to Wagner’s actions, on January 26, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the group and several other associated personnel and company entities as members of a transnational criminal organization (TCO). 

“Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali,” the statement read.

Since Treasury designated the group as a transnational criminal organization, any U.S. veteran who joins Wagner could face severe consequences including being forced to forfeit individual and family assets, losing all Veterans Affairs benefits, and their U.S. citizenship

A bipartisan group of Congressmen is drafting legislation to sanction Wagner as a terrorist organization. If that were to happen, then Americans joining the group could face from 20 years to life imprisonment.

Feature Image: Men in military outfits outside a Wagner center in Russia, January 2023. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Steve Balestrieri