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A Kremlin-linked mercenary group is now openly recruiting for the war in Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Wagner Group, a private mercenary firm widely believed to be linked to Russia's defense ministry, first rose to prominence back in 2014. They were fighting in Ukraine alongside pro-Russia separatists in Donbas in the east. Well, look at Ukraine today and you will find Wagner fighters in combat alongside official Russian forces. And while the Kremlin denies links to the group, they are now openly advertising in Russia for new recruits.

I want to bring in Sean McFate, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and also a U.S. Army veteran and himself a former private military contractor. Sean McFate, welcome.

SEAN MCFATE: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: What role has Wagner been playing in Ukraine this year?

MCFATE: Wagner Group has changed its role, but right now its main role is sort of body supply to the ongoing fight in Ukraine.

KELLY: Meaning what? Meaning Russian troops have been suffering a lot of losses, and they need - what? - warm bodies?

MCFATE: Yeah, exactly. So as we all know, Russia went into Ukraine in February thinking this would take six days at most. It's now six months. And Putin has a problem. And that's this - is that he's running out of people. So what he's started to do in desperation is start to recruit heavily from the periphery of Russia - like sort of, you know, eastern Russia, where nobody is really paying attention to it - and also the Wagner Group, using mercenaries to fill in the ranks so that, you know, mothers don't see their dead sons coming home in body bags.

KELLY: So as you track this group, what are you seeing in terms of recruitment? Now, I was reading and seeing pictures of, like, big billboards saying, hey, you know, you want an adventure this summer? Come join Wagner.

MCFATE: Yeah, they're - it's kind of absurd. It's ludicrous. They have like, you know, sort of like a Disney World camp thing. But I would say this - I think it's split. The Wagner Group is still keeping a core of their best cadre that they don't send into Ukraine, but they're just sort of flying the doors open for any sort of living, breathing person who they can deploy to Ukraine. But they're sort of the rank and file, the tread grease, whatever you want to call it, the cannon fodder.

KELLY: It seems to present something of a challenge for the Kremlin, which doesn't acknowledge links with the group and also doesn't acknowledge that what's happening in Ukraine is a war. It raises the question, why would you need private contractors? Do they have to explain any of this or, because they control state-owned media, that it's just not a question that, you know, ever rises to senior levels in the Kremlin?

MCFATE: It - state-owned media does manipulate people's perception of reality within Russia, clearly. But the Wagner Group is emblematic of larger problems with Ukraine. And the fact that they've taken the Wagner Group and de facto made it public kind of destroys why the Kremlin used the Wagner Group in the first place all these past years. They allow you to fight wars in secret without consequences. And the Kremlin loves to do that. Now that the Wagner Group is some, like, third-rate recruiting apparatus, it's losing that luster, reputation and plausible deniability factors.

KELLY: One last thing to ask you, which is what is the U.S. position here?

MCFATE: The U.S. intelligence community generally has a blind spot towards mercenaries. They think of the Wagner Group merely as a proxy group. But it's not. I mean, these are for-profit actors, and they're not unique. I mean, you know, a year ago, Colombian mercenaries assassinated the president of Haiti. And we still don't know who hired them. The mercenaries don't know who hired them. And that's the power of mercenaries, and I think that's why we're seeing them return. But you wouldn't really know it if you talk to people inside Washington, D.C.

KELLY: Sean McFate of the Atlantic Council and author of "The New Rules Of War." Sean McFate, thank you.

MCFATE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.