It was supposed to be Russia’s secret weapon for a swift and efficient victory in Ukraine. But in the year since Wagner Group mercenaries were dispatched to Kyiv to hunt down Ukraine’s president, what was once an elite murder squad has become a group of mostly ill-trained and unequipped convicts who today serve as “cannon fodder”.
On February 27, 2022, just four days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian intelligence services said they had uncovered an unnerving plot. A special operations unit, consisting of some 400 mercenaries belonging to private Russian military company the Wagner Group, had been deployed to Kyiv to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his cabinet. In all, 23 names were on the hit list, including Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko.
“The mercenaries were very dangerous at that point in time because they were very well equipped, skilled and experienced, with most of them having been flown in from the group’s other missions in Syria and Mali and so on,” explained Karen Philippa Larsen, a global security researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and one of the few academic experts in the world dedicated to studying the Wagner Group.
Putin’s secret army
Then, on April 1, horrifying images started to emerge from the small city of Bucha, some 25 kilometres northwest of Kyiv.