On Monday, CNN reporter Clarissa Ward explained the shadowy operations of the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization that experts believe is under the control of the Kremlin — and which is used to exert Russia’s might and disrupt politics around the world.
“I think everybody knows by now that hybrid warfare is one of the most valuable tools Russian President Vladimir Putin has in his arsenal, whether it’s misinformation campaigns, election meddling as the U.S. saw in the 2016 election or increasingly the use of mercenaries,” said Ward. “Russian mercenaries are popping up, as we learned, in countries across the globe, often unstable countries, they’re being used to boost Russian influence, but also to outmaneuver geopolitical rivals such as the U.S.”
“Officially, the Kremlin says they have nothing to do with mercenary groups whatsoever,” said Ward. “But we sat down in a television first with a former fighter with notorious Wagner Group, and he told us a very different story.”
“I’m a mercenary,” said “Oleg,” a former Syrian fighter in the pay of Wagner, in a CNN interview through a translator. “90 percent of participants of the company were like me, motivated by money.”
Ward noted that Wagner, despite Russia denying its existence, now has “hundreds of fighters operating on three different continents” — all allegedly in the pay of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin ally who also helped fund the troll farm used to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“CNN traveled to the remote Russian village of Molchino, to try to get to his training camp, and found that the group has a surprisingly close relationship with the Russian military,” said Ward. “The only way to get into the Wagner barracks is to get through that checkpoint, which is manned by the Russian military, because this actually belongs to a Russian special forces unit.”
“Not far from Molchino, there is a monument to fallen Wagner fighters. Visitors are not welcome, so we approach with a hidden camera,” continued Molchino. “A guard soon comes up to us … He begins to get suspicious of our questions, and we decide to leave. They didn’t let us inside, which is not surprising, because in that compound is the only tangible, visible proof that Wagner is real.”
“No surprise, perhaps, that the monument is funded by an Prigozhin-owned company,” said Ward. “It was five years ago in Crimea that mysterious unidentified fighters dubbed ‘little green men’ helped wrest the province from Ukraine, even as the Kremlin feigned ignorance. It was a success, and Moscow’s use of mercenary forces has since grown. Analysts say none of this could happen without Putin’s approval.”
“Russia is trying to suppress the U.S.,” said Oleg. “In every way possible using legal and illegal means. It’s trying to smash it, get the better of it somehow. What will come of it as a result? Nothing good, I think.”
“But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wagner is still a worthwhile gamble, an expendable fighting force with no accountability,” concluded Ward.
Fiona Hill’s attorney rips the administration: Trump ‘co-opted’ US foreign policy for his own ends
On Thursday's edition of CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360," National Security Council official Fiona Hill's attorney, Ambassador Lee Wolosky, broke down the implications of his client's testimony.
"The phrase that she used to describe [E.U. Ambassador Gordon] Sondland's mission, a 'domestic political errand,' a lot of people have said that was a big takeaway from today, that sort of encapsulated what was going on here," said Cooper. "Does she agree?"
"Well, yeah," said Wolosky. "As she testified to, I think that what she began to notice is that, in fact, this really wasn't an irregular or shadow foreign policy effort, as some people have called it. It was actually domestic politics. She was doing national security, as were others, and foreign policy, and Sondland and Giuliani were taking steps to advance the political interests of the president. And I think that what she crystallized is how pernicious it can be when our national security and when our foreign policy decision making is basically co-opted or held hostage to the individual political interests of one individual."
‘Rudy Giuliani is the fall guy here’: CNN analyst says America’s Mayor was ‘meddling in everything’
On Thursday's edition of CNN's "OutFront," political analyst Gloria Borger suggested that President Donald Trump may just decide to cut his losses on the Ukraine scandal and blame his attorney Rudy Giuliani for any wrongdoing.
"I think at this point maybe Trump needs a fall guy," said Borger. "Rudy Giuliani is the fall guy here. He's the guy who was meddling in everything. Everybody who testified seemed to make it very clear that Rudy Giuliani was doing this at the direction of the president of the United States. I think Gordon Sondland said that, what, 20 times yesterday at the direction of the president, so it's clear Rudy Giuliani wasn't freelancing, but maybe the president feels that he needs him right now."
Trump officials could not have been ‘completely clueless’ about what he was doing: CNN correspondent
On Thursday's edition of CNN's "The Situation Room," White House correspondent Abby Phillip highlighted how Fiona Hill's testimony made the claim by other officials that they weren't aware of the scheme to extort dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden from Ukraine much less plausible.
"The idea Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election is completely unfounded," said Phillip. "This is important because it puts in context some of the other testimony we heard ... from Ambassador [Kurt] Volker and another top NSC official, Tim Morrison, who replaced Fiona Hill, that the conspiracy theory was a legitimate function of the government, it was okay for President Trump to seek that kind of investigation, was perfectly normal to them. And it wasn't until they learned 'Burisma' equaled 'Biden' they learned there was something weird or nefarious going on."