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.