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The backstory: If you’ve been following the Russia-Ukraine war, then you’ve probably heard of the Wagner Group. Founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, this group is a private mercenary army made up mostly of recruited prisoners and former soldiers. It’s been deployed to a few different areas, mainly in Africa (Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Libya) as a show of Russian influence without liability falling on the Russian government. The group was also involved in Russia’s invasion and seizure of Crimea back in 2014. Wagner has become super important in Russia’s war on Ukraine. In December, the US estimated that about 50,000 Wagner troops were fighting in Ukraine.
More recently: After his troops captured the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in May, Prigozhin publicly criticized Russia’s defense tactics and military. He’s said that Russia’s top defense officials have allowed more men to die than necessary and insulted them for the way they’ve chosen to fight the war. He’s also accused officials of leaving Russia unprotected against Ukrainian attacks and threatened to pull his troops out of Bakhmut.
The development: On Saturday, Russia’s defense ministry said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered all "volunteer detachments" (which Wagner is considered to be) to sign contracts with his ministry by July 1. The idea is to legalize everything and extend protection and support to volunteer fighters, according to the ministry. It’s also supposed to boost the effectiveness of the Russian war effort.
But Prigozhin is pushing back against the order, refusing to have his troops sign these contracts. He’s saying that these types of orders from Shoigu don’t have anything to do with Wagner. He also said that Wagner is loyal to the Russian Federation’s aims, and his group follows the lead of General Sergey Surovikin. But, essentially, Progozhin thinks Shoigu isn’t great at managing military formations and reporting to him would hurt the Wagner Group’s effectiveness. It’s not clear what will happen if Wagner doesn’t sign these contracts by next month.
"This will give volunteer formations the necessary legal status, create common approaches to the organization of comprehensive support and the fulfilment of their tasks," Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement, adding that the contracts must be signed by July 1.
“These measures will increase the combat capabilities and effectiveness of the armed forces and their volunteer detachments,” Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said.
“Wagner is absolutely, completely subordinate to the interests of the Russian Federation and the Commander-in-Chief,” Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin posted Sunday on his Telegram channel.
"Wagner will not sign any contracts with Shoigu," Prigozhin said. “Shoigu cannot properly manage military formation."