What Leaked Pentagon Documents Show About Wagner’s Influence

LVIV, Ukraine — A cache of leaked Pentagon documents circulating online portrays the Russian military as running out of steam, short on men and equipment, and facing stalemate. But one group of Russian fighters stands as an exception.

The mercenary group Wagner — known for its skill on the battlefield, its army of former prisoners and its murder of at least one perceived traitor with a sledgehammer — remains a potent force, with influence not just in Ukraine, but all over the world, according to the documents. Wagner, the documents say, is actively working to thwart American interests in Africa and has explored branching out to Haiti, right under the nose of the United States, with an offer to help that country’s embattled government take on violent gangs.

Senior U.S. officials said the F.B.I. was working to determine the source of the leak. The officials acknowledged that the documents appeared to be legitimate intelligence and operational briefs compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, using reports from the government’s intelligence community, but that at least one had been modified from the original at some later point.

According to one confidential document, emissaries from Wagner secretly met with “Turkish contacts” in February, slipping onto NATO territory in search of weapons and equipment for its fight in Ukraine.

Whether weapons actually changed hands and the Turkish authorities were aware of the effort was not clear. Officials from the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not immediately comment on the revelation.

But the brazenness of the outreach, conducted even while NATO as a whole is deeply involved in supporting Ukraine with arms and equipment, underscores the cowboy nature of Wagner. It also points to its apparent autonomy from the Russian military establishment, thanks to supply networks that extend far outside Russian territory. The document discussing the meeting in Turkey suggested that the West African nation of Mali, where Wagner has set up a significant outpost, could serve as a proxy and acquire the weapons from Turkey on Wagner’s behalf.

The choice of Mali as a fig leaf for such an arms smuggling operation shows just how influential Wagner has become since it first established a presence in that country a few years ago, working to provide security for a military junta that took over in 2021. Another document, citing a Wagner employee, said there were more than 1,645 Wagner personnel in Mali, which the document said had sparked security concerns in neighboring Ivory Coast.

But the weapons scheme also shows how much further Wagner must now go for its supplies, a sign that Western sanctions against Russia have begun to bite.

“This is a very interesting sign that there’s a degrading of their capabilities,” said Candace Rondeaux, an expert on Wagner who is a senior director at New America, a Washington think tank. “Going further afield certainly suggests impact U.S. and European sanctions are starting to have on degrading the pipeline.”

Before the Ukraine war, little was known about Wagner. Though mercenary fighters associated with the group known by that name had appeared on the battlefields of Syria and Libya, its origins were shadowy and there was debate over whether Wagner existed at all or was simply a product of Kremlin mythmaking.

But in September, after years of denying any connection with the group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close confidant of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and a businessman who had served as caterer for important Kremlin events, acknowledged that he had created Wagner.

Since then, Mr. Prigozhin has become an unavoidable — and menacing — fixture of the war, donning a helmet and body armor to visit his troops at the front line, while calling for the firing (or worse) of military leaders who have refused to follow his cavalier example. In one of the more disturbing episodes of the war, he endorsed the execution by sledgehammer of a Wagner fighter who had defected to the Ukrainian side but was sent back in a prisoner exchange.

He has created an army out of freed Russian convicts and hired guns that one of the leaked Pentagon documents assessed to be about 22,000 strong in the area around Bakhmut —possibly larger than the entire Ukrainian contingent along that front.

Even as Mr. Prigozhin has criticized Russia’s military leadership, demanding in one instance that failed generals be stripped of their ranks and forced to march barefoot to the front, the military establishment appears to have jumped to do Wagner’s bidding, according to the leaked documents.

After Mr. Prigozhin publicly accused the Russian military in late February of failing to provide his troops with sufficient ammunition, unnamed Defense Ministry officials seemed to go into damage-control mode, acknowledging Mr. Prigozhin’s claims might be true and proposing to double the amount of munitions supplied to Wagner forces, according to a C.I.A. document.

Later, the ministry issued a rare public response to Mr. Prigozhin, but gave no hint that it had caved. The ministry declared that it devoted “priority attention to the supply of everything necessary for all volunteers and fighters in assault units,” and gave a detailed account of the number of shells provided over a three-day period in late February.

What neither the Russian military nor Wagner have been able to escape is infiltration by the American intelligence establishment.

The documents indicate American spies have been gathering signals intelligence from Prigozhin associates, allowing them to glimpse the inner workings of Wagner’s operation. One document describes how American intelligence operatives apparently listened in on a Prigozhin associate in February planning to recruit prisoners again into Wagner’s ranks.

American intelligence officials also picked up that Mr. Prigozhin wanted prisoners returning home from the battlefield to help in the recruitment effort.

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