Ukraine has destroyed the headquarters of Russia’s shadowy Wagner mercenary group in Donbas after a war propagandist gave away its location online.
Sergei Sreda, a so-called ‘war reporter’, posted pictures online last week of himself at the base – in the city of Popasna – and shaking hands with a man who appeared to be Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch dubbed ‘Putin’s chef’ who owns Wagner.
But the pictures also included details – such as the address of a nearby bomb shelter – that allowed experts to quickly pinpoint its location. On Sunday, Russian Telegram channels with links to Wagner confirmed it had been hit.
Sergei Sreda, a Russian war propagandist, visited Wagner’s HQ in Ukraine last week to pose with soldiers – but inadvertently revealed its location with this photo, which included a street sign with the address of a nearby bomb shelter (top left)
Ukraine said it used the information in that photo to launch a HIMARS attack on the base, with confirmation coming from Wagner-linked Telegram channels on Sunday that it had been hit (pictured, the aftermath of the strike)
It is not clear how many mercenaries were killed or wounded in the strike, but images uploaded to Telegram accounts linked to the group show men being carried out on stretchers
Who are the Wagner Group?
The mercenary group is considered to be at the beck and call of Putin to carry out his dirty work.
The army-for-hire, allegedly run by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin – a close ally of the Russian president who is often dubbed ‘Putin’s chef’ – was flown into Ukraine in April and offered a huge sum for the mission.
Highly trained and brutally violent in equal measure, Wagner mercenaries have been charged with spearheading Russia’s advance in the Donbas.
The group is thought to have been responsible for the capture of Popasna, a key city in the Luhansk region, which fell to Russian forces back in May and appears to have been adopted as their headquarters in the country.
Gruesome images have since emerged showing the severed head and hands of a Ukrainian soldier impaled on a metal fence in the city – with Wagner blamed for it.
It follows a pattern of war crimes, rapes and torture that Wagner has been blamed for in war-zones stretching from Africa, to the Middle East and South America.
Its soldiers – often those deemed unfit to serve in Russia’s regular military or dismissed in disgrace – are parachuted into war zones where the presence of the Russian army would attract unwanted attention.
Amid heavy losses in Ukraine, Prigozhin is said to be personally recruiting new troops from Russian prisoners – offering murderers clemency in return for six months on the frontlines.
The Kremlin denied the group’s existence for years, but state media has acknowledged its presence in Ukraine.
Putin claims to know nothing about the group’s operations which allows him to effectively wash his hands of the atrocities they commit.
But, in reality, he is thought to be pulling the strings.
Ukrainian media said the military had identified the location of the base from Sreda’s images, which have since been deleted from his Telegram channel.
HIMARS launchers were then used to destroy the base, Ukraine said.
Images from the scene show widespread damage to the base and several casualties being evacuated from the destroyed buildings.
It is not clear whether Prigozhin was still at the base at the time it was hit. He has denied being in the photos, and claims never to have visited the base.
Wager is an army-for-hire whose existence was denied by the Kremlin for years, but is thought to be at the beck-and-call of Putin himself.
The group is used to fight wars on behalf of the Kremlin in areas of the world where direct Russian military involvement would draw unwanted attention.
Wager is believed to operate in Africa, the Middle East and South America, where allegations of war crimes, rape and torture by its troops are common.
Mercenaries are often recruited from the ranks of Russia’s regular military, often having been discharged for poor conduct.
Prigozhin is also thought to recruit from prisons, and is said to be in the middle of a hiring spree amid heavy casualties in Ukraine.
Murderers are allegedly being offered clemency from prison sentences provided they are willing to fight for six months on the frontlines.
Prigozhin came to prominence arranging lavish Kremlin functions for the Russian president – earning himself the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’.
Next, he was linked to pro-Putin troll factories pumping out supportive propaganda in Russia and the West, and to the Wagner private army which is active in Ukraine, Syria and Africa.
He disputes the link to Wagner, despite claims he has been seen personally recruiting prisoners – including convicted murderers – to fight in the war in Ukraine.
He reportedly told inmates: ‘I was jailed, too. Now I am a Hero of Russia. We need your skills.’
Putin last month awarded him Russia’s top honour. In Soviet times, he was jailed for robbery, fraud, and involving teenagers in crime.
‘He is alive, even swearing,’ a source from Popasna, not related to Wagner, told VCHK-OGPU Telegram channel.
Video shows what appear to be Wagner troops combing through the ruins of their destroyed headquarters in Popasna after it was struck by Ukraine
Video shows soldiers believed to be Wagner troops loading their dead and wounded comrades into the back of an ambulance in Popasna
Sreda (right) also posted an image of himself shaking hands with a man who appears to be Yevgeny Prigozhin (left), a Russian oligarch who owns Wagner, at the base. It is not clear whether Prigozhin was still there when the rocket attack happened
It reported with verification that he was being evacuated to Burdenko hospital in Moscow.
A source close to Wagner denied he had been killed.
‘This is not the first time they have buried him,’ said the source, saying that earlier Ukrainian reports had wrongly reported his death in previous incidents.
‘So there will probably be no official denials this time either. They are simply not needed,’ said the account.
War correspondent Yury Kotenok said Prigozhin was not wounded.
But there was also a claim of ‘mild panic’ that Prigozhin had not been seen in the wake of the strike.
Wagner sources appeared to confirm the fact of a strike on its base in Popasna.
The private army is seen as crucial to Putin’s war effort on the frontlines amid claims over the failings of his regular forces.
Prigozhin (left) is an oligarch who rose to prominence organising lavish functions for Vladimir Putin (centre), earning him the nickname ‘Putin’s chef’