A force led by President Vladimir Putin’s former bodyguard is trying to recruit veterans of the paramilitary force, which mutinied against Russian military leaders and saw its leader killed in a plane crash.
Russia’s armed forces are stepping up their efforts to recruit veterans of the Wagner paramilitary group, according to former fighters and military bloggers, as the Kremlin tries to avoid another round of mobilization and salvage some of the force’s fighting potential in the wake of its leader’s mutiny and death.
Four former Russian inmates who fought with Wagner in eastern Ukraine said they had received calls and messages offering new military contracts in recent weeks, confirming recent reports by Russian military bloggers. Three former fighters said they were specifically urged to join Rosgvardia, Russia’s militarized national guard.
Originally envisioned as a rear-guard force, Rosgvardia has gained prominence since the invasion of Ukraine under the leadership of Victor Zolotov, a former bodyguard of President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Putin has ordered one major mobilization since the invasion began, calling up hundreds of thousands of men, but he has resisted another draft of similar scale, in part to avoid stoking public discontent before next year’s presidential election.
“Wagner is officially becoming a unit of Rosgvardia,” read a recruitment text received by a former Wagner fighter last week and seen by The New York Times. “The entire structure, methods of work and commanders remain the same.”
The authenticity of the message could not be verified, but it comes amid wider efforts by Rosgvardia to present itself as a successor to Wagner, a sprawling pro-Kremlin paramilitary force that at its peak numbered tens of thousands fighters across three continents.
Wagner, relying heavily on prison convicts who enlisted in return for a pardon, played the leading part in Russia’s monthslong campaign to capture the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The city’s fall to Russia in May delivered the Kremlin’s only significant military victory in over a year of fighting, at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties.
But the personal rivalry between Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, and Russia’s military high command came to a head soon afterward, when Mr. Prigozhin mutinied in June, sending several thousands of troops on an aborted march on Moscow.
After the mutiny, Mr. Prigozhin led his loyalists into exile in neighboring Belarus, but he continued to travel inside Russia to manage his businesses there. In August, he and his closest commanders died in a plane crash in central Russia, in what Western intelligence officials have described as an assassination.
The Kremlin has denied involvement, calling the crash an accident.
Mr. Zolotov, the former bodyguard and current head of Rosgvardia, has been widely regarded as one of the main beneficiaries of Mr. Prigozhin’s downfall. Before the war, Rosgvardia had mostly guarded public events and broken up protests; during the invasion, its troops crossed into Ukraine to help occupy the conquered territory.
Shortly after Wagner’s mutiny, Mr. Zolotov announced that Rosgvardia would receive heavy weaponry — the kind of equipment that Wagner had once been given when Mr. Prigozhin was in the Kremlin’s favor.
Mr. Putin has long played senior officials and businessmen against each other, a system of rivalries that allowed Mr. Prigozhin’s feud with the military to fester. Some analysts have interpreted the move to bolster Rosgvardia as a way to strengthen a loyal faction, especially after the Russian Army offered no significant resistance to Wagner rebels as they neared the capital in June.
A regional Rosgvardia employee, not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed on condition of anonymity that the force has recently created a special brigade to receive former inmates who had fought for Wagner.
Other former Wagner members appear to have joined Rosgvardia’s Akhmat tactical unit based in the southern Russian region of Chechnya.
Russian state television published a video earlier this month purporting to show a training session by former Wagner members who now serve with Akhmat in Ukraine.
“We have preserved absolutely everything,” one apparent fighter, wearing both Wagner and Akhmat uniform patches, told the television channel RT. “We are the same as we were before.”
The claims made in the video could not be independently verified, but the fate of one former Wagner fighter does point to Akhmat’s attempts to recruit former paramilitaries. A former inmate named Aleksei Velizhantsev, who had previously served with Wagner, died in September in Ukraine after re-enlisting in Akhmat, according to a former comrade and a social media post posted by his mother.
The Russian Army, another sometime rival of Rosgvardia, has also sought to lure Wagner veterans, according to a person close to the country’s defense ministry, who discussed internal policy on condition of anonymity.
The independent Russian news outlet Important Stories this month published an internal Russian government recruitment document that listed former Wagner members as one of the target groups.
The defense ministry, which oversees the army, has claimed that it took hundreds of pieces of Wagner’s heavy weaponry following the mutiny. And shortly after Mr. Prigozhin’s death, Mr. Putin met with one of Wagner’s most senior surviving commanders and a deputy defense minister to discuss the creation of new “volunteer units” inside the Russian Armed Forces.
Oleg Matsnev contributed research.