The European Union has accused the Wagner Group of committing serious human rights violations in Ukraine, Africa, Syria and Libya.
The formerly secret Russian Wagner Group, a special mercenary force, has opened its first official headquarters in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg.
The group, controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, opened its gleaming, glass-fronted multi-story building – topped with a large white “Wagner” sign – on Friday.
The opening of the “Wagner Center” is seen as another step by Prigozhin to publicize his military qualifications and play a more public role in shaping Russia’s defense policy.
Wagner’s public-facing headquarters follows Prigozhin’s recent steps to boost his public image, compared to the years the Russian businessman spent operating his military might in the shadows.
Prigozhin made a series of outspoken interventions about Russia’s setbacks in its war in Ukraine, and joined with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in mocking the performance of Moscow’s generals.
He has long denied that he is behind Wagner, whose contract soldiers support the Russian military in Ukraine and operate in Africa, Syria and Libya.
Prigozhin last month publicly confirmed for the first time that he is the founder of Wagner.
The European Union has accused the Wagner Group, most of whose members are ex-service workers, of human rights abuses and said they carried out covert operations on behalf of Moscow. The United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Prigogine for his role in the group.
In 2021, the European Union said the Wagner Group was responsible for abuses, including torture and extrajudicial killings, in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique.
“The mission of the PMC Wagner Center is to provide a comfortable environment for the generation of new ideas to improve Russia’s defense capability,” Prigozhin said in a statement marking its launch on Friday.
There were no signs at the opening of Prigozhin himself, who is sometimes called “Putin’s chef” due to his sprawling catering business that swept government contracts.
The opening of the grand steel and glass office building on Friday was attended by a mix of veterans in uniform and young professionals in the tech and cultural sphere, with lectures from nationalist and pro-Kremlin figures saying the Wagner headquarters will help “make our great country even better”.
People in camouflage clothing wandered the gray corridors of the building, looking at an exhibit of military drones. A truck decorated with the “Z” symbol used by Russian forces in Ukraine was parked outside.
“We invite start-ups working in the field of information technology and industrial technology and those who develop new ideas and are ready to apply them in the field of national defense,” said Anastasia Vasilevskaya, press secretary of the center.
“We are of course interested in projects that can serve as an alternative to imports,” she said.
Western sanctions on Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine have made it difficult for Russia to purchase foreign weapons technology.
“The creation of such a center was a long time coming. The only thing was that it seemed really late,” said Alexei Savinsky, a Wagner volunteer, dressed in camouflage uniforms.
This center had to be opened a year before the special military operation. So, it’s two years behind schedule,” he said, using Russia’s official term for its invasion of Ukraine.