When Russia’s troops rolled into Ukraine last February it was with the strategy of quickly overthrowing the government in Kyiv and installing one more friendly to Vladimir Putin. It was, said the Russian president, a ‘special military operation’. But the operation failed and ever since more and more troops have been needed as the war approaches its first anniversary.

As the Guardian’s Pjotr Sauer tells Michael Safi, it is now not just professional soldiers of the Russian state that are involved in the fighting. Increasingly, the private Wagner firm of mercenaries has become pivotal to many of the battles taking place in Ukraine. Its ranks have ballooned to about 50,000, according to western intelligence estimates, including tens of thousands of ex-prisoners recruited from jails around Russia, often personally by Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

His own story is a remarkable one: serving time in prison as a young man before becoming a street-food seller, events coordinator and then private military commander. His rise says much about the state of modern Russia. But it has also made him plenty of enemies.

Yevgeny Prigozhin

Photograph: Reuters

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