Russia’s shadowy Kremlin-linked mercenary group is hiring new fighters with the promise of “travel and friendship” as it openly recruits soldiers for the first time.

Wagner, said to be operated by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Vladimir Putin’s former chef, sends secretive fighting groups around the world to look after Russian interests abroad.

Many have ended up fighting in Ukraine. But with casualties mounting in Russia’s regular army, analysts said army commanders were relying on more “volunteers” from organisations such as Wagner.

The British Ministry of Defence warned on Monday that Wagner itself was “lowering recruitment standards and hiring convicts”. “Very limited training is made available to new recruits,” it added.

Wagner’s new recruitment drive has resorted to using roadside billboards in Russia as well as social media to entice fresh fighters to join its ranks.

Part of the pitch is distancing itself from corrupt and incompetent Russian soldiers. Instead, Wagner sees itself as the Russian army’s shadowy rebel bad boys.

Wagner’s social media account on Telegram, called “The Reserve Side of the Medal”, has 290,000 subscribers and is filled with photos and videos set to rock music showing its fighters carrying modern rifles and promising travel and adventure. They look rugged and burly, compared to the often spindly Russian army conscripts.

Some photos showed Wagner mercenaries posing with sledgehammers, a nod to their reputation for banal brutality. In Syria, Wagner mercenaries were filmed killing an anti-regime fighter with a sledgehammer. They split his head open and then sawed it off.

Named after the military callsign of its Russian special forces founder, Wagner also plays up to its namesake, the German composer Richard Wagner, by referring to itself as an “orchestra” looking for “musicians”.

One recruitment photo showed five Wagner mercenaries posing in the destroyed town of Severodonetsk, in Donbas. They held guitars, a trumpet and a saxophone.

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