Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization that acted as a shadow company for years, has taken a prominent role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The group has taken the lead in major combat operations such as the battles of Soledar and Bakhmut, and it has earned praise from Russian hardliners and military bloggers.
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Wagner’s movements on the battlefield are closely monitored not only by Western intelligence, but also by the Russian Ministry of Defense. As Ukraine started to liberate parts of its territory over the last several months, Russian generals came under increased scrutiny by Putin’s hardline factions, one of which is led by his former personal chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is Wagner’s CEO.
Prigozhin fought for years to deny the Wagner Group’s very existence. He even filed lawsuits against Bellingcat for investigating the shadow group’s illicit activities. In late 2022, Prigozhin finally acknowledged the group’s existence and announced that it would take charge of its own combat operations — a direct challenge to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov.
Wagner Group: A Convict’s Last Refuge
Russia’s military operations in Ukraine have stagnated, to say the least. After Russia used up much of its prewar combat power in the battles of Mariupol, Kyiv oblast, and Severodonetsk, the Ukrainians were able to conduct mechanized offensives that left Russian forces in disarray in Kharkiv and Kherson.
Battlefield setbacks and strategic Ukrainian strikes against the Crimean Bridge and the Black Sea Fleet prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to continuously reorganize his chain of command. These changes had little result on the battlefield, and this is when Prigozhin’s Wagner Group started to act on its own goals.
Leading recruitment efforts to address the Russian military’s manpower deficiencies, Wagner officials have swelled their ranks with convicts, promising them full pardons if their contracts are fulfilled — no matter what their crimes were.
It is estimated that tens of thousands of prisoners have swelled the ranks of the organization to take part in combat operations in Ukraine.
Pyrrhic Victories, But Calculated
During the Battles of Bakhmut and Soledar, the group has used these convicts for frontal assaults.
This battlefield method has seen some success for Moscow, as the convicts draw out artillery fire that Russian forces can pinpoint and counter. They also deplete Ukraine’s ammunition in a war that has become an artillery duel.
The capture of Soledar showed Wagner’s methods bringing a much-needed psychological victory to the Kremlin — Russian forces have been unable to advance anywhere else in Ukraine over the past several months. Nonetheless, the battle also weakened Wagner, as many of its recruits were killed and injured taking the city in an assault that lasted five months.
In Bakhmut, despite some success, Russian forces and Wagner have not moved into the city.
With Kyiv’s liberation of Lyman, Bakhmut isn’t as strategic as it once was, but Wagner persists. Prigozhin admits he wants this city and Soledar due to their rich salt mines, which could further fund the organization.
Prigozhin has enriched himself through illicit activities not just in Ukraine, but in Africa as well. Sudanese sources have reported that Wagner, along with Sudan’s military junta, is forcing locals to mine diamonds, often executing those who refuse to carry out the slave labor.
The United Nations is also investigating massacres allegedly conducted by the company in the Central African Republic — actions that would prop up that country’s own military junta.
Wagner’s taking the lead in much of the Donbas fighting is not seen positively by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Wagner Group leaders berate the Russian command for not supplying them with further weaponry as they fight. Prigozhin openly sparred with the Ministry, claiming his forces were responsible for capturing Soledar, while Russian generals insist their paratroopers won the battle.
During the war, Prigozhin has also turned himself into a public relations darling, visiting the frontline several times, which Putin and Shoigu have never done. Two of Prighozin’s visits have taken place in the Bakhmut fields, and the other in the salt mines of the now-captured Soledar. These visits are a direct slight and a challenge to the Russian leadership.
Putin has taken note of Prigozhin’s ambitions. The Russian president sidelined Gen. Sergei Surovikin, nicknamed “General Armageddon” for his carpet-bombing tactics, replacing him with Gen. Gerasimov as the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine. Surovikin was praised by hardliners such as Ramzan Kadyrov and Prigozhin when he took command, and his demotion under Gerasimov, whom Prigozhin has criticized, can be interpreted as a direct warning to the Wagner Group head.
Power Struggles Present and Future
Wagner Group has suffered heavy casualties in recent months while taking their own initiative. The Ministry of Defense can take advantage of this by forcing Prigozhin to embed his forces under Gerasimov’s command, but issues still remain between the factions.
A Wagner commander recently fled to Norway, willing to testify on the brutality of the organization in return for clemency. The Russian economy, heavily impacted by lack of energy exports and sanctions, is having a hard time paying its conscripts. Putin himself cut their payments in the fall due to the country’s partial mobilization, leaving Wagner Group able to offer better-paying contracts compared to standard military service.
Kadyrov’s praise of Wagner has also helped the organization’s reputation. Putin cannot openly criticize the Chechen warlord. He fears to weaken his aura of power, lest he be overthrown by an anti-Russian rebel leader. Keeping the hardline factions pleased despite their disregard for the Russian military command and their numerous war crimes will be a priority for the Russian autocrat, who is becoming weaker on the international stage by the day.
It will be interesting to assess Wagner’s overall impact as Gerasimov, the original commander from last year’s invasion force, takes operational charge. Like the balkanization of the Soviet Union and Russian Empire, if the Russian Federation were to suffer a military or economic collapse, the world should prepare for a new round of civil wars among the oligarchs and warlords of the federation.
Prigozhin will look to ascend as high as he can in a new Russia. But can he properly manage his ambitions?