But the important role the Wagner Group has played in the conflict might be ending soon.
Wagner Group’s Meteoric Rise in Ukraine
Initially just a small supporting element of the Russian campaign, Wagner Group is now the protagonist in the conflict’s longest and one of the most brutal battles: Bakhmut.
To get where it is, Wagner Group had to play a lot of political offense within the Kremlin’s intricate power corridors.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader and backer of the mercenary group, is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He has been using his influence to secure more opportunities for his mercenaries. To be sure, the Wagner Group won on the ground where the Russian military was failing.
Through the use of human wave attacks, the private military company captured territory in and around Bakhmut. Its successes—regardless of how minimal they are in the overall war picture—have made Wagner Group a contestant for men and supplies.
But that hasn’t boded well for the Russian military. Indeed, the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense, namely Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, have been watching with alarm the ascendance of Prigozhin and Wagner Group. Bakhmut, the fight that brought Wagner Group to the forefront, might end up being its undoing.
Bakhmut: Wagner Group’s Graveyard?
Wagner Group has elbowed its way to the forefront of the Russian campaign because, at times, it has been more effective than the Russian military.
But that has come at a horrible cost.
The latest Western intelligence assessments indicate that the private military company has lost between 20,000 and 30,000 men killed and wounded in the fight for Bakhmut alone.
It seems like the Russian military leadership might be allowing Wagner Group to expend its forces, including its best units comprised of contractors with military experience, against the Ukrainian defenses so as to render the mercenary group combat ineffective.
Putin has appointed Gerasimov as the overall commander of the campaign in Ukraine, and the chief of the Russian General Staff is running the show.
Prigozhin constantly boasts about the capabilities of his mercenaries and their commitment to victory. In reality, however, Wagner Group has just been throwing men into the meat grinder and is gaining ground simply because of numbers.
In some cases, Ukrainian platoons and squads are repelling almost 20 assaults on their positions a day.
To make matters worse for the mercenary group, Wagner Group’s pool of recruits has dried up. At the beginning of the year, Wagner Group suddenly lost access to the crowded Russian penal colonies.
Now Prigozhin can’t go on recruitment tours.
“Russian military leadership may be allowing the Wagner Group to take high casualties in Bakhmut to simultaneously erode Prigozhin’s leverage while capturing the city at the expense of Wagner troops,” the Institute for the Study of War assessed in a recent operational update.
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A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.