A month ago, the Wagner Group private military company rattled Russian society.
In a stunning coup attempt that lasted a day, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin led his mercenaries into Russia, capturing a major city and the Russian military’s southern headquarters before stopping within range of Moscow.
A brokered truce saw Prigozhin exiled to Belarus and the Wagner Group handing over its heavy equipment back to the Russian military.
“Project K” and Wagner Group’s Legacy
The Wagner Group still maintains a fighting force of a few thousand troops, but by the end of the summer, the mercenary force will likely release the last of the prisoner mercenaries.
Under “Project K,” the Wagner Group private military company recruited tens of thousands of prisoners from Russia’s vast penal colonies. Signing a six-month contract to fight in Ukraine, the convicts were promised their freedom.
“In the coming days, Russia’s Wagner Group is likely to release the last of its convict recruits from their mandated service. Its Project K prison recruitment scheme peaked in early 2023, and at least 40,000 men served under it,” the British Military Intelligence assessed in its latest estimate of the war.
At the height of its power, the mercenary group could field around 50,000 mercenaries and convict fighters.
The Russian Ministry of Defense has extended an offer to absorb any Wagner Group mercenaries who are interested. At the same time, the Russian military is now using the same prison-to-battlefield pipeline to bolster its ranks with men.
“The project grew Wagner into the organization which, last month, directly challenged the authority of President Putin. It also marks one of the bloodiest episodes in modern military history: up to 20,000 convict recruits were killed within a few months,” the British Military Intelligence added.
In a rather humiliating realization for the Kremlin, a bunch of mercenaries and prisoners achieved more than the Russian military. This goes to highlight the limited offensive capabilities of the Russian regular forces when fighting a well-equipped and motivated adversary.
Wagner Group and Bakhmut
The infamous mercenary group made its name in the Battle of Bakhmut.
“The end of [Project K] marks a waypoint in the history of Wagner and of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The soldiers provided by Project K enabled Russia to seize Bakhmut: one of its few recent claims to success,” the British Military Intelligence added.
The Russian siege of the Ukrainian town is the bloodiest and longest battle of the war so far. In the year-long battle, the Russian forces lost more than 100,000 troops killed, wounded, and captured.
The Russian forces lost one man killed or wounded for every 19 inches of territory captured in and around Bakhmut, grim evidence of the bloody fighting for the town.
The Ukrainian forces also suffered heavy casualties, though more were wounded than killed compared to the Russians.
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.