The Wagner Group, the shadowy mercenary army controlled by a Russian business magnate known as “Putin‘s chef,” has used one of the fiercest battles of the 11-month-old Ukraine invasion to insert itself into the fight and raise its profile abroad and its political influence at home.
Analysts say the private army has sent about 50,000 hired troops to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion almost a year ago. The Biden administration says that the vast majority, at least 40,000, were convicts swept out of Russian prisons who were offered pardons in exchange for a six-month tour of frontline duty.
Although it has worrisome deployments in Syria and sub-Saharan Africa, the fighting this week has been a coming-out party of sorts in the Ukraine fight for the Wagner Group and its increasingly powerful boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Wagner Group mercenaries have led the ongoing fight in Bakhmut and Soledar, two towns in eastern Ukraine where the Kremlin is pressing for a symbolically significant win in the face of determined Ukrainian resistance.
Russia claimed Friday that its forces had captured Soledar, a fiercely contested salt-mining town, in what would mark a rare victory for the Kremlin after a series of setbacks in the war. But Ukrainian authorities said the fight for Soledar continued.
Mr. Prigozhin, who has not been shy about criticizing the performance of Russia‘s regular army in the Ukraine invasion, has claimed repeatedly this week that his own forces now control Soledar, a claim that the Kyiv government denies.
Mr. Prigozhin said in a video circulated in early January that it was “exclusively” his troops who had taken and held the ground around Soledar. He also boasted that “Bakhmut is the central point of the Eastern Front and a serious logistics center.”
The Wagner Group‘s “task,” the business magnate claimed, “is to die there as little as possible, and to destroy the enemy as much as possible.”
Analysts say Mr. Prigozhin, a former restaurateur who enjoys a close relationship with Mr. Putin, is likely setting the stage to blame his lack of progress in Bakhmut on Russia’s defense ministry and the country’s industrial base.
“Wagner Group soldiers told Prigozhin that they were unable to break through Ukrainian lines in Bakhmut due to insufficient armored vehicles, ammunition, and 100mm shell supplies,” according to the Institute for the Study of War think tank in Washington.
The infighting and the carousel of Russian generals Mr. Putin has put in charge of his “special military operation” — including a new Russian military commander in Ukraine named just this week — may look dysfunctional. But some say the Wagner Group‘s ill-defined role could serve Mr. Putin‘s larger purposes as the war drags on.
“Playing rival factions against one another is a tried-and-true tactic Putin uses to cement his own position and check powerful actors,” John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank, said in an interview.
A top Pentagon official told The Washington Times that there was a “symbiotic relationship” between the Wagner Group and Russia’s conventional military establishment. While it is a privately owned company, the Wagner Group is not completely independent, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura K. Cooper.
“It is certainly operating as part of an overall Russian military invasion of Ukraine with the support of Russian leaders,” Ms. Cooper said. “It is drawing on resources of the Russian state, to include by drawing on convicts and sending them into battle.”
While private military companies (PMCs) are technically illegal under Russian law, the Wagner Group mercenaries have been deployed in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Sudan. The private companies give the Kremlin a foreign policy tool that can be disowned — at least publicly — if the mission goes sideways.
Despite its owner’s claims, the Wagner Group‘s combat record has been mixed.
In February 2018, Wagner mercenaries took part in an assault on U.S. and allied positions in eastern Syria. U.S. airstrikes on the attackers are believed to have killed at least 300 Russian personnel, in a clash both sides seemed eager to hush up.
“It must be the way Putin wants it because he set it up this way,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. “He has fostered this situation where [Mr. Prigozhin and Russia’s Defense Ministry] are both reporting to him.”
Mr. Prigozhin has publicly feuded with Russia’s military elite, leveling harsh criticism against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff who was tapped by Mr. Putin as the new overall commander for the Russian military’s Ukraine operation on Wednesday.
“To state the obvious, this sort of infighting is not exactly helpful for Russia’s military effort. I continue to suspect that Russia’s unity of command in Wagner’s area of responsibility may be less than perfect, to put it mildly,” said Mr. Hardie with the FDD.
With the public criticism of Russia’s military leaders, analysts say paramilitary operatives like Mr. Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord, are appealing to Mr. Putin, who has made no official moves to rein them in or silence their critiques of his generals.
“Putin is positioned as the arbiter and has the power to pick who wins and loses,” said Mr. Hardie.
Mr. Putin comes from the KGB — the intelligence arm of the former Soviet government — rather than the military. The Wagner Group works in a manner that he’s likely more familiar with: assets that are directly controlled by a handler.
“It reflects his background. This is kind of the way [the KGB] operates. I don’t think it’s doing him any favors in Ukraine,” said Gen. Spoehr. “I don’t think Putin is 100% trusting of the conventional military leaders.”
Gen. Spoehr told The Times that with most of the Wagner Group‘s fighters coming from Russia’s prison system, the group is not particularly suited for the kind of detailed, methodical operations required for urban warfare in places like Bakhmut.
“Urban operations are very difficult. Most armies try to avoid cities when they can,” Gen. Spoehr said. “The Wagner Group can hold areas in the defense. When they have to go on offense against a well-defended area, that’s where this model breaks down.”
Even as the Wagner Group takes heavy casualties in Ukraine, the first inmates recruited from Russian jails have completed their six-month service in Ukraine and received pardons, Mr. Prigozhin told reporters last week.
“They worked off their contract. They worked with honor [and] with dignity,” he told the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti. “Nobody else in this world works as hard as they did.”
The Wagner Group likely needs to replenish its forces after taking such heavy losses, predominantly of former prisoners.
Analysts say it’s not clear that the “pardons” Mr. Prigozhin has announced for Wagner Group veterans would pass legal muster in Russia, where only the president has the authority to grant such clemency
“Prigozhin likely publicized the supposed pardons to augment the Wagner Group’s recruitment campaign in Russian prisons,” according to the ISW. “Prigozhin also likely publicized the pardons to reassure the reportedly 80% of deployed Wagner Group personnel in Ukraine who have been promised some type of legal reward for their participation in hostilities.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Yevgeny Prigozhin‘s name.