- Wagner Group is increasingly relying on its professional recruits as inmates flounder in Bakhmut.
- The monthslong battle in Ukraine’s east drags on as both sides face mounting losses.
- Wagner soldiers have played an outsized role in the battle of Bakhmut thus far.
Wagner Group, the powerful Russian paramilitary organization that sparked global outrage by offering convicted prisoners a change at freedom in exchange for their fighting in Ukraine, has been forced to draw upon its professional recruits to backfill the ranks of dying inmates in the city of Bakhmut, analysts and an official said.
As Russia draws closer to capturing the former salt-mining city in eastern Ukraine, both sides are facing mounting casualties in the monthlong fight. Russia has lost up to 30,000 soldiers in Bakhmut, according to Western officials, while Ukrainian forces have suffered thousands of deaths and injuries as well amid the ruined city.
As Wagner’s forces continue to fall, Russia is turning to more experienced troops to bridge the gap, according to The Institute for the Study of War, which said Monday that both Wagner and the traditional Russian military are committing to higher-quality special forces operators in an effort to conclusively take the city.
Wagner soldiers have played an outsized role in the battle of Bakhmut over the last six months, where its poorly-trained convicts are serving as “cannon fodder” amid a ruthless fight, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said last month.
A Ukrainian official’s recent comments regarding the mercenary group suggest Ukraine sees the brutal fighting in Bakhmut as an opportunity to deplete Wagner’s forces once and for all, according to the New York Times. Col. Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern group of forces, told Radio Liberty that Bakhmut marks Wagner Group’s “last stand,” he told Radio Liberty, per the Times.
Over approximately five months of recruiting, more than 40,000 former prisoners took Wagner’s offer to deploy in Ukraine, US officials said earlier this year. Meanwhile, US intelligence from December suggested an estimated 10,000 professional Russian soldiers, the majority of whom are veterans, were also acting as Wagner soldiers alongside the former inmates.
More than 30,000 of those fighters have since been killed or injured in the fighting, Kirby said last month.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group and a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, called for further reinforcements into Bakhmut on Monday, requesting additional ammunition and bodies, lest Ukraine launch a counteroffensive that he warned could cut off Wagner’s forces entirely and spell trouble for Russia.
Prigozhin previously compared the Bakhmut battle to a “meat grinder,” acknowledging that his men were dying at alarming rates, but suggesting the casualties would ultimately be worth it as Ukraine struggles with significant losses simultaneously. He suggested this week, however, that Russia’s entire front line would collapse if his fighters fail to secure Bakhmut.
Western military analysts and leaders have posited that the battle of Bakhmut is more symbolic than strategic for both sides, especially as Ukraine appears to be on the verge of losing the city. Russia and Ukraine have both indicated that continued fighting is essential to tear down the enemy, even as both suffer staggering losses.
Despite rumors that Ukraine was preparing to withdraw from Bakhmut, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday that he would send further reinforcements to the city. He warned this week that losing Bakhmut would give the Russians “open road” to other Ukrainian cities.
The fighting has grown so intense in and around Bakhmut that “fistfights” have broken out between Russian and Ukrainian troops, one Ukrainian soldier told the Washington Post this month.