It was supposed to be Russia’s secret weapon for a swift and efficient victory in Ukraine. But in the year since Wagner Group mercenaries were dispatched to Kyiv to hunt down Ukraine’s president, what was once an elite murder squad has become a group of mostly ill-trained and unequipped convicts who today serve as “cannon fodder”.
On February 27, 2022, just four days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian intelligence services said they had uncovered an unnerving plot. A special operations unit, consisting of some 400 mercenaries belonging to private Russian military company the Wagner Group, had been deployed to Kyiv to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his cabinet. In all, 23 names were on the hit list, including Kyiv’s Mayor Vitali Klitschko.
“The mercenaries were very dangerous at that point in time because they were very well equipped, skilled and experienced, with most of them having been flown in from the group’s other missions in Syria and Mali and so on,” explained Karen Philippa Larsen, a global security researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and one of the few academic experts in the world dedicated to studying the Wagner Group.
Putin’s secret army
The Wagner Group was founded in 2014 to help Russia annex Crimea, but has since expanded into an international organisation with operations in some 30 countries, notorious for its brutality. Up until the war in Ukraine, the group was shrouded in secrecy, carrying out covert missions for the Russian state in countries including the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and Syria, offering Moscow convenient plausible deniability in armed conflicts it did not want to be seen to be involved in.
Although the group had remained in Ukraine after 2014, Russia’s invasion of the country last year marked a huge influx of the specially trained mercenaries. According to Ukraine intelligence, between 2,000 and 3,000 Wagner contractors entered the country in January 2022 – some two months before Russia launched its invasion, on February 24.
“A month before that, in December, we had started seeing on different channels that the Wagner Group was recruiting again. Back then, no one really knew what the recruitments were for, but then the invasion came,” Larsen recalled.
Reports that the group had sent a special team into Kyiv to assassinate Zelensky and his entourage prompted the Ukrainian government to immediately impose a 36-hour “hard” lockdown during which Ukrainian troops swept the capital for Russian agents. Anyone venturing out during that time risked being stopped or worse.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to “remove” the Ukrainian government with the help of Wagner mercenaries and take control of Kyiv “within days” was effectively botched.
Then, on April 1, horrifying images started to emerge from the small city of Bucha, some 25 kilometres northwest of Kyiv.
Russian forces had retreated from Bucha a day earlier, after an almost month-long occupation, and after they left, bodies of unarmed civilians were found strewn across the city. Many of them were found with their hands bound behind their backs, while others had been either mutilated or burnt. According to local authorities, 419 people, including nine children, were killed during the occupation. Residents have since also recounted harrowing accounts of both torture and rape.
Although Russian troops were quickly pegged as the main culprits, members of the Wagner Group played a key role in the atrocities too.
“They weren’t alone in committing them, but they were there as well, and it definitely shows how brutal they can be,” Larsen said.
In the beginning of the summer, those watching the group suddenly noticed a remarkable shift in its recruitment strategy. Instead of posting its usual social media ads targeting former military professionals, it had started recruiting in Russian prisons.
In a video leaked on the Telegram messaging app, Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close Putin ally who had long been rumoured to be the de facto leader of the Wagner Group, was seen addressing inmates and offering them a pardon in exchange for six months of service with the company in Ukraine – if, of course, they managed to survive.
“This marked a big shift and really affected the group’s make-up,” Larsen said, pointing to the fact that out of 50,000 Wagner fighters estimated to have been deployed to Ukraine since the start of the war, at least 40,000 have come from Russian prisons.
“But in contrast to original Wagner Group members, these convicts were just given a few weeks of training – which barely gives you enough time to familiarise yourself with a gun – and they were not at all as well equipped,” she said.
The convicts – viewed by more experienced mercenaries as underdogs – were then sent on the “most dangerous missions in the most dangerous places” of Ukraine, Larsen explained. She referred in particular to the frontline in Ukraine’s east, in places like Bakhmut, which has widely been described as a “meat grinder”.
“They started sending them out on the field to see where the Ukrainians were shooting from, Larsen said, “using them as cannon fodder”.
At the end of September, Prigozhin, who had long denied his ties to the group and even sued journalists for reporting such claims, finally acknowledged he was indeed the original founder and owner of the Wagner Group.
Larsen said Prigozhin’s sudden change of heart might be explained by the fact that he wanted to give the Wagner Group an official voice – helping to claim its proper recognition – but also as a way to position himself on the Russian political scene as a “can-do” military strongman.
By then, the Wagner Group had started collecting a growing number of victories, while the Russian army was doing the exact opposite. A bitter rivalry began to take shape, in which Prigozhin and his men openly, and more and more fervently, accused the army and its Moscow leadership of incompetence.
But the Wagner Group was paying a steep price for its battleground successes: Larsen estimates that as many as 40,000, or 80 percent, of its fighters in Ukraine have either been killed, deserted or surrendered – most of them in the past few months alone.
“There are only around 10,000 of them still fighting,” she said, adding that the Wagner deaths are conveniently not included in Russia’s official statistics on losses because the fighters are not part of “the official structure”.
In November, the group’s ruthless culture was underscored even further when a video emerged showing Wagner fighters executing a deserter with a sledgehammer.
Commenting on the brutal video, Prigozhin called the man a traitor and said: “a dog receives a dog’s death”.
Out in the cold
In December and January, the Wagner Group’s growing rivalry with the Russian army came to head in the battle for Soledar. This is where the group is believed to have lost the bulk of its force after staging several of its now notorious human wave attacks. “A suicide mission,” Larsen said, noting that it was the sheer number of fighters running into the line of fire, rather than any military skill, which finally resulted in the city finally falling into Russian hands.
On January 11, the Wagner Group was first to claim it had captured Soledar, but the statement received no support from Moscow. A day later, the Russian defence ministry claimed its forces had taken the city, without mentioning the involvement of the Wagner mercenaries who had spearheaded the assault and broken through enemy lines. The move infuriated Prigozhin who publicly lashed out against the Russian defence ministry, accusing it of trying to “steal the victory”.
Since then, the mood between the two has grown more and more sour.
At the beginning of February, the Wagner Group announced – despite its huge shortage of fighters – that it had stopped its prison recruiting. According to Larsen, this may have come on the direct orders of the defence ministry, which is the group’s main supplier and therefore has the power to squeeze its resources should it see fit.
“Russian laws were changed recently to allow the army to recruit people with criminal records,” she explained. Now that the Russian army itself has started recruiting former and even current prisoners, its need for the Wagner Group’s convict fighters is much less acute.
In the middle of February, Prigozhin accused Moscow’s military chiefs of “high treason”, seeking to destroy his group by withholding munitions.
Larsen said that in the year since the Russian invasion, the Wagner Group is no way near the professional elite force it once was. And it is clear that Moscow is increasingly leaving Prigozhin out in the cold.
“But Prigozhin shouldn’t be underestimated, he’s shown before that he has the skills to use all the tools he is given. It can go two ways: either Prigozhin leaves Ukraine and builds up a very specialised force outside of it, or he insists on staying in Ukraine – but that would largely depend on his ability to recruit new fighters, which has now become a lot harder.”
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