Russia's reliance on Wagner Group in Ukraine is wearing down Putin's favorite mercenary group, the British military says

A mural praises the Russian Wagner group and its mercenaries fighting in Ukraine on March 30, 2022 in Belgrade, Serbia.
A mural in Belgrade, Serbia, praising Wagner Group and its mercenaries, seen on March 30.Pierre Crom/Getty Images
  • As Russia's military struggles in Ukraine, Moscow has relied more on private military contractors.

  • Chief among them are the fighters of Wagner Group, a shadowy network with close ties to the Kremlin.

  • The intensity of the fighting against Ukraine's military has in turn taken a heavy toll on Wagner.

Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group has been fighting alongside — and often supplanting — the Russian military in Ukraine.

But Moscow's reliance on Wagner Group and its mercenaries is wearing down the infamous private military company, according to recent assessments by British military intelligence.

Wagner Group in Ukraine

Ukrainian serviceman walks next to a destroyed Russian main battle tank T-90M Proryv, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, near the village of Staryi Saltiv in Kharkiv region, Ukraine May 9, 2022. Picture taken May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Vitalii Hnidyi
A destroyed Russian T-90M tank in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on May 9.REUTERS/Vitalii Hnidyi

Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently hoping for a quick victory that would topple the government in Kyiv, has seen his vaunted military fail time and again in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has now limited its ambitions and is increasingly reliant on the Wagner Group to make up for the Russian military's lackluster performance and for the horrific losses that those regular forces have suffered.

In a July 18 update on the war, the British Ministry of Defense assessed that Moscow has used the Wagner Group to "reinforce front-line forces" in Ukraine and to alleviate force-generation issues created by heavy Russian casualties.

The total of Russian casualties after six months of war is not known publicly, and assessments vary, from US estimates of 70,000 to 80,000 total to Ukrainian estimates of 50,000 killed and many tens of thousands more wounded or missing.

Extensive Russian casualties and Moscow's inability to regenerate its forces have sapped its military's ability to conduct large-scale offensive operations. Those factors have made Wagner Group and its mercenaries a more appealing option for the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin grave gravestone in Ukraine
A soldier by a mock grave for Russian President Vladimir Putin near Zaporizhzhya in Ukraine on May 9.Rick Mave/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Besides the legal complications of that approach — captured mercenaries wouldn't be protected by the Geneva Conventions, for example — an expanded role looks likely to have negative consequences for Wagner and for the Russian campaign as a whole.

Indeed, Wagner Group also appears to be suffering heavy casualties in Ukraine. In mid-August, Ukrainian forces used US-provided HIMARS rockets to strike a forward headquarters of the mercenary group in the Luhansk region.

The strike reportedly killed and wounded Wagner Group fighters. "There is no more Wagner HQ in Popasna. Thank you, Himars and the Armed Forces of Ukraine!" Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of Ukraine's Parliament, said after the strike.

Like Russia's regular military, Wagner Group has been forced to lower its standards in order to replenish its ranks. The mercenary group is drawing from unconventional sources, including convicts who have been promised freedom in exchange for fighting in Ukraine.

Russian soldiers troops grave cemetery Kharkiv Ukraine
Ukrainian personnel look over a grave for Russian troops near Kharkiv on May 9.Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"Very limited training is made available to new recruits," The British Ministry of Defense said in its July 18 assessment, adding that the trend "will highly likely impact on the future operational effectiveness of the group and will reduce its value as a prop to the regular Russian forces."

Wagner forces have been aiding regular Russian troops in achieving what are now Moscow's main objectives, including the capture of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk this summer, which gave Russia control of the Luhansk region.

Amid those operations, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the oligarch believed to oversee Wagner Group, was granted the title Hero of the Russian Federation. That award, and Wagner's growing role in the war, come as senior Russian military commanders are being fired and replaced because of their forces' poor performance.

The Kremlin's increasing reliance on Wagner Group, among other private military companies, "is likely to exacerbate grievances between the military and Wagner" and "to impact negatively on Russian military morale," the Ministry of Defense said in its July 18 assessment.

Wagner Group

Putin and Prigozhin in white coats, with the latter pointing at something off-camera
Yevgeny Prigozhin with Putin at a factory outside St. Petersburg in September 2010.ALEXEY DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Wagner and other mercenary groups, many of which originated from the exodus of military personnel following the Soviet collapse, are closely linked to powerful interests in Moscow.

The Kremlin's internal workings — intelligence services, the military, and oligarchs competing for resources and influence — have created the perfect conditions for Wagner to emerge and grow.

Wagner has earned Putin's favor and international infamy from its operations on every battlefield it has deployed to over the past decade, including conflicts in Libya, Mali, Syria, the Central African Republic, and Ukraine.

Wagner's mercenaries have also engaged US troops, most notably in northeastern Syria in 2018, when Wagner and Syrian pro-regime fighters attacked an outpost manned by US and Kurdish forces.

US forces made quick work of the attackers, killing hundreds, including many Wagner members.

russia syria
Syrian and Russian soldiers at a checkpoint in Damascus in March 2018.Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Outside of Ukraine, the US is watching Wagner closely, especially in Africa, where the group is Moscow's "main action arm," US Army Gen. Stephen Townsend said at a Defense Writers Group event in late July.

Wagner has roughly 1,000 fighters in Mali, where the group has deployed "sophisticated" radars and air defenses, but it appears to have "the greatest influence and sway" in the Central African Republic, where "basically they prop up that government," said Townsend, who retired as head of US Africa Command in August.

Townsend said Wagner had pulled mercenaries from Africa, mostly from Libya, to support operations in Ukraine.

When Russia's military "got into trouble in Ukraine," Townsend said, "they called for help and Prigozhin was tasked to send fighters there, and he has."

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a 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. He is currently working toward a master's degree in strategy and cybersecurity at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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