The fighters of the Wagner group became the disposable infantry Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine, but a Ukrainian military intelligence document obtained by CNN shows how effective they have been around the town of Bakhmut — and how difficult it is to fight them.
Wagner is a private military contractor run by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been very visible on the front lines in recent weeks – and is always quick to take credit for Russian advances. Wagner’s fighters were heavily involved in the capture of Soledar, a few miles northeast of Bakhmut, and the areas surrounding the town.
The Ukrainian report – dated December 2022 – concluded that Wagner posed a unique threat at close range, even as he suffered extraordinary casualties. “The death of thousands of Wagner soldiers does not matter to Russian society,” the report said.
“Assault parties do not withdraw without command. . . . Unauthorized withdrawal of a team or without injury is punishable by execution on the spot.”
Wiretaps obtained by a Ukrainian intelligence source and shared with CNN also show a ruthless attitude on the battlefield. In one, a soldier is heard talking about another who tried to surrender to the Ukrainians.
“The Wagnerites caught him and cut his fucking balls off,” says the soldier.
CNN could not independently verify the call, which allegedly took place in November.
Wagner’s wounded fighters often remained on the battlefield for hours, according to the Ukrainian assessment. “Assault infantry have no right to carry the wounded off the battlefield themselves, since their main task is to continue the assault until the objective is achieved. If the attack is unsuccessful, retreat is also allowed only at night.
Despite the brutal indifference to the victims – demonstrated by Prigogine himself – the Ukrainian analysis says that Wagner’s tactics “are the only ones that are effective for the poorly trained mobilized troops that make up the bulk of the Russian ground forces.”
This suggests that the Russian military may even adapt its tactics to become more like Wagner, saying: “Instead of the classic battalion tactical groups of the Russian armed forces, assault units are offered.”
This would be a significant change from the Russians’ traditional reliance on larger, mechanized units.
On the ground, according to intercepted phone calls by Ukrainian intelligence, some mobilized soldiers are considering defecting to Wagner. In one such conversation, a soldier contrasts Wagner with his unit and says, “This is king of heaven and earth. So if I’m going to serve the hell out, I better serve the hell out there.”
This is what the Ukrainian report says Wagner deploys its forces in mobile groups of around a dozen or fewer, using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and using real-time intelligence from drones, which the report describes as a “key element”.
Another tool Wagner’s troopers have is the use of communications equipment made by Motorola, according to the document.
Motorola told CNN it has halted all sales in Russia and closed its operations there.
Convicted – dozens thousands of which were recruited by Wagner – often form the first wave in an attack and inflict the heaviest casualties – up to 80% according to Ukrainian officials.
Next come more experienced fighters with thermal imaging and night vision equipment.
For the Ukrainians, their own drone reconnaissance is critical to preventing their trenches from being overwhelmed by grenade attacks. The document recounts an incident in December in which a drone spotted an advancing Wagner group, allowing Ukrainian defenses to eliminate it before its troops could fire RPGs.
If Wagner’s forces were able to hold a position, artillery support allowed them to dig foxholes and consolidate their gains, but these foxholes were very vulnerable to attack in the open. And again – according to Ukrainian intercepts – there is often a lack of coordination between Wagner and the Russian army. In one intercepted call — again unverifiable — a soldier told his father that his unit had mistakenly taken out a Wagner vehicle.
Prigozhin has repeatedly insisted that his fighters were responsible for capturing the town of Soledar and nearby villages last week, the first Russian military successes in months. “No units other than PMC Wagner operatives took part in the Soledar assault,” he claimed.
Introducing Wagner was Prigogine’s route to more resources and was instrumental in his ongoing battle with the Russian military establishment, which he has often criticized as incompetent and corrupt.
According to British intelligence, the chief of staff of the Russian army, Valery Gerasimov, gave the order that the soldiers should be better expelled. Prigogine replied that “war is the time of the active and brave, not of the clean-shaven.”
Commenting on Gerasimov’s new restrictions, the UK Ministry of Defense said on Monday: “Russian forces continue to suffer operational stalemate and heavy casualties; Gerasimov’s prioritization of largely secondary regulations is likely to confirm the fears of his many skeptics in Russia.
Gerasimov was appointed as the main commander of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine earlier this month amid growing criticism of his faltering progress.
As long as the Russian Ministry of Defense does not perform well, Prigozhin will snap at his heels and demand more resources for Wagner.
The group also appears to be able to obtain weapons in other ways. U.S. officials said last week that Wagner was supplying weapons from North Korea. “Last month, North Korea delivered cruise missiles and rockets to Russia for use by Wagner,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Prigozhin does not lack ambitions. While standing in Soledar last week, he declared that Wagner was probably “the most experienced army in the world today.”
He claims its forces already have multiple missile systems, their own air defenses and artillery.
Prigogine also made a subtle comparison between Wagner and the top-down rigidity of the Russian army, saying that “everyone on the ground listens. The commanders consult with the fighters, and the leadership of the PMC (private military company) consults with the commanders.
“That’s why PMC Wagner has moved forward and will continue to move forward.”
Two months ago, Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, compared Prigogine’s growing influence to that of Grigory Rasputin at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. “Putin needs military efficiency at all costs,” he said Current Time TV.
“There is a negative devilish charisma inside [Prigozhin], and in some ways this charisma can be compared to that of Putin. Now Putin needs him in this capacity, in this form.
Prigogine appears to have been intrigued by the comparison to Rasputin, a mystical figure who cured the Tsar’s son of hemophilia, a blood-clotting disorder. But in comments this weekend released by his company, Concord, he had his own typical twist.
“Unfortunately, I don’t stop the circulation. I bleed the enemies of our country. And not through spells, but through direct contact with them.”
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