Wagner Group fighters have become the available infantry of the 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 they are to fight.
Wagner is a private military contractor run by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been highly visible on the front lines in recent weeks — always quick to take credit for Russian advances. Wagner fighters have been heavily involved in taking Soledar, a few miles northeast of Bakhmut, and areas around the city.
The Ukrainian report – dated December 2022 – concludes that Wagner poses a unique threat at close quarters, even if he suffers extraordinary losses. “The deaths of thousands of Wagner soldiers do not matter to Russian society,” the report states.
“Assault groups do not retreat without orders… Unauthorized withdrawal of a team or without being injured is punishable by execution on the spot.”
Telephone intercepts obtained by a Ukrainian intelligence source and shared with CNN also indicate a ruthless attitude on the battlefield. In one, a soldier is heard talking about another who tried to surrender to the Ukrainians.
“The Wagnerians got him and cut off his fucking balls,” says the soldier.
CNN cannot independently verify the conversation, which allegedly took place in November.
Wounded Wagner fighters are often left on the battlefield for hours, the Ukrainian estimate shows. “Assault infantry should not carry the wounded from the battlefield alone, as their main task is to continue the attack until the objective is reached. If the attack fails, retreat is also only allowed at night.
Despite a ruthless indifference to casualties – demonstrated by Prigozhin himself – the Ukrainian analysis says that Wagner’s tactics are “the only ones effective for the poorly trained mobilized forces that make up the majority of Russia’s ground forces.”
It suggests that the Russian army is even adjusting its tactics to be more like Wagner, saying: “Instead of the classic tactical battalion groups of the Russian Armed Forces, assault units are proposed.”
That would be a major change in the Russians’ traditional reliance on larger, mechanized units.
According to Ukrainian intelligence intercepted telephones, some mobilized troops on the ground are considering switching to Wagner. In one such interception, a soldier confronts Wagner with his unit and says, “It’s goddamn heaven and earth. So if I’m gonna fucking serve, I better fucking serve right there.
The Ukrainian report says Wagner deploys his troops in mobile groups of about a dozen or less, using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and using real-time drone intelligence, which the report describes as the “key element”.
Another tool the Wagner soldiers have is the use of Motorola communications equipment, according to the document.
Motorola told CNN it has suspended all sales to Russia and closed its operations there.
Convicts – tens of thousands of whom were recruited by Wagner – often form the first wave of attacks and suffer the heaviest casualties – as high as 80%, according to Ukrainian officials.
More experienced hunters, with thermal imaging and night vision equipment, follow.
For the Ukrainians, their own drone intelligence is critical to keeping their trenches from being overrun by grenade attacks. The document recounts an incident in December where a drone spotted an advancing Wagner group, allowing Ukrainian defenses to take it out before the troops could fire RPGs.
If Wagner’s troops manage to take a position, they can dig foxholes with artillery support and consolidate their gains, but those foxholes are very vulnerable to attack in open country. And again – according to Ukrainian intercepts – there is often a lack of coordination between Wagner and the Russian army. In an intercepted call – again unverifiable – a soldier told his father that his unit had accidentally disabled a Wagner vehicle.
Prigozhin has repeatedly insisted that his fighters were responsible for the capture of the town of Soledar and nearby settlements over the past week, the first Russian military victories in months. “No units other than Wagner PMC agents were involved in the storming of Soledar,” he claimed.
Wagner’s actions are Prigozhin’s route to increased resources and play a major role in his ongoing battle with the Russian military establishment, which he has often criticized as inept and corrupt.
According to British intelligence, Russian military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov has ordered that soldiers be better deployed. Prigozhin replied that “war is the time of the active and courageous, and not of the clean-shaven.”
Commenting on the new Gerasimov restrictions, the British Ministry of Defense said on Monday: “The Russian force continues to endure operational deadlock and heavy casualties; Gerasimov’s prioritization of largely minor rules is likely to confirm the fears of his many skeptics in Russia.”
Gerasimov was named commander-in-chief of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine earlier this month amid growing criticism over its faltering progress.
As long as the Russian Defense Ministry underperforms, Prigozhin will be hot on his heels and demand more resources for Wagner.
The group also appears to be able to obtain weapons in other ways. US officials said last week that Wagner had taken weapons from North Korea. “Last month, North Korea delivered infantry missiles and missiles to Russia for use by Wagner,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Prigozhin does not lack ambition. Standing at Soledar last week, he stated that Wagner was probably “the most experienced army in the world today.”
He claimed that his forces already had multiple launcher systems, their own air defenses and artillery.
Prigozhin also made a subtle comparison between Wagner and the top-down rigidity of the Russian military, saying that “everyone who is on the ground is being listened to. Commanders consult with the fighters and the leadership of the PMC (Private Military Company) consults with the commanders.”
“That’s why the Wagner PMC has moved forward and will continue to move forward.”
Two months ago, Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, compared Prigozhin’s growing influence to that of Grigori Rasputin at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. “Putin needs military effectiveness at all costs,” he told Current Time TV.
“There is a negative devilish charisma in it [Prigozhin], and in a way this charisma can rival that of Putin. Putin needs him now in this capacity, in this form.”
Prigozhin seems intrigued by the comparison to Rasputin, a mystical figure who treated the Tsar’s son for haemophilia, the blood disease. But in comments published this weekend by his company Concord, he put his own signature spin on it.
“Unfortunately, I can’t measure blood flow. I bleed the enemies of our motherland. And not by incantations, but by direct contact with them.”