Report By Tim Lister, Frederik Pleitgen, and Victoria Butenko, CNN
Wagner Group fighters have become the disposable infantry of the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine, but a Ukrainian military intelligence document obtained by CNN sets out how effective they have been around the city of Bakhmut – and how difficult they are to fight against.
Wagner is a private military contractor run by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been highly visible on the frontlines in recent weeks – and always quick to claim credit for Russian advances. Wagner fighters have been heavily involved in taking Soledar, a few miles northeast of Bakhmut, and areas around the town.
The Ukrainian report – dated December 2022 – concludes that Wagner represents a unique threat at close quarters, even while suffering extraordinary casualties. “The deaths of thousands of Wagner soldiers do not matter to Russian society,” the report asserts.
“Assault groups do not withdraw without a command… Unauthorized withdrawal of a team or without being wounded is punishable by execution on the spot.”
Phone intercepts obtained by a Ukrainian intelligence source and shared with CNN also indicate a merciless attitude on the battlefield. In one, a soldier is heard talking about another who tried to surrender to the Ukrainians.
“The Wagnerians caught him and cut his f**king balls off,” the soldier says.
CNN can’t independently authenticate the call, which is alleged to have taken place in November.
Wounded Wagner fighters are often left on the battlefield for hours, according to the Ukrainian assessment. “Assault infantry is not allowed to carry the wounded off the battlefield on their own, as their main task is to continue the assault until the goal is achieved. If the assault fails, retreat is also allowed only at night.”
Despite a brutal indifference to casualties – demonstrated by Prigozhin 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 majority of Russian ground forces.”
It suggests the Russian army may even be adapting its tactics to become more like Wagner, saying: “Instead of the classic battalion tactical groups of the Russian Armed Forces, assault units are proposed.”
That would be a significant change to the Russians’ traditional reliance on larger, mechanized units.
On the ground, according to Ukrainian intelligence phone intercepts, some mobilized troops are thinking about switching to Wagner. In one such intercept, a soldier contrasts Wagner with his unit and says: “It’s f**king heaven and earth. So if I’m going to f**king serve, I’d better f**king serve there.”
The Wagner way of war
The Ukrainian report says that Wagner deploys its forces in mobile groups of about a dozen or fewer, using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and exploiting real-time drone intelligence, which the report describes as the “key element.”
Another tool the Wagner soldiers have is the use of communications equipment made by Motorola, 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 have been recruited by Wagner – frequently form the first wave in an attack and take the heaviest casualties – as high as 80% according to Ukrainian officials.
More experienced fighters, with thermal imagery and night-vision equipment, follow.
For the Ukrainians, their own drone intelligence is critical to prevent their trenches 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 were able to fire RPGs.
If Wagner forces succeed in taking a position, artillery support allows them to dig foxholes and consolidate their gains, but those foxholes are very vulnerable to attack in open land. And again – according to Ukrainian intercepts – coordination between Wagner and the Russian military is often lacking. In one intercepted call – again not verifiable – 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 settlements in the past week, the first Russian military gains in months. “No units other than Wagner PMC operatives were involved in the storming of Soledar,” he claimed.
Wagner’s performance is Prigozhin’s route to more resources and is instrumental in his ongoing battle with the Russian military establishment, which he has frequently criticized as inept and corrupt.
According to UK intelligence, Russian military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov gave orders that soldiers should be better turned out. Prigozhin responded that “war is the time of the active and courageous, and not of the clean-shaven.”
Commenting on the new Gerasimov strictures, the UK Defense Ministry said Monday: “The Russian force continues to endure operational deadlock and heavy casualties; Gerasimov’s prioritisation of largely minor regulations is likely to confirm the fears of his many sceptics in Russia.”
Gerasimov was appointed the overall commander of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine earlier this month amid mounting criticism of its faltering progress.
So long as the Russian defense ministry underperforms, Prigozhin will snap at its heels and demand more resources for Wagner.
The group also appears able to gain weapons by other means. US officials said last week that Wagner had sourced arms from North Korea. “Last month, North Korea delivered infantry rockets and missiles into Russia for use by Wagner,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
The new Rasputin?
Prigozhin is not short of ambition. As he stood in Soledar last week, he declared that Wagner was probably “the most experienced army in the world today.”
He claimed its forces already had multiple launch rocket 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 listened to. Commanders consult with the fighters, and the PMC (private military company) leadership consults with the commanders.”
“That is 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 likened Prigozhin’s growing influence to that of Grigori Rasputin at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. “Putin needs military effectiveness at any cost,” he told Current Time TV.
“There is a negative diabolical charisma in [Prigozhin], and in a sense this charisma can compete with Putin’s. Putin now needs him in this capacity, in this form.”
Prigozhin appears to have been intrigued by the comparison with Rasputin, a mystical figure who treated the Tsar’s son for hemophilia, the bleeding disorder. But in comments this weekend published by his company Concord, he had his own typical twist on it.
“Unfortunately, I do not staunch blood flow. I bleed the enemies of our motherland. And not by incantations, but by direct contact with them.”