The hunters of the Wagner group became the disposable infantry of the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine, but a Ukrainian military intelligence document obtained by CNN indicates how effective they were around the town of Bakhmut – and how difficult they are to fight.
Wagner is a private military contractor led by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been highly visible on the front lines in recent weeks – and always quick to claim Russian advances. Wagner’s fighters were heavily involved in the capture of Soledar, a few miles northeast of Bakhmut, and areas around the town.
The Ukrainian report – dated December 2022 – concludes that Wagner poses a unique threat up close, even while suffering extraordinary casualties. “The deaths of thousands of Wagner soldiers are of no importance to Russian society,” the report states.
“Assault groups do not withdraw without orders… The withdrawal of a team without authorization or without being injured is punishable by execution on the spot.”
Phone 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 grabbed him and cut his balls off,” the soldier said.
CNN cannot independently authenticate the call, which allegedly took place in November.
Wagner’s wounded fighters are often left on the battlefield for hours, according to the Ukrainian assessment. “Assault infantry are not allowed to transport wounded off the battlefield on their own, as their main task is to continue the assault until the objective is achieved. If the assault fails, retreat is also only permitted at night.
Despite a brutal indifference towards the victims – demonstrated by Prigozhin himself – the Ukrainian analysis says that Wagner’s tactics “are the only effective ones for the poorly trained mobilized troops which constitute the majority of the Russian ground forces”.
This suggests that the Russian military might even adapt its tactics to be 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 departure from the traditional Russian reliance on larger mechanized units.
On the ground, according to telephone interceptions from the Ukrainian intelligence services, some mobilized troops are thinking of switching to Wagner. In one such intercept, a soldier pits Wagner against his unit and says, “It’s fucking heaven and earth. So if I’m gonna fucking serve, I better fucking serve there.
The Ukrainian report indicates that wagner deploys its forces in mobile groups of around a dozen or fewer, using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and exploiting real-time intelligence from drones, which the report describes as “the key element.”
Another tool available to Wagner’s soldiers 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 operations there.
Convicts – dozens of thousands of which were recruited by Wagner – often form the first wave of an attack and suffer the heaviest casualties – up to 80% according to Ukrainian officials.
More experienced fighters with thermal imaging and night vision equipment follow.
For the Ukrainians, their own drones are essential to prevent 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 manage to take position, artillery support allows them to dig foxholes and consolidate their gains, but these foxholes are very vulnerable to attack in the open. And again – according to Ukrainian intercepts – coordination between Wagner and the Russian military is often lacking. In an intercepted call – again unverifiable – a soldier told his father that his unit had mistakenly pulled out a Wagner vehicle.
Prigozhin has repeatedly insisted his fighters were responsible for capturing the town of Soledar and nearby settlements last week, the first Russian military gains in months. “No units other than Wagner PMC agents were involved in the takeover of Soledar,” he claimed.
Wagner’s performance is Prigozhin’s route to more resources and instrumental in his ongoing battle with the Russian military establishment, which he has often criticized as incompetent and corrupt.
According to British intelligence, Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov gave the order to better prepare the soldiers. Prigozhin replied that “war is the time of the active and the brave, and not of the clean-shaven”.
Commenting on Gerasimov’s new restrictions, the British Ministry of Defense said on Monday: “The Russian force continues to suffer an operational stalemate and heavy casualties; Gerasimov’s prioritization of largely minor regulations is likely to confirm the fears of his many skeptics in Russia.
Gerasimov was appointed overall commander of Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine earlier this months amid growing criticism of his halting progress.
As long as the Russian Ministry of Defense is underperforming, Prigozhin will be nipping at its heels and demanding more resources for Wagner.
The group also seems capable of acquiring weapons through other means. US officials said last week that Wagner obtained weapons from North Korea. “Last month, North Korea delivered rockets and infantry missiles to Russia for Wagner’s use,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Prigozhin does not lack ambition. As he stood at Soledar last week, he said Wagner was probably “the most experienced army in the world today”.
He claimed that his forces already had several rocket launchers, their own air defenses and artillery.
Prigozhin also drew a subtle comparison between Wagner and the top-down rigidity of the Russian military, saying that “everyone in the field is listened to. The commanders consult the combatants and the leaders of the PMC (private military company) consult the commanders.
“That’s why the Wagner PMC 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 Prigozhin’s growing influence to that of Grigori Rasputin at the court of Tsar Nicholas II. “Putin needs military efficiency at all costs,” he said. TV today.
“There is a negative evil charisma in [Prigozhin], and in a sense this charisma can rival that of Putin. Putin now needs him in that capacity, in that form.
Prigozhin seems 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 posted over the weekend by his company Concord, he had his own typical twist.
“Unfortunately, I do not stop the blood flow. I bleed the enemies of our homeland. And not by incantations, but by direct contact with them.