WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW!
- Russian paramilitary group Wagner has been using disposable penal battalions to advance in the Ukrainian conflict.
- The group executes troopers who retreat or surrender and has a disregard for losses.
- Wagner has emerged as a unique threat to Ukrainian defenders, advancing when the regular Russian military remains stalled.
Russian paramilitary group Wagner has emerged as a significant threat to Ukrainian defenders in the conflict in Bakhmut. The group uses disposable penal battalions made up of convicts recruited from Russian prisons, promising amnesty if they survive for six months. Those who attempt to retreat or surrender are executed on the spot. Wagner’s disregard for losses has allowed them to advance, even when the regular Russian military remains largely stalled.
The Ukrainian military has suffered high rates of casualties in the fight for Bakhmut, which could hinder its ability to mount a spring offensive. At times, up to 18 waves of Wagner troops have attacked a single trench in a 24-hour period.
A Wagner fighter doesn’t have an option to pull back, as their only chance of survival is to keep moving ahead, even if it means risking certain death. Ukrainian forces cannot respond in kind because they do not have as much personnel and are sensitive to losses.
Wagner started off around 2014 as a private-military company that relied on experienced Russian military veterans and operated in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and Mali. After critical successes allowed Russia to capture Ukrainian-held parts of the Luhansk region, Mr. Prigozhin secured Mr. Putin’s permission to start recruiting in Russian prison camps. Inmates were offered a promise of amnesty if they survived for six months. Those deserting, surrendering, drinking, taking drugs or engaging in sex were to be executed. As many as 50,000 prisoners have signed up, with nearly all of them sent to the Bakhmut front.
The conflict in Bakhmut is threatening Ukraine’s ability to mount a strategic counteroffensive once the current mud season ends in the spring and unpaved roads become passable again. The war is won not by the party that gains territory, but by the party that destroys the armed forces of the adversary.
Ukrainian brigades have big differences in the level of training and morale, and don’t always have proper communication with one another. Wagner’s tactic has been to target weaker units, Ukrainian commanders in the Bakhmut area say.