SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 17: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian billionaire and businessman, Concord catering company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen during the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum SPIEF2016 on June 17, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 17: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian billionaire and businessman, Concord catering company owner Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen during the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum SPIEF2016 on June 17, 2016 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Senior White House Official: Wagner Mercenaries More ‘Aggressive’ Than Russian Military

The Wagner group is doing what the regular Russian military can’t. But it’s still losing.

The Russian Wagner mercenary group run by Vladimir Putin-ally Yevgeny Prigozhin is making “incremental gains” in Ukraine’s Bakhmut region, a senior White House official told reporters Wednesday. But that’s in large part because of Prigozhin’s cavalier attitude toward his soldiers’ lives.

“It’s clear that Russia's military, it took a backseat to the Wagner forces and then they began attacking Bakhmut in late May,” the official said. Since then, he said, the mercenary group’s forces have made small gains—but they have come at a very high cost in terms of casualties, the official emphasized.

The makeup of the mercenary group is likely the reason leaders are not bothered by the casualties, the official said. “We believe…he's dedicated tens of thousands of mostly convicts to this effort. And we believe that 90% of the casualties that he has suffered have been, in fact, convicts. So they have…basically put a lot of effort into Bakhmut, and the Ukrainians are still fighting bravely for it.”

Prigozhin “has been more willing to be more aggressive with Russian convicts than the Russian military has been willing to be with their own soldiers,” said the official. 

The shadowy mercenary force has gained a lot of new attention since the start of the war. Early on, neither Prigozhin nor Russian President Putin would acknowledge any connection with the group, which has also been active in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere in Africa. But in September, video surfaced of Prigozhin himself recruiting for Wagner at a Russian prison (volunteers would see their sentences dropped.) “I take you out of here alive, but don’t always bring you back alive,” Prigozhin told the group, according to witnesses. 

Prigozhin has also been able to secure T-90 tanks and other pieces of equipment for his forces in Ukraine from the Russian Ministry of Defense, which is notable since Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu are bitter rivals. 

Michael Kofman, research program director at CNA’s Russian Studies Program, told Defense One he thinks Prigozhin “is using this opportunity to advance himself and revealing how incompetent Shoigu and [Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Valery] Gerasimov truly are. The latter has the benefit of being true.” 

One military analyst who often works with the United States government (and requested anonymity) said the group’s operations in Ukraine show it’s growing into a force that more directly resembles the Russian military. “Wagner's acquisition of more advanced equipment such as tanks and fixed-wing aircraft indicates that Wagner is evolving from the [special operations forces]-focused organization it was in Syria and Africa and vying to become a conventional force with combined arms capabilities. This enables Prigozhin to develop his own independent parallel security base independent of the Kremlin, which supports Prigozhyn's competition against the Russian MOD and Shoigu.” 

The analyst said the group’s effectiveness “depends on the context and the mind of Wagner forces we are talking about. Wagner [special operations forces] elements are effective at what they're supposed to do. Wagner prisoners motivated by freedom have higher morale and are more effective than mobilized men who have terrible morale. Professional contract soldiers are more effective than Wagner prisoners.”

Kofman also doesn’t attribute the group’s success relative to the Russian military solely to Prigozhin’s aggressiveness. “In some cases, Wagner was more effective because its fighters had prior experience and better kit than regular forces,” he said.

But while the Wagner group is performing better than hastily mobilized and reluctant Russian conscripts, that doesn’t mean they are doing well. Prigozhin himself acknowledged this recently in a leaked interview in which the oligarch, sometimes referred to as “Putin’s Chef,” said Ukrainian resistance in Bakhmut is too strong, and his forces aren’t able to break through. In the video, he blames the group’s slow and costly progress on a lack of armored vehicles. 

In an assessment published January 3, the Institute of the Study of War said Prigozhin appeared to be laying the groundwork to blame the stalled offensive on the Ministry of Defense. 

“Wagner Group soldiers told Prigozhin that they were unable to break through Ukrainian lines in Bakhmut due to insufficient armored vehicles, ammunition, and 100mm shell supplies during a likely scripted segment in the clip. This statement seeks to absolve the Wagner Group and Prigozhin of personal responsibility by attributing their failure to capture Bakhmut to the larger Russian resource allocation problems that Russian and Ukrainian sources have been increasingly discussing since late December,” according to the assessment.

ISW also recently said the Wagner group’s advance may be “culminating” in the Bakhmut region, meaning that they are moving toward reinforced positions and have ceased attempting to gain new territory. 

Either way, the fighting in Bakhmut will likely continue to rage, and it provides a snapshot of the intense fighting to come in the weeks ahead, according to the White House official. “There were some people that thought that the fighting would just die down and stop in the wintertime, and we said, consistently, we didn't think that was going to happen, and that is what appears to be the case, that the fighting is still quite hot.”