In May, Italian television journalists asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the role played by the Wagner Group, a private military company, as Moscow launched its offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
He dismissed the question. Wagner is not deployed in Ukraine and has no connection to the Russian state.
But according to Ukrainian commanders, Wagner’s fighters have proved indispensable to Russia’s few successes in Donbass. Once ordered to downplay Wagner’s role, Russia’s official media is awash with reports of the exploits of the company, which likes to call itself the “orchestra” and its soldiers the “musicians”.
Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, best known as President Vladimir Putin’s chef for his catering deals with the Kremlin and wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for alleged interference in US elections, was recently awarded Russia’s highest merit, the Hero of Russia.
Wagner’s recruiting posters have appeared on the streets of several Russian cities. “The V Orchestra awaits you,” proclaimed one erected in Yekaterinburg in July, with Wagner’s signature skull and crossbones logo on a harmonica in the hands of one of the fighters.
Overall, the company, which also operates under the Liga name in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine, has opened recruitment centers in 26 Russian cities, according to Ukrainian military intelligence, and is now expanding its efforts to prisons across Russia as it searches for its losses to balance.
Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is wanted by the FBI for alleged interference in US elections.
Photo: Sergei Ilnitsky/Associated Press
“They achieve success on the front lines where others flinch,” said Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence colonel whose 2014 takeover of the city of Sloviansk sparked violence in the Donbass, “because they carry out their mission regardless of the casualties they suffer. Mr. Girkin compared Wagner to the Nazis’ SS Totenkopf Division, which did not spare its troops in combat, and joked that some Wagner commanders might take this as a compliment.
Mr. Prigozhin, who has been repeatedly photographed at Wagner’s bases in the Donbass, said in written responses to questions that he “knows nothing” about Wagner and that Mr. Girkin’s statements “require an examination of his head to see if he is dead.” “.
The Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Russia’s renewed confidence in Wagner stems in part from the fact that elite Russian units that would otherwise conduct such missions were beaten up near Kyiv in the early weeks of the war because of Moscow’s miscalculations, said retired Ukrainian Major General Victor Yahun, a former deputy Head of the Ukrainian secret service SBU.
“The Russian Federation has a huge problem with motivated units. The only motivation that remains is money,” he said. “They don’t have anyone left for Storm and Breakthrough, and Wagner is their only combat unit that does it without asking any questions – even if they’re taking 10% to 15% casualties after each mission.”
Russian mercenaries board a helicopter in northern Mali, a priority area ahead of the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
Photo: / Associated Press
A mural praises the Russian Wagner Group and their mercenaries in Belgrade, Serbia.
Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty Images
Wagner fighters are paid significantly better than regular Russian troops. According to a research note by Ukraine’s military intelligence agency GUR, obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Wagner troops are paid 350,000 rubles a month, equivalent to US$5,790, plus bonuses ranging from 150,000 to 700,000 rubles, depending on mission success and role, with additional bonuses for killing Ukrainian soldiers. Wagner’s own ads on social media cite a starting salary of 250,000 rubles.
In May, the main Russian offensive in the Donbass stalled near Izyum, and Russian attempts to cross the Siverskyi-Donets River by pontoon ended in a rout. Then Wagner’s men finally managed to break through Ukrainian fortifications near the town of Popasna. This allowed Russian forces to expand in what they called the “Flower of Popasna” offensive in the weeks that followed, taking the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysyhansk. Wagner captured the Vuhlehirsk power plant in July and is now leading battles to breach Ukraine’s next line of defense in the town of Bakhmut, according to Russian and Ukrainian officials.
“They bleed like everyone else, they fall like everyone else, but you can feel their level of preparation,” said Ukrainian captain Oleksandr Buntov, who commanded a reconnaissance unit that engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Wagner at Popasna and later near Lysychansk was. “It’s not the usual Russian infantry. They know recon and it shows in the way they walk and move. They also know how to call in artillery and air support.”
While Wagner fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbass as early as 2014, the company’s focus over the past eight years has been in Syria, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic, where it often offered its services to Russian-backed leaders in exchange for a share of revenues from natural resources Resources, according to US officials. “They are professional killers working in coordinated groups and this is not their first war,” said Ukraine’s National Security Advisor Oleksiy Danilov.
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Unlike other, smaller, private Russian military companies also operating in Ukraine, such as Redut and Patriot, Wagner has its own tanks, heavy artillery, air defenses, and multiple missile systems. It also operates fighter jets. At least two jets piloted by Wagner employees — a retired Russian major general and a retired Belarusian colonel — were shot down by Ukrainian forces near Popasna. Major General Kanamat Botashev was fired by the Russian military in 2013 and fined 5 million rubles after taking a Su-27 jet fighter on an unauthorized pleasure cruise and crashing it.
On the Ukrainian battlefield, Wagner soldiers now operate under the overall command of the Russian military unit responsible for the area and, according to the GUR, are integrated into the Russian military’s logistics chain. “Calling them a private military company is a mistake – Wagner is just another way of serving in the Russian armed forces,” Mr Yahun said.
Part of Wagner’s recent coming out has been dictated by his recruiting needs after heavy losses in Donbass. Some of those casualties were caused by the company’s new hunger for publicity: a deadly Ukrainian strike at the company’s Popasna base on Saturday was made possible by Mr Prigozhin posing for photos with a Russian military correspondent outside the facility. These photos, posted online by the correspondent, allowed Ukrainian artillery to easily identify the building, according to Ukrainian officials. According to posts from other Wagner fighters, the administrator of Wagner’s social media channel Telegram was among those killed in that strike.
Wagner captured the Vuhlehirsk power plant in eastern Ukraine in July.
Photo: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Portal
Wagner’s heavy losses since May and June mean the group must now scratch the barrel for new recruits, lowering their once relatively strict standards. While the requirements for mercenaries looking for work in Africa or the Middle East have not changed, those looking to fight in Ukraine no longer need to be healthy, experienced or particularly fit. “You’re not going to pay too much attention to the norms, just not be a complete sack,” Wagner explained in a recruitment note on a Russian social media network.
The requirement for males over the age of 35 is only that they be able to run 1 kilometer in 4 minutes and 20 seconds, and the only medical conditions barring service are HIV and hepatitis, according to the release. The requirement of healthy teeth has been waived and criminal convictions are no longer an issue as long as the crimes are not sex crimes, the statement said.
According to Russian prison rights groups, the country’s detention centers have now become a major recruiting ground for Wagner units in Ukraine. Mr. Prigozhin, who himself was in prison during Soviet times, has personally toured detention facilities with his Hero of Russia star on his lapel and promised inmates freedom and money in exchange for the war, Russian prisoners’ rights groups say.
Andrey Bogatov, a senior member of Wagner and another Hero of Russia award recipient, confirmed this month the recruitment of prisoners and said that Wagner cares about the lives of his troops, “regardless of whether they are ex-soldiers or ex-soldiers convicts”.
Mr. Prigozhin, in written answers to questions, said that he not only visited prison facilities, but spent 10 years behind bars himself.
Ukrainian soldiers in front of a burning house hit by a shell on the outskirts of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
Photo: bulent kilić/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
In Russian detention centers, Wagner inmates are told their convictions would be expunged after six months of service in Ukraine, although such a procedure is not available under Russian law, said Olga Romanova, head of the prisoner rights organization Russia Behind Bars.
“This situation is completely outside of any jurisdiction,” she said. Few of these prisoner recruits have military experience as they have typically been in and out of detention centers since their teens, Ms Romanova added. About 200 such prisoners have already died in Ukraine since Wagner began using them on the front lines last month, she said. “You’re just cannon fodder.”
– Evan Gershkovich and Brett Forrest contributed to this article.
write to Yaroslav Trofimov at [email protected]
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