By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“We were fighting (the Wagner Group) for about 10 hours in a row…
it was uninterrupted…they didn’t stop coming. It was about 20 soldiers
on our side. And…200 from their side…while they lose a lot of people
in the meantime. Our machine gunner was almost getting crazy, because
he was shooting at them…but he doesn’t fall…it’s very, very likely that
they are getting some drugs before attack…they went around us…
they surrounded us…We were shooting until the last bullet, so we
threw all the grenades we had and left, only me and a few guys.”
— Ukrainian soldier Andriy, to CNN, February 1, 2023.
According to the Ukrainian government, the Russian Federation has lost more than 133,000 soldiers during its yearlong invasion of Ukraine. This is nearly eight times the casualties that they sustained in the entire Afghan War of 1979 to 1989! Their combat losses have been so unexpected and so staggering, in fact, that Russia has desperately sought to offset those demoralizing facts by sending reinforcements, in the form of plausibly-deniable, private contractors to tackle the most difficult, combat assaults.
The infamous, Russian Wagner Group, a private, paramilitary organization, was formed in 2014 by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close confidante of President Vladimir Putin, and the group has been led by Dmitry V. Utkin, age 52, who was formerly a lieutenant colonel in the 2nd SpetsNaz Brigade of elite, Russian commandos. He goes by the callsign “Wagner,” because he has a passion for the history of the Nazi Third Reich and greatly admired German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), who was Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer. Hitler particularly loved the dramatic score of “The Ride Of The Valkyries.”
Technically, Russian citizens are not allowed to serve as mercenaries, but a loophole in the law permits state-run enterprises to have private armed forces and security foundations. So, the Wagner Group is classified as a private military company (PMC), with its headquarters in Saint Petersburg. Its main training center is in Molkin, near the Black Sea, not coincidentally located less than a mile north of the 10th SpetsNaz Brigade (Unit 51532) headquarters, part of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU.)
It’s extremely unusual in Russia for any PMC to share a base with an elite, special operations unit. It is particularly strange that GRU personnel guard the main checkpoint leading to the barracks of a PMC, adding to the inescapable conclusion that the Wagner Group exists as a de facto, disguised, or proxy branch of the Russian armed forces.
They’ve repeatedly been transported on Russian military aircraft, stayed at Russian military barracks, been treated in Russian military hospitals, and received sequential Russian government-issue passports. So, make no mistake, the Wagner Group is simply a plausibly-deniable tool of the Russian government “for delicate missions abroad.” Because they don’t officially exist, Wagner troops have been referred to as “ghost soldiers,” whose deaths remain unacknowledged, and do not count against Russian military losses.
The Wagner Group first rose to public prominence during the illegal, Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the ensuing war in Donbas (eastern Ukraine), with just 100 men from the beginning, slowly increasing to 300. They conducted sneak attacks, reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering, and they accompanied VIPs. They were called “little green men,” because they wore plain, green uniforms (no camouflage), with no unit patches or rank insignia.
Colonel Utkin (“Wagner”) himself was wounded in battle in Ukraine. In December 2016, he was awarded the Order of Courage (his fourth such medal) at the Kremlin by President Vladimir Putin, a very rare honor for someone who was no longer officially in Russian military service.
Since then, the Wagner Group has been involved in various wars and other misadventures in Syria since 2015, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Madagascar in 2018, Libya in 2018 (installing S-300 long-range, missile systems), Mozambique and Venezuela in 2019, Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, Mali in 2021, and Burkina Faso in January 2022. Wagner contractors were also reportedly deployed in Zimbabwe, Angola, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and possibly the Democratic Republic of Congo.
During this time, their numbers increased to over 8,000 men, sustaining at least 500 casualties in those various conflicts. They’ve also repeatedly been charged with war crimes including rape, and the torture and execution of prisoners, even civilians, as well as Wagner Group deserters. This became clearly evident in the 2022 Bucha massacre in Ukraine, to instill fear in the conquered population. And, on November 13, 2022, a video was published, showing the Wagner Group executing its ex-fighter Yevgeny Nuzhin for treason by smashing his head with a sledgehammer. The NATO nation of Estonia has officially designated the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization.
Not surprisingly, most Wagner Group professional recruits are experienced, former Spetsnaz commandos, and the Russian GRU military intelligence service continues to provide their uniforms, training, and equipment, especially since Wagner’s main base is literally collocated with a Spetsnaz brigade in Molkin.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, changed everything, and not necessarily for the better. At first, according to The Times of London, more than 400 Wagner mercenaries were redeployed from the Central African Republic to northern Ukraine in late January 2022, with orders to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and key members of his government, taking control of the country in late February, just before the planned, Russian invasion.
But Ukrainian forces killed 60 Russian “saboteurs” (the U.S. described them as “reconnaissance elements”) in Kyiv, who were posing as a Ukrainian, territorial defense unit, causing the bold assassination mission to fail. By March 3, 2022, Zelenskyy had survived no less than three assassination attempts, with two of them launched by the Wagner Group. Western intelligence estimates place the number of Wagner mercenaries operating in Ukraine at a minimum of 20,000, with other figures running as high as 50,000.
At least 95 percent of the contract troops are ethnic Russians, but they’ve also recruited some Armenians, Kazakhs, Libyans, Moldovans, Serbians, Syrians, and rebels from the Central African Republic to fight in Ukraine. The average age of a Wagner mercenary is 40. During their initial training (by Russian military officers), they are paid $1,100 per month, which later increases to as much as $2,500, depending upon one’s rank and duties; one source cited the monthly pay as high as $4,077.
In early June 2022, a Ukrainian sniper near Kharkiv reportedly shot and killed Wagner Group member Vladimir Andonov, age 44, from the Russian Far East, callsign “Vakha” and dubbed “The Executioner,” for killing Ukrainian prisoners in 2014.
Since July 2022, the horrific, Russian losses in Ukraine have caused the Wagner Group to recruit convicts directly from various Russian prisons, with the promise of a shorter sentence and monetary remuneration, since it is not technically illegal to send Russian inmates to war.
The prisoners were candidly told that “almost nobody will return,” and they were offered 100,000 to 200,000 rubles ($1,400 to $2,800) and amnesty after six months, if they lived that long. If they were killed in action, their families would each receive five million rubles ($80,000), and it would be reported that they died an “honorable” death in battle. The actual payments, however, have been between $23,000 and $52,000, depending upon the contractor’s wartime rank and mission. In any event, tens of thousands of prisoners apparently took the deal.
After only two weeks of military training, they were sent into actual battle in Ukraine. At least the Russian convicts were told the truth about their chances for survival in combat. In intense fighting, especially in the brutal battle for Bakhmut, Wagner Group has used these raw, inexperienced, poorly-equipped recruits as 10-man, “suicide squads,” making frontal charges against entrenched, Ukrainian positions, and sustaining terrible losses.
Surviving, captured convicts later told CBS News that, “I needed to leave the prison one way or another. 10 years is a long time…Our brothers were getting killed in huge numbers. There were mountains of bodies…If you don’t agree with an order, you’re simply killed. One of the fighters was too scared to fight. They made him dig his own grave, and shot him…Everything we were told was utter lies.”
Once the first assault wave is either exhausted or cut to pieces, Wagner then sends in the professional, ex-Spetsnaz troops to try to flank the Ukrainians. One Ukrainian solder, Andriy, told CNN in late January 2023, “We were fighting for about 10 hours in a row…it was uninterrupted…they didn’t stop coming. It was about 20 soldiers on our side. And…200 from their side…That’s how, step by step, (Wagner Group) is trying to move forward, while they lose a lot of people in the meantime.
“Our machine gunner was almost getting crazy because he was shooting at them. And he said, ‘I know I shot him, but he doesn’t fall.’ And then after some time, when he maybe bleeds out, so he just falls down…They’re climbing above the corpse of their friends, stepping on them…it’s very, very likely that they are getting some drugs before the attack…The problem was that they went around us. And that’s how they surrounded us. They came from the other side. We didn’t expect them to come from there. We were shooting until the last bullet, so we threw all the grenades we had and left only me and a few guys. We were helpless in that situation.”
Andriy further added that “As we can see, now, this guy (our President Zelenskyy) is really the leader of the free world, at the moment, on our planet. This is the war for freedom. It’s not even the war between Ukraine and Russia. This is a war between a regime and democracy.”
Susan J. Wolfson respectfully observed for The Atlantic magazine on June 18, 2022, that, “Volodymyr Zelensky…brings it all together as the genuine…hero of our times…He has inspired his people…He has caught our imagination, our mind and heart, as a freedom fighter…(who) can draw thousands, perhaps millions to think about his cause. This is a battle in which Volodymyr Zelensky…has already secured his glory.”
A Wagner Group deserter claimed the inmates were formed into assault groups that he described as “meat,” and that 90 percent of them died in combat. The U.S. government agreed on January 5, 2023, that 90 percent of Wagner battlefield casualties were inmates. On the positive side, for the Russians, the first surviving batch of ex-convicts who had completed their six-month tour of duty was finally released in January 2023. A mere two dozen of them were pardoned from prison, as promised, and told to “go home, don’t do drugs, don’t rape women,” and don’t do anything that might land them in prison again.
Due to the Wagner Group’s failure to make significant advances in Bakhmut, however, group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has found himself suddenly out of favor with Vladimir Putin, especially since his political ambitions have come to light. Joana de Deus Pereira, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, said, “He sees himself as a defense minister or someone with a high profile inside the Kremlin…to be rewarded for what he has been doing for the country.
“He wants to be recognized for his feats, but if he said he has political aspirations, that moment he would be killed. He desperately wants to be seen as a hero. Once he is, he has Russian public opinion validation. So, he needs to become not only a tool of war, but the hero.” The tenuous relationship between Prigozhin and Putin began to unravel when Prigozhin recently started representing himself as both a military solution for the “special military operation” and as a political solution. Politics was Putin’s exclusive arena.
In early February 2023, a hugely revised, White House and National Security Council intelligence estimate placed the number of Wagner Group casualties at more than 9,000 killed (90 percent convicts) and 21,000 wounded. They’ve certainly paid a very heavy price for their notoriety, at “a devasting cost that is not sustainable.”
According to a Newsweek article by Aila Slisco on February 18, 2023, “The Wagner Group has escalated its feud with the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin by sharing a video of troops it says were killed in Ukraine due to a lack of support from the military establishment…‘hundreds’ of Wagner fighters are dying in Ukraine every day due to the Russian military’s failure to send ‘weapons, ammunition, and everything necessary on time’…[The] Institute for the Study of War (ISW) argued that…‘The escalation of Wagner’s direct accusations…undermine the Russian MoD and obscure Wagner’s attrition-based, operational model by blaming the Russian MoD for its failures.’”
“They’re still not giving us ammo. No steps to give us ammo have been taken,” Prigozhin added on February 22nd. “Twice as many of us are going to die, that’s all until there are none of us left. And when Wagner are all dead, then (Defence Minister Sergei) Shoigu and (Chief of the General Staff, General Valery) Gerasimov will probably have to pick up a gun.”
Robyn Dixon and Catherine Belton wrote for The Washington Post on February 19, 2023, that, “President Vladimir Putin likes to portray himself as a new czar, like Peter the Great…(but) the war has been a catastrophic error that has failed in every goal…‘It is impossible to win a political or military victory…and it doesn’t matter what the price will be…’ Putin and top propagandists extol a fatalistic cult of death, arguing that it is better to die in Russia’s war.”
Despite being trained and supplied by Russian Spetsnaz commandos, Wagner Group is not considered to be an elite, special operations unit. Rather, they are an expendable, assault force for particularly difficult missions. There is no evidence of parachute training for them, so they are basically employed infantrymen, not paratroopers, although many of the professional, ex-SpetsNaz troops are certainly former paratroopers themselves. Wagner Group wears no fancy, dress uniforms, and no flashy berets. They are typically seen in a non-standardized variety of either plain, green uniforms (“little green men”) or camouflaged uniforms, with mostly standard-issue, Russian military weapons.
Normally, they have used the standard, modern, Kalashnikov series of assault rifles and carbines (AK-74, AKS-74, and AKS-74U.) The standard rifle today is still the AK-74M (the “M” is for “Modernized”) in 5.45x39mm, while the newer, AK-104 and AK-105 compact carbines are beginning to gain popularity.
The outdated and underpowered Makarov PM pistol has been largely replaced in active service by the Yarygin PYa, or MP-443 Grach (“Rook”), in 9x19mm. The standard, designated marksman or sniper rifle remains the old-fashioned, Dragunov SVD in 7.62x54Rmm, but many newer models are also available and are now entering service.
Assault rifles and carbines:
The AK-74M in 5.45x39mm is still fairly standard, but it’s a full-sized rifle, on the verge of being overtaken in popularity by the shorter, more compact, AK-104 and AK-105 series. Also in use are the suppressed AS Val (“Shaft”) in 9x39mm subsonic, and possibly the brand-new AK-12 (which will become the new, standard rifle) in 5.45x39mm. The professional soldiers within the Wagner Group often use suppressors on their assault rifles.
The Yarygin PYa is still the most commonly used pistol, holding 17 rounds (standard magazines) or 18 rounds (newer magazines.) Special-purpose pistols include the Stechkin APS (issued to Russian fighter pilots in Syria) in 9x18mm.
These include the PP-19 Bizon (“Bison”), PP-19-01 Vityaz-SN (“Knight-SN”), and AEK-919K Kashtan (“Chestnut.”) The new, Kalashnikov PPK-20U weapon in 9x19mm, with 7.1-inch barrel, is another option.
Light machine guns:
The existing standard is the battle-proven, RPK-74M in 5.45x39mm, but these will eventually be replaced by the new, RPK-16 and compact RPK-16K. The new, Kalashnikov RPL-20 machine gun in 5.45mm has a 23.2-inch barrel and 100-round, cloth magazine, with an optional, shorter, probably 16.3-inch barrel.
Infantry machine guns:
The PKM and PKP Pecheneg (named for an ancient, indigenous people of central Asia, living near the Black Sea) are the most-common, medium machine guns.
The classic, Dragunov SVD (in 7.62x54R) dating back to the Vietnam War is still the standard sniper rifle, alongside its improved, SVDM variant. The suppressed VSS Vintorez (from the Russian acronym for “Special Sniper Rifle”) may be used for quiet operations. Other sniper weapons include the long-range OSV-96 in 12.7x108mm, and bolt-action SV-98M in 7.62x54R or .338 Lapua Magnum.
More-recent, Russian developments are the highly-accurate, Orsis T-5000M “Terminator,” semiautomatic Kalashnikov SVK in 7.62mm, ASVK-M Kord-M in 12.7x108mm, and the all-new, semiautomatic, Kalashnikov/Chukavin SVCh-7.62 (or SVCh-308) and SVCh-8.6 (or SVCh-338.) The Chukavin is slated to eventually replace the longer, more-cumbersome, Dragunov SVD as Russia’s standard, sniper rifle in coming years. Wagner Group’s long-range snipers were particularly effective in the dry, open desert of Libya in 2018.
The issued knives are normally AK 6×5 bayonets or Kampo 6×9-1 combat knives, but Smersh-5 combat/hunting knives and Vityaz (“Knight”) fighting knives are also seen, as are the Izhmash NV-1-01 survival knife.
A large number of Russian soldiers privately purchase fighting knives from Kizlyar Supreme, handcrafted in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, which was a war-torn region in 1999. Favorite knives include the Kizlyar DV-2 (an abbreviation for “Far East-2,” $270) Bowie-style, Voron-3 (“Raven-3,” $89), and Korshun (“Kite,” the bird, $210.)
The unofficial, standard vehicle of Spetsnaz and Wagner troops is probably the GAZ Tigr-M (“Tiger-M”) utility vehicle, very much like an American Humvee. In addition, they’ve used a Russian-made copy of the high-quality, Iveco (Italian) LMV “Lynx.” They have also been transported in Russian KAMAZ-43269 Vystrel MRAP vehicles and KAMAZ-43269 Dozor MRAPs in Ukraine and the Donbas region.
For military assault operations, Wagner Group soldiers are often transported in BMP-2, BMP-3, or BTR-82A armored personnel carriers, or are airlifted in Mi-8MTV-5 Hip-H unarmed transports or Mi-8AMTSh “Terminator” assault helicopters, used especially for combat search and rescue.
Missiles and aircraft:
The Wagner Group has previously been supplied with SA-22B Greyhound mobile, air defense missile systems in Libya, as well as a total of 14 MiG-29 Fulcrum-A jet fighters (although two of them later crashed) and Su-24M Fencer-D swing-wing, strike aircraft, also in Libya. In Ukraine, they’re known to fly Russian Su-24M Fencers and Su-25SM3 Frogfoot-A ground-attack aircraft.
In fact, on May 22, 2022, near Popasna, retired Major General Kanamat Botashev, age 63, of the Russian Air Force was shot down by a Ukrainian FIM-92J Stinger heat-seeking missile (supplied by the U.S.) while flying a Su-25SM3 attack aircraft for the Wagner Group, only eight days after another Su-25 was shot down over Popasna, piloted by a retired, Belarusian colonel, who was also employed by a PMC. A third Su-25 was shot down near Svitlodarsk mid-June 2022, with the Wagner pilot captured alive. In January 2023, a Wagner Group Su-24M Fencer-D was shot down near Klischiivka, in eastern Ukraine, resulting in both pilots killed.
Most recently, as reported by BBC News, notorious, Russian army captain and Wagner Group mercenary Igor Mangushev died in a hospital on February 8, 2023, days after he was shot in the head at close range in occupied Ukraine. He went on stage last summer, holding a skull in his hand, and was filmed while saying that it belonged to a Ukrainian soldier killed while defending the Azovstal steel works in the southern port of Mariupol.
Mangushev’s killer remains unknown at this time, but at a checkpoint in the occupied, Ukrainian town of Kadiivka, he was shot at close range, with a 9mm bullet into the top of his head at a 45-degree angle. The bullet lodged in his brain, and he died a few days later. His wife, Tatyana, described his death as an execution.
Mark Galeotti, a London-based political scientist and Russia expert, told BBC that the killing of this infamous mercenary demonstrated that Russia was sliding back toward aspects of the ruthless and chaotic 1990s, “when murder was a business tactic, and the lines between politics, business, crime, and war became near-meaningless.”
Journalist Andrew Stanton wrote for Newsweek magazine on February 11, 2023, that, “Kremlin leaders are afraid of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, according to Sergei Markov, a key ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin…some Kremlin leaders are afraid of the ‘unpredictable’ Prigozhin…(whose) group has reportedly caused divisions in Moscow amid political backlash over the war…‘he’s so unpredictable, they fear him a little bit.”
On February 21, 2023, John Bacon reported for USA Today that, “The rift between Putin’s military and the private, Russian, military company that has done much of the fighting in east Ukraine grew wider (today, as)…Yevgeny Prigozhin…released an audio statement claiming (that) Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov were handing out orders not to supply Wagner with ammunition and not to support it with air transport…Prigozhin said the orders from Shoigu and Gerasimov, ‘can be likened to high treason, in the very moment when Wagner is fighting for Bakhmut, losing hundreds of its fighters every day.’”
Rebekah Koffler, president of Doctrine & Strategy Consulting and a former DIA intelligence officer, said on February 26, 2023, that, “Prigozhin basically forgot who was the top assassin in Russia. Putin does not want to be upstaged by one of his minions…By criticizing the Russian military, he (Prigozhin) implicitly criticizes Putin as well…So, he is exposing the (military and political) incompetence, and Putin can’t possibly like that.”
As we’ve seen above, Wagner Group mercenaries are characterized by a notable lack of standardization in their uniforms and weapons, and they’re trained and equipped by Russian Spetsnaz commandos, primarily as expendable, infantry assault troops. Adding inexperienced convicts to the group in a ratio outnumbering the professional troops by four or five to one was a poorly conceived, desperate decision that reduced their combat effectiveness in exchange for massed, human-wave assaults to terrify the enemy.
But the fiercely determined, better-trained, better-equipped, Ukrainian defenders continue to defy all the odds and all the predictions and hold the line even against Russia’s toughest and most-brutal, mercenary unit.
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (including Eastern Europe) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his website at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.