The Wagner Group, the shadowy mercenary army controlled by a Russian business magnate known as “Putin’s chef,” has used one of the fiercest battles of the 11-month-old Ukraine invasion to raise its profile abroad and its political influence at home.
Analysts say the private army has sent about 50,000 hired troops to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion almost a year ago. The Biden administration says at least 40,000 of them are convicts swept out of Russian prisons who have been offered pardons in exchange for six-month tours of frontline duty, including worrisome deployments in Syria and sub-Saharan Africa.
The fighting in Ukraine last week was a coming-out party of sorts for the Wagner Group and its increasingly powerful boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Wagner Group mercenaries have led the fight in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Bakhmut and Soledar, where the Kremlin is pressing for a symbolically significant win in the face of determined resistance.
Russia said Friday that its forces had captured Soledar, a fiercely contested salt mining city, in what would mark a rare victory for the Kremlin after a series of setbacks in the war. Ukrainian authorities, however, said the fight for Soledar was continuing.
Mr. Prigozhin, who is not shy about criticizing the performance of Russia’s conventional army in Ukraine, insisted that his forces took control of Soledar. The government in Kyiv denied that claim.
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Mr. Prigozhin said in a video circulated in early January that it was “exclusively” his troops who had taken and held the ground around Soledar. He boasted that “Bakhmut is the central point of the eastern front and a serious logistics center.”
The Wagner Group’s task, the business magnate said, “is to die there as little as possible and to destroy the enemy as much as possible.”
In the video, Mr. Prigozhin asks his armed followers: “Other than [Wagner Group], who else is here?”
Analysts say Mr. Prigozhin, a former restaurateur who has a close relationship with Mr. Putin, is likely setting the stage to blame his lack of progress in Bakhmut on the Russian Defense Ministry and industrial base.
“Wagner Group soldiers told Prigozhin that they were unable to break through Ukrainian lines in Bakhmut due to insufficient armored vehicles, ammunition and 100 mm shell supplies,” according to the Institute for the Study of War think tank in Washington.
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Last week, Mr. Putin put yet another Russian general in charge of his “special military operation” in Ukraine. The infighting and the carousel of commanders may look dysfunctional, but some say the Wagner Group’s ill-defined role could serve Mr. Putin’s larger purposes.
“Playing rival factions against one another is a tried-and-true tactic Putin uses to cement his own position and check powerful actors,” John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said in an interview.
A top Pentagon official told The Washington Times that the Wagner Group and Russia’s conventional military establishment had a “symbiotic relationship.” Although it is a privately owned company, the Wagner Group is not completely independent, said Laura K. Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense.
“It is certainly operating as part of an overall Russian military invasion of Ukraine with the support of Russian leaders,” Ms. Cooper said. “It is drawing on resources of the Russian state to include, by drawing on convicts and sending them into battle.”
Private military companies are technically illegal under Russian law, but the Wagner Group mercenaries have been deployed in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Sudan. A private company gives the Kremlin a foreign policy tool that can be disowned, at least publicly, if the mission goes sideways.
Despite its owner’s claims, the Wagner Group’s combat record is mixed.
In February 2018, Wagner mercenaries took part in an assault on U.S. and allied positions in eastern Syria. U.S. airstrikes on the attackers are believed to have killed at least 300 Russian personnel in a clash that both sides seemed eager to hush up.
Although the Wagner Group relies in part on supplies from Russia’s conventional military establishment, Mr. Prigozhin reportedly has a direct line to Moscow and reports only to Mr. Putin.
“It must be the way Putin wants it because he set it up this way,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. “He has fostered this situation where [Mr. Prigozhin and the Russian Defense Ministry] are both reporting to him.”
Mr. Prigozhin has publicly feuded with Russia’s military elite, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov.
Gen. Gerasimov is the chief of Russia’s general staff whom Mr. Putin tapped Wednesday as the overall commander for the Ukraine operation.
“To state the obvious, this sort of infighting is not exactly helpful for Russia’s military effort. I continue to suspect that Russia’s unity of command in Wagner’s area of responsibility may be less than perfect, to put it mildly,” Mr. Hardie said.
With the public criticism of Russia’s military leaders, analysts say paramilitary operatives such as Mr. Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord, are appealing to Mr. Putin, who has made no official moves to rein them in or silence their critiques of his generals.
“Putin is positioned as the arbiter and has the power to pick who wins and loses,” Mr. Hardie said.
Mr. Putin comes from the KGB, the intelligence arm of the former Soviet government, rather than the military. The Wagner Group works in a manner that is likely more familiar to him, with assets directly controlled by a handler.
“It reflects his background. This is kind of the way [the KGB] operates. I don’t think it’s doing him any favors in Ukraine,” Gen. Spoehr said. “I don’t think Putin is 100% trusting of the conventional military leaders.”
Gen. Spoehr told The Times that the Wagner Group’s fighters are not particularly suited for the detailed, methodical operations required for urban warfare such as that in Bakhmut.
“Urban operations are very difficult. Most armies try to avoid cities when they can,” Gen. Spoehr said. “The Wagner Group can hold areas in the defense. When they have to go on offense against a well-defended area, that’s where this model breaks down.”
Even as the Wagner Group takes heavy casualties in Ukraine, the first inmates recruited from Russian prisons have completed their six-month service in Ukraine and received pardons, Mr. Prigozhin said.
“They worked off their contract. They worked with honor [and] with dignity,” he told the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti this month. “Nobody else in this world works as hard as they did.”
The Wagner Group likely needs to replenish its forces after taking such heavy losses, predominantly of former prisoners.
Analysts say it’s unclear whether the “pardons” Mr. Prigozhin has announced for Wagner Group veterans pass legal muster. Only the president has the authority to grant such clemency in Russia.
“Prigozhin likely publicized the supposed pardons to augment the Wagner Group’s recruitment campaign in Russian prisons,” according to the Institute for the Study of War. “Prigozhin also likely publicized the pardons to reassure the reportedly 80% of deployed Wagner Group personnel in Ukraine who have been promised some type of legal reward for their participation in hostilities.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Yevgeny Prigozhin’s name.