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The ‘cannon fodder’ advantage Why Wagner Group is more effective on the battlefield than the Russian military
Explainer by Meduza. Translation by Sam Breazeale.
Russian forces, led by the Wagner mercenary group, have been waging an offensive to gain control of Bakhmut for more than seven months now. As of March 21, Wagner Group claims to have captured 70 percent of the city, and it increasingly appears likely to gain control of the rest. Ukraine’s military command has nevertheless chosen to keep defending the city, even at the expense of reserve forces. This may have delayed Wagner’s progress, but it hasn’t been enough to stop it. Meanwhile, Russia’s regular army, which is trying simultaneously to press forward in multiple areas against Ukraine’s more modest forces, has had little success in recent months. What is it that makes Wagner Group Russia’s most successful fighting force at this stage of the war? And how might the Ukrainian military respond more effectively? Meduza explains.
How Wagner Group waged war in Ukraine over the last year
For the first few weeks of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, the private military company controlled by Putin-associate Evgeny Prigozhin (known as Wagner Group) was not involved. It wasn’t until April 2022 that Wagner units were deployed in Popasna, a Ukrainian-held city in the Luhansk region that had been on the contact line between Ukrainian troops and Russian proxy forces since 2015 and was thus well-equipped to defend itself.
At that point, Russia’s military command, which had by then suffered defeats in the Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mykolaiv regions, launched offensives in multiple directions at once in the Donbas. Most of these assaults failed, but Wagner mercenaries managed to dislodge the Ukrainian military from Popasna (and Russian troops managed to take the city of Lyman).
The advance ended there
It’s been clear since the battle for Popasna that Wagner Group’s tactics are well-suited for this war’s conditions. One video from that period shows an assault group of mercenaries overtaking the positions of a larger Ukrainian unit with help form a reconnaissance drone. The clip stands in stark contrast to the images of urban combat that emerged from Mariupol and Rubizhne around the same time.
Starting in August, Wagner Group got a dramatic boost in manpower when it began recruiting inmates and other mercenaries (including former contract fighters and retired soldiers) into its ranks. While the Russian army was retreating from the northern Donbas, Wagner Group continued its offensive into the central part of the region. On August 1, the mercenaries captured the Vuhlehirska Power Station, after which they began their slow advance to Bakhmut from the south.
In October, Wagner Group had grown so large that it was assigned a significant portion of the front that stretched from northern Horlivka to Soledar (regular Russian troops are also stationed there and have played a supporting role since the fall). By November, when the Ukrainian military liberated Kherson and tried to advance on Svatove in the northern part of the Luhansk region, it became clear that Wagner Group was preparing an operation to capture Soledar and Bakhmut, despite Russian troops’ difficulties elsewhere along the front.
The Ukrainian military started redirecting its troops to the area around Bakhmut (including units that were freed up by the liberation of Kherson) and later even dismantled a group of forces deployed around Svatove to strengthen its defenses further in the center of the Donbas. To this day, however, these forces have been unable to halt Wagner Group’s slow advance. At the same time, none of the other offensives Russian forces have launched throughout the winter have yielded any significant results.
The key to Wagner Group’s effectiveness (and costliness)
In its scale and the size of the area it covers, Wagner Group is roughly comparable to the Russian military’s four groups of forces in Ukraine that are formed on the basis of the country’s Western, Central, Eastern, and Southern military districts. The mercenaries have their own artillery and even some level of aviation power.
Available details about the group’s structure and methods are limited. Most of the information we have comes from stories the mercenaries themselves have told to the “war correspondents” who work for entities owned by Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin. These stories are few in number and often vague.
Additionally, there is Ukrainian drone footage of Wagner fighters, reports from Ukrainian soldiers, and information from journalists who have interviewed soldiers and studied documents captured by Ukrainian troops. Independently confirming the authenticity of these reports is difficult, but, overall, they don’t contradict the documentary evidence from the Russian side, the drone footage, and what we know about the course of combat operations.
How Wagner Group differs from Russia’s regular forces
- Wagner Group’s command shows a level of flexibility that the Russian Armed Forces lack. In the battle for Bakhmut, the group has repeatedly altered the directions of its major assaults. While it seemed in November that the mercenaries intended to attack and surround Bakhmut from the south, in early December, they suddenly replaced forces from the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” around Soledar and captured several important suburbs (Yakovlivka and Bakhmutske). After that, the group once again shifted its focus to the south of Bakhmut, gaining control of part of the suburbs of Opytne before focusing its forces back on Soledar, which ultimately led to the town’s capture. This was followed by an attack further south, where Wagner forces captured Klishchiivka, a village that had been vital to Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut. These frequent shifts in the direction of impact took a clear toll on Ukraine’s reserve forces. This approach differs fundamentally, for example, from the offensive on Vuhledar, where Russia’s command (from the Eastern Military District) has repeatedly been launching attacks along the same routes for months.
- Wagner Group seems to be significantly more capable of concentrating its forces and resources on a target and appears to have successfully established cohesion between its assault units and support forces, including artillery and aviation forces.
Still, the mercenaries do have their weaknesses. Unlike the Russian Armed Forces, Wagner Group doesn’t even attempt to use mechanized units to launch quick strikes deep behind enemy defense lines. Instead, its units carry out their attacks on foot, only using armored vehicles (judging from videos and reports from Ukrainian soldiers) for transportation to the rear and to launch strikes from long distances. After capturing a Ukrainian position, Wagner Group typically embeds its forces there, tries to secure its flanks, and prepares its next attacks. The end result is methodical but slow progress. This allows the Ukrainian Armed Forces to send reinforcements to wherever the mercenaries are carrying out an attack. From July 2022 to mid-March, Wagner units didn’t progress in any direction more than 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from Popasna (where they entered the war).
Wagner Group’s methods also demand enormous resources. In addition to suffering heavy losses in manpower, the group rapidly burns through ammunition; Prigozhin recently reported that he needs 10,000 metric tons of it per month. It’s not clear exactly what kind of ammunition he means, but if he’s referring only to shells and missiles for multiple rocket launchers (with the average weight of one of these munitions at 50 kilograms or 110 pounds), that means Wagner Group uses more than 6,500 rounds per day. That’s more than Ukraine’s Armed Forces use across the entire battlefield during the same period (according to Ukraine’s military command).
- Wagner Group’s forces are organized into assault detachments that are themselves made up of assault groups. Ukrainian soldiers and journalists have reported that a Wagner assault group can contain between seven and fifty fighters.
- Assault groups try to approach Ukrainian positions unnoticed (by moving at night, taking cover on the ground, etc.). Practically every group is accompanied by a reconnaissance drone (whereas the Russian Armed Forces are experiencing a drone shortage), which studies Ukraine’s positions in detail. Group commanders and their deputies reportedly receive detailed plans on electronic maps, which show the routes each mercenary should take. According to intelligence data, the resources necessary for each battle are also calculated in advance (including the number of stormtroopers that will give the group a numerical advantage and the amount of ammunition necessary to suppress Ukraine’s firing points).
- Most Wagner units have reinforcements in the form of artillery that “process” Ukrainian positions after they’re attacked. Suppression fire from these reinforcements makes it possible for storm groups to get close to the targeted positions. After that, a “fire group” carries out strikes on identified Ukrainian firing points from mortars, automatic grenade launchers, and/or hand grenade launchers.
- Afterward, the mercenaries begin storming the trenches or buildings where Ukrainian troops are posted. These attacks are guided by commanders who are observing the events remotely with the help of drones, using protected means of communication.
- Wagner storm groups demonstrate more resilience than the Russian military; if an attack fails, they can mount it again. Wagner Group artillery gunners attempt to prevent Ukrainian reserve forces from approaching the battlefield.
- Wagner mercenaries rarely use armored vehicles in close combat, but they use aviation more liberally than the Russian Aerospace Forces (Russian army aircraft try not to fly in areas reachable by Ukraine’s air defenses, whereas Wagner Group planes actively fly directly over the battlefield). At the same time, the mercenary group has both significantly less air power and a higher casualty rate.
- Judging from videos, Wagner Group’s artillery is widely dispersed across the battlefield, allowing it to avoid extensive damage. This also facilitates effective management and communication. In the regular Russian army (at least in the war’s early stages), artillery was stationed close together and suffered heavy losses.
The downside of these tactics is significant: Wagner Group’s assault units consistently suffer heavy personnel losses. At the same time, according to Ukrainian soldiers and journalists, the highest losses are among the mercenaries (especially the recruited convicts) who storm Ukrainian trenches directly. Wagner Group’s command, incidentally, isn’t shy about spending what it views as a “cheap resource” while retaining its well-trained and experienced specialists.
This approach is largely in line with the standard assault tactics that were developed during the First World War. The main difference between Wagner Group and the Russian army, judging by various available descriptions of their activity, is that Wagner tends to gain the advantage over Ukraine by gathering and using intelligence and making quick decisions — in other words, the same practices that give the Ukrainian military an advantage over the Russian Armed Forces.
Can the Ukrainian military withstand these tactics?
According to Ukrainian military personnel who have studied Wagner Group’s tactics, the Ukrainian military’s problem is that many of its defense forces are static: soldiers are constantly sitting in the trenches or the buildings where they’ve been commanded to stay. Often, they don’t have enough intelligence resources (such as drones) for constant assessments of possible approaches by Russian mercenaries.
Finally, part of the problem comes from the Ukrainian military command’s own decision-making. For most of the battle for Bakhmut, Russia’s mercenaries had a numerical advantage. In those conditions, Kyiv had two least-bad options:
- Transfer significant reserves to the part of the front that was under threat, equalize the balance of forces, and try to regain the initiative
- Retreat and transfer its forces that were defending Bakhmut to more defensible positions
So far, however, Kyiv hasn’t chosen either option. The troops it has transferred to Bakhmut, meanwhile, haven’t been enough. Most likely, Ukraine’s military will be forced to decide sooner or later, but in worse conditions than if it had done so, for example, a month ago.
Why the Russian army doesn’t try to fight like Wagner Group
It’s possible that Russian commanders want to emulate Wagner Group. Ukrainian sources have published what they claim are stolen instructions for creating assault groups in the regular Russian army. These groups differ from Wagner Group assault groups in that they’re theoretically reinforced with armored vehicles. According to the documents, the groups make up larger assault battalions.
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These kinds of storm detachments are already used in many units of the Russian Armed Forces and have even reportedly been “successfully applied” against Ukraine’s static defenses in weak spots. But recreating Wagner Group’s success will be difficult for the Russian army. The units containing the storm detachments are far from uniform: many of them suffer from chronic shortages of reconnaissance assets and protected communications systems, and their commanders are not inclined to show flexibility.
Additionally, in terms of political salience, the war would be much harder to square with Russia’s general public if draftees were to start dying at the same rate as Wagner fighters in recent months. The Russian authorities will likely do their best to avoid this situation.
Despite its achievements on the battlefield, the future of Wagner Group itself is uncertain. In all likelihood, Evgeny Prigozhin has run afoul of the Russian Defense Ministry, which he has regularly accused of refusing to provide his mercenaries with the weapons they need since February 2023. In his account, this failure on the ministry’s part impeded the capture of Bakhmut and led to additional losses among Wagner fighters. The Defense Ministry has denied the accusations, saying supply requests from “volunteer units in 2022 were fulfilled by 140 percent.”
At the same time, according to Prigozhin, he’s no longer allowed to recruit prisoners, and Wagner Group’s forces are likely to shrink, as a result. The mercenary company now plans to replace convicts with “free” volunteers, but this resource has largely been exhausted over the last year.
Despite all the ink spilled in recent months about the fighting between Prigozhin and Russia’s military command, it’s still hard to gauge the conflict’s seriousness or what it means for Wagner Group’s role in the war going forward.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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