Time may be running out for the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group. Most of the mercenaries fighting for Wagner are about to go home, and what fighters do remain could soon be cut off from the rest of Russia’s armed forces.
Last fall, Wagner recruited heavily in Russian prisons to bolster its ranks. Wagner fighters were credited with taking Soledar and are now the tip of the spear in Russia’s attack on the city of Bakhmut.
President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Ukrainian soldiers at front-line positions near Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast on March 22, according to the President's Office. During his visit, Zelensky received updates regarding the situation on the front line and presented awards to soldiers. pic.twitter.com/Ll9BWSU6Yz
— The Kyiv Independent (@KyivIndependent) March 22, 2023
The United States and United Kingdom both told the Ukrainian military it should strategically withdraw from the city in the country’s eastern Donbas region, saying it was of little strategic importance. However, as long as Russia commits a large portion of its forces to try and take the city, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he’s committing troops to its defense.
Wagner is using what are known as “human wave” attacks. A retired U.S. General told Newsweek that essentially the poorly trained mercenaries are sent en masse to the battlefield to help locate Ukrainian soldiers. Then Russia’s professional military forces can come in behind to conduct more precise attacks. The Battle for Bakhmut is now the war’s bloodiest. Of the 40,000 estimated convicts Wagner employed, around half of them are estimated to have either been killed or wounded in what Russians call “the meat grinder.”
Complicating matters for Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, most of the surviving convicts he recruited to fight are nearing the end of their six-month contracts. They will soon be pardoned and allowed to return to Russian society.
Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine – 21 March 2023.
Find out more about Defence Intelligence's use of language: https://t.co/3cNBwujMx7
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) March 21, 2023
Not only will the pardons severely constrict Wagner’s impact on the battlefield, but the British Ministry of Defense said the sudden influx of violent offenders with recent and traumatic combat experience will likely present a “significant challenge for Russia’s war-time society.”
Prigozhin and Wagner were barred earlier this year from recruiting prisoners. So, the private military company is now looking for future soldiers of fortune through online campaigns and campus visits to Russian high schools. But Prigozhin might be hurting his own recruiting efforts.
In a letter published March 20, Prigozhin told Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, Ukraine was planning to launch a large-scale attack in late March or early April. Prigozhin said the maneuver would cut off Wagner forces from the rest of Russia’s military. Prigozhin didn’t offer any evidence of the impending attack but said if Wagner is cut off, it will lead to negative consequences for what Russia calls its “special military operation.”