There’s a growing rift at the top of the Russian government between Vladimir Putin’s official military and the off-the-books mercenary force that has achieved some gains in Ukraine.
The oligarch figurehead of the private military company Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been openly critical of Russia’s military and its bureaucracy.
Recruiting for tens of thousands of fighters in Russian jails, Wagner offers freedom and cash after a six-month tour.
Videos of these prison yard pitches made by Prigozhin have been shared on social media, and prison-rights groups in Russia estimate 30,000 have taken up the offer, according to an excellent analysis of what we know about Wagner and Prigozhin by CNN’s Tim Lister.
Brutal tactics for its fighters. A Ukrainian assessment of Wagner tactics suggests the convicts are pushed to the front lines in a human wave. Wagner is using “convicts as cannon fodder to try and storm Ukrainian positions with almost no fire support,” as CNN’s Fred Pleitgen said in a video report he filed after talking to Ukrainian tank operators.
Lister, Pleitgen and CNN’s Victoria Butenko wrote about Wagner’s tactics after seeing the Ukrainian assessment. The focus is on small groups of fighters – a dozen or fewer – guided by drones.
Deserters are said to be shot. The wounded are left behind on battlefields for hours, according to the assessment. Prisoners account for the bulk of Wagner’s casualties as they are pushed to storm Ukrainian positions. More experienced fighters with better equipment follow.
US officials have said Wagner appears to be dueling with Russia’s military for power in the Kremlin.
“In certain instances, Russian military officials are actually subordinate to Wagner’s command,” John Kirby, the strategic communications coordinator at the National Security Council, said late last year. “It’s pretty apparent to us that Wagner is emerging as a rival power center to the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”