Ten months into Russia's war against Ukraine, President and Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin is increasingly relying on mercenaries from the private "Wagner" group. The troops, made up of many prisoners and, according to US information, allegedly supplied with weapons from North Korea, are fighting on numerous fronts in Ukraine - including around the small town of Bakhmut in the north of the Donetsk region, where the largest fighting is currently raging.
The troops wiped out targets in the Ukrainian-held city and numerous suburbs, Russian military bloggers reported with satisfaction.
In front of Bachmut, the mercenaries of the "Wagner" troops are the most active on the Russian side. The group grew in importance from the start of the war on February 24th. The fighters, who are better paid than the soldiers, have been besieging the small industrial town for months. They did not gain large amounts of ground by attacking the heavily fortified defense systems in the region.
But at least Moscow managed to win back the initiative after the devastating defeats in the autumn in the Kharkiv and Cherson regions and to give the war the character of a battle of attrition apparently preferred by Russian troops. The battlefield is so roiled by the constant artillery fire, the ground so littered with dead, that there are already comparisons to the Battle of Verdun.
USA: Tens of thousands of "Wagner" mercenaries stationed in Ukraine
According to estimates by the US government, around 1,000 "Wagner" mercenaries have been killed near Bachmut in the last few weeks alone. About 90 percent of them were inmates recruited from prisons, said White House communications director John Kirby. According to the White House, tens of thousands of "Wagner" members are stationed in Ukraine. It is estimated that 50,000 mercenaries are currently deployed in Ukraine, including 40,000 convicts, Kirby said in Washington on Thursday.
The prisoners came from Russian prisons. In certain cases, the Russian military is under the command of the "Wagner" group. Some of the prisoners were recruited by the group's founder and financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin. In September, the longtime confidant of Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin, who himself had to serve a prison sentence in Soviet times for a robbery, among other things, admitted his connection to the mercenary force for the first time. Since then, the entrepreneur known as "Putin's cook" has boasted more and more openly about Wagner's alleged achievements.
In the power struggle with the rigid apparatus of the Defense Ministry in Moscow for influence and resources, the 61-year-old emphasizes the lack of bureaucracy in supplying his troops and conducting the war. In fact, the "Wagner" force is now considered to be the best-equipped unit among the Russian fighters in Ukraine. This is probably also possible by bypassing official channels.
Weapons from North Korea and Iran
Kirby stated that "North Korea had completed a first arms delivery to "Wagner"" - the mercenary group had paid for it. "We assume that the amount of material supplied to 'Wagner' will not change the dynamics on the battlefield and in Ukraine, but we are certainly concerned that North Korea is planning to supply more military equipment ."
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said North Korea had delivered the weapons last month. "It is despicable that Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council - in violation of UN Security Council resolutions - is now using weapons from North Korea and Iran to conduct its war of aggression against Ukraine," Thomas-Greenfield said.
In addition to North Korea, Iran supplies arms to Russia. The "Wagner" squad also benefits from the drones. However, Prigozhin himself denies that his mercenaries are equipped with North Korean or Iranian equipment. The unit "bought quite a lot of American weapons," said the press service of his company "Konkord".
Supply of ammunition gains weight
The smooth supply of the units will be one of the most important issues in the coming months. There are already signs of a lack of weapons and, above all, ammunition among the fighting parties on both sides. The Wall Street Journal announced on Thursday that production capacities would be tight in Europe. At the same time, Kremlin boss Putin said that the Russian armaments industry would significantly increase its efficiency. According to British intelligence, however, Moscow is already feeling a clear lack of ammunition.
"Wagner" has the least problems here. According to observers, Prigozhin's role, which finances and takes care of his unit himself, is likely to increase further - and with it his political influence in Moscow. The American Institute for the Understanding of the War (ISW) suspects that Prigozhin has "ambitious political goals and is trying to capitalize on the Kremlin's need for more operational forces, to expand its influence and to please the ultranationalist electorate," the ISW said with.