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What is the Wagner mercenary group and how strong is it compared to the Russian army?

Perhaps, the Russian military’s biggest problem is deploying its forces. Most are stuck on the frontline in Ukraine, which can’t be weakened.

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Posted by PenPushers.

25/06/2023

Wagner fighters are better equipped than the average Russian soldier, and their morale is also thought to be significantly higher

By
James Kilner

Vladimir Putin is facing an armed insurrection from a man who once helped organise banquets at the Kremlin.

The Russian army has launched airstrikes and artillery against the Wagner mercenary group controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin.

It is too early to tell who will get the upper hand, as a Wagner convoy advances on Moscow.

But here is the relative strength of each side in what has, over the course of less than 24 hours, evolved into a full blown coup against the Putin regime. Wagner is a mercenary group set up by the Kremlin in 2014 to help prosecute its initial invasion of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Since then, its missions have broadened out to include operations in the Middle East and Africa.

Last year, it was reassigned a core responsibility for the strategically important Bakhmut offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and eight months later, at the end of May, delivered Vladimir Putin a hard-fought victory.

Wagner Group soldiers delivered a hard-fought victory in Bakhmut CREDIT: AFP
Wagner recruited from prisons throughout the summer to boost its numbers to a fighting force of around 35,000 fighters. In January, the British Ministry of Defence estimated that its total manpower may have peaked at around 50,000 fighters.

Many of these were killed in the battle for Bakhmut as they were reportedly sent in waves against well-dug in Ukrainian positions.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, dubbed Putin’s chef because he once held lucrative Kremlin catering contracts, has led Wagner for most of its existence. Officially he has also bankrolled it, but it is likely that most of the cash came directly from the Kremlin.

He has become a sworn enemy of Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s minister of defence, and also of Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian military, who he accused of incompetence and unnecessarily killing thousands of Russian soldiers in the war in Ukraine.

He said that he ordered the start of an armed rebellion on Friday evening to rid the Russian defence ministry of Mr Shoigu and Gen. Gerasimov.

Yevgeny Prigozhin has claimed that he had an army of 25,000 men ready to launch his coup. This has not been possible to confirm, but he certainly had access to thousands of loyal battle-hardened fighters through his Wagner mercenary group.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has become a sworn enemy of Prigozhin CREDIT: EGOR ALEEV/AFP
These fighters had been due to sign contracts to bring them under the control of Russia’s ministry of defence after they withdrew from Bakhmut earlier this month, and while they paid lip service to this concept, they appear to have spent the time plotting a rebellion.

Wagner fighters are typically tough. They are mainly recruited from prisons or are ex-Russian soldiers, often special forces who are looking for new combat experiences and extra pay.

Many Wagner fighters are also better equipped than the average Russian soldier, who are often given rusting and outdated kit, according to reports.

The Wagner troops’ morale is also higher than Russian soldiers, who have taken a battering over the past 16 months of war. Although the Russian army was once estimated at more than 1 million men, analysts have said that it has suffered 220,000 casualties and that its best units have been broken.

Prigozhin with some of his soldiers on May 25 CREDIT: Press service of Prigozhin/UPI/Shutterstock/Shutterstock
The Russian army has also had to rely on 320,000 mobilised men to plug gaps in its frontline forces. These forces are considered a reasonable defensive deterrent, but not a specialised attacking force and certainly not capable of dealing with combating a complex rebellion.

Perhaps, the Russian military’s biggest problem is deploying its forces. Most are stuck on the frontline in Ukraine, which can’t be weakened.

It does have a National Guard estimated at 340,000 men, a largely untested force that sits somewhere between the army and riot police. In 2016, Putin signed a law that separated the National Guard leadership from the Russian army and instead made it subordinate to him.

It is supposedly charged with defending Russia’s borders, combating drug trafficking and terrorism, but its competency has already been challenged after pro-Ukrainian Russian forces were able to cross into southern Russia several times this year and attack Russian towns and villages.

It also deployed lightly armed units to support the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine, but reports said that many of these were decimated in fierce initial fighting. Other units were routed and in March 2022, Putin sacked the deputy head of the National Guard. Prigozhin has called on the National Guard to join his rebellion.

There are also roughly 250,000 conscripts under the Russian army’s command. They can be deployed to defend Russia from threats, but have lower levels of training and kit.

Finally, there is the FSO. This is a bodyguard unit that is specifically recruited to defend top Russians, the Kremlin and, most importantly, Putin. This numbers around 50,000 men and is considered something of a Praetorian guard.

This is where the Russian army should have a significant advantage over the Wagner mercenary group. The Russian military maintains one of the biggest fleets of tanks and warplanes in the world although, again, the war in Ukraine has severely dented this.

Also worth noting is that the Wagner Group has said that it has shot down at least three Russian military helicopters in the past day. This could not be confirmed. Footage from Voronezh showed a Russian KA-52 helicopter flying over the town over a cloud of black smoke, suggesting it had struck a site in the city, where Wagner troops were arriving.

Russian army helicopters also opened fire on Wagner forces on the M4 highway out of the city, according to a Reuters witness.

Photos from Rostov, the town in southern Russia that Wagner Group now claims to control, also showed that it commands several tanks and armoured personnel carriers and Prigozhin has previously discussed Wagner’s warplanes.

A Telegram channel linked to Russian military aviation sources said that Wagner’s air force was now flying sorties into Ukraine from a military airfield near Rostov that it had captured.

Again, war commitments are a major headache for Russia’s military. Prigozin’s insurrection effectively means that it is fighting on two fronts and it simply can’t afford to weaken its frontline forces against an intensified Ukraine onslaught.

The Wagner Group has a clear edge here. Whereas morale is low in the Russian army after months of the attritional war, followed by endless trench digging and now weeks of furious Ukrainian attacks, the Wagner Group soldiers have been mainly resting since they captured Bakhmut in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region earlier this month.

Reports from Wagner fighters who have previously deserted suggested that unit leadership qualities vary wildly, but what is rock-solid is fighters’ admiration for Prigozhin. His leadership skills and ability to communicate easily with his men have set him apart from Russian military commanders, who have struggled to inspire.

Prigozhin has also reported that dozens of Russian soldiers have deserted and that his forces were allowed to cross from Ukraine into Russia. All this highlights the weak morale among Russian forces.

Russian governors and politicians have started to back Putin, who has called for Prigozhin to be “brutally” punished for his rebellion. Among the highest profile of these is Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya.

He has been a staunch supporter of Putin, but is also known to like to back winners. If he thought that Putin was severely compromised, he may have backed Prigozhin. Instead, he said that the Wagner chief had “stabbed Putin in the back”.

Vyacheslav Volodin, the head of the Russian parliament, has also backed Putin, as you would expect from a staunch loyalist. He was joined by regional governors, still keen to show their support for the man occupying the Kremlin.

Another important supporter is Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has said that he backs Putin, a strong supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Although no senior Russian figures have declared their support for Prigozhin, exiled Russian oppositionists have done.

Perhaps the most notable of these is Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was formerly Russia’s richest man until Putin stripped him of his power and assets and threw him in prison in 2005. He now lives in exile in London.

Russia’s large oppositionist exile communities do not make natural backers of Prigozhin and their support for him in many ways betrays their desperation.

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