Ukraine—Shielded by a small hill from Russian positions a half-mile away, a Ukrainian soldier spotted via drone feed a new foxhole that appeared overnight northwest of the embattled city of Bakhmut.
Three troopers of Russia’s Wagner paramilitary organization had crawled through no man’s land to establish a firing position, likely for a grenade launcher. The drone’s camera zoomed to Russian trenches behind.
“Corpses, corpses, corpses one atop another,” said Oleksiy, a soldier with Ukraine’s Third Storm Brigade who watched the footage and coordinated the response. “And now, look, these brave lads have come out our way.”
“They don’t even have their body armor on,” he shouted to a fellow trooper operating an American-made MK-19 grenade launcher above the staccato exchange of machine-gun fire. One of the bullets whizzed overhead. “Let’s hit them now.”
With a series of clinks, a volley of grenades flew to the Russian trench. “Done,” said Oleksiy.
These Wagner men, too, joined a long list of casualties that the group, which now relies mostly on convicts recruited in Russian prisons, has incurred in the monthslong battle for Bakhmut.
With their policy of executing on the spot troopers who attempt to retreat or surrender, and a disregard for losses that is shocking for modern warfare, Wagner’s disposable penal battalions have emerged as a unique threat to Ukrainian defenders, advancing at the time when the regular Russian military remains largely stalled.
No military in a democratic society can keep sending wave after wave of soldiers to near-certain death to gain another few hundred yards. Even Russia’s regular armed forces, known for their high tolerance of casualties, shy away from dispatching troops on clearly suicidal missions. Yet it is precisely such an approach that has allowed Wagner to come to the verge of capturing Bakhmut, at a cost that Ukrainian and Western officials estimate at tens of thousands of Russian casualties.
On Sunday, Wagner’s forces pushed toward central Bakhmut from the east and the north, as remaining Ukrainian defenders retreated west of the Bakhmutka river that runs through the city. Ukrainian forces battled to retain control over the two remaining supply routes into Bakhmut, with heavy artillery exchanges ringing across the frontline.
Ukraine has also suffered large casualties during the eight months of battling for Bakhmut, losing some of the troops that it needs to mount a spring offensive with new weapons supplied by the U.S. and allies. President Volodymyr Zelensky has come under growing pressure to pull back from the eastern city, home to 70,000 people before the war, in what would be Kyiv’s first such significant retreat since last summer.
At times, up to 18 human waves of Wagner troops have attacked a single trench here in a 24-hour period, said Sr. Lt. Petro Horbatenko, a battalion commander in the Third Storm Brigade, one of the Ukrainian units on the Bakhmut front.
“A Wagner fighter doesn’t have an option to pull back. Their only chance of survival is to keep moving ahead,” he said. “And this tactic works. It’s a zombie war…They are throwing cannon fodder at us, aiming to cause maximum damage. We obviously can’t respond the same way because we don’t have as much personnel and we are sensitive to losses.”
One of Wagner’s men captured on the Bakhmut front, a 48-year-old recidivist with convictions for murder, robbery and drug offenses, said that he was trained for three weeks with basically one skill: how to crawl and advance in a forest, an indication that he wasn’t expected to survive his first mission. Then, the night of Jan. 29, two Wagner squads, each containing five regular convicts and one commander, also an inmate, were ordered to assault a fortified Ukrainian outpost.
“Two machine guns were blazing at us, people were being torn to bits, but they kept telling us: keep crawling ahead and dig in. It was just plain dumb,” said the man, who was captured by Ukrainian forces in March, in an interview.
Four of the 12 members of that attack group remained combat-fit by the end of the night, with most others killed, he said. The Wagner fighter said he was allowed to retreat by the morning because of injuries to his arm. Even for the troopers who had sustained serious wounds, a pullback without permission wasn’t an option.
“If you don’t push ahead and do what you’re told, you simply get nullified,” he said, using Wagner’s term for on-the-spot executions, often with a sledgehammer blow to the head. “Everyone knows that.”
In a hospital in Russian-occupied Luhansk, a Wagner doctor declared the man fit for service after ascertaining that he could still move his trigger finger. He was sent back to the front line northwest of Bakhmut on a detail evacuating casualties in late February. The number of the dead Wagner men that he saw in the nine days before his capture was in the hundreds, with fatalities outnumbering nonlethal casualties, he said. “We would just stack up all the corpses in one place and leave them there, there was no time to deal with them.”
Wagner didn’t provide his detail with food, he said, so the men scavenged for the rations of the dead in the debris-filled trenches that kept freezing and turning back into pools of mud.
The Wagner soldier was captured after he got lost and stumbled into a Ukrainian position.
Soldiers from Ukraine’s Third Storm Brigade said that a Wagner body in the no man’s land ahead of their position remained there untouched for five days. Then, one night, one of other Wagner troopers crawled out to remove the man’s backpack, leaving the corpse behind.
Founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, President Vladimir Putin’s former caterer and confidant who spent a decade in Soviet prisons for robbery and other offenses, Wagner started off around 2014 as a private-military company that relied on experienced Russian military veterans and operated in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali.
Wagner loosened its once-strict recruitment standards as it created new forces for the Ukrainian war, achieving critical successes that allowed Russia to capture Ukrainian-held parts of the Luhansk region between May and July. After the losses of that campaign, Mr. Prigozhin secured Mr. Putin’s permission to start recruiting in Russian prison camps.
Inmates were offered a promise of amnesty if they survived for six months. Those deserting, surrendering, drinking, taking drugs or engaging in sex were to be executed, Mr. Prigozhin said in addresses to potential recruits. A video released by Wagner in November showed one of their men, captured by Ukraine and then traded back in a prisoner exchange, murdered on camera with a blow by the group’s trademark sledgehammer to the skull.
As many as 50,000 prisoners have signed up, with nearly all of them sent to the Bakhmut front. Mr. Prigozhin, who has confirmed the group’s recruitment tactics and internal rules in multiple appearances, has said that Wagner tries to protect the lives of its inmate recruits. In late February, he also posted a photograph showing the corpses of several dozen Wagner fighters, an image that he said depicted only one of the casualty-collection points for that day’s toll in the Bakhmut area.
Wagner’s goal, Mr. Prigozhin has said, wasn’t so much to take Bakhmut but to grind down Ukraine’s military. To an extent, this plan worked: As Ukraine poured some of its best brigades in to defend the city in recent months, even a lopsided casualty ratio in the Ukrainian favor ultimately worked to Moscow’s advantage given Russia’s larger population—and the fact that Russia was trading ill-trained prisoners for the lives of Ukrainian troops.
Such losses in the Bakhmut area are threatening Kyiv’s ability to mount a strategic counteroffensive once the current mud season ends in the spring and unpaved roads become passable again.
“The war is won not by the party that gains territory, but by the party that destroys the armed forces of the adversary,” said Sr. Lt. Horbatenko, the Third Storm Brigade battalion commander. “Here, we are using up too much of the offensive potential that we’ll need for a breakthrough once Ukraine’s black earth dries up.”
Ukrainian combat casualties are classified. Officers in some other brigades say that several units—including some of the best-prepared ones—have been routed by fighting in the Bakhmut area in recent months.
Ukrainian brigades have big differences in the level of training and morale, and don’t always have proper communication with one another. One company commander said that his positions were overrun by Wagner south of Bakhmut because a nearby battalion, recruited from volunteers with poor training, had abandoned their allotted area without prior warning. Wagner’s tactic has been to target these weaker units, Ukrainian commanders in the Bakhmut area say.
Touting Wagner’s battlefield superiority, Mr. Prigozhin has repeatedly labeled Russia’s top military commanders as incompetent or worse. Russia’s military has lost well over a hundred tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, as well as hundreds of men, in a fruitless push to take the strategic town of Vuhledar in recent weeks. It has failed to achieve breakthroughs in other areas, too.
Even in Ukrainian captivity, some Wagner troopers take pride in their organization’s grit. “What Russian Ministry of Defense troops? What can they do?” said a 29-year-old convict recruited by Wagner and captured in Bakhmut in late February. “They need to be rejuvenated, energized a bit. They have lost their one-time steel. Our ancestors had taken Berlin, they were real men…And look now…”
Mr. Prigozhin’s conflict with the Ministry of Defense in Moscow means that the prison recruitment for Wagner has stopped, capping the organization’s ability to continue with its current tactic of human waves. Even if Mr. Prigozhin persuades the Kremlin to restore access to Russia’s prison camps, news of Wagner’s staggering losses in Bakhmut have already filtered back, deterring many remaining potential recruits.
The 48-year-old Wagner trooper captured by Ukraine said he initially signed up in October, but wasn’t picked at the time because he has hepatitis C. Then, on Dec. 30, Wagner changed its stance amid its manpower shortage. The man was shipped to training grounds in the Luhansk region. All of the men in the camp either had hepatitis C, identifiable by a white wristband, HIV, identifiable by a red wristband, or both. The 29-year-old Wagner trooper captured by the Ukrainians said he had contracted HIV in prison.
“Wagner is running out of people, too. They can’t sustain this,” said Lt. Vladyslav, a company commander in Ukraine’s 80th Assault Brigade whose men are protecting one of the access routes to Bakhmut, and recently took another Wagner prisoner. “Even in Russia, they don’t have enough men who seek suicide on our land.”