One of the bloodiest battles in the war in Ukraine now is the fight for the town of Bakhmut, where Russian forces are on the offensive. And leading that fight is the Wagner Group, the Kremlin-aligned private military company with a history of operating in Syria, the Central African Republic and other countries. And things aren’t really working out in Wagner’s favor at the moment. Just ask its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
It’s gotten so bad, and Wagner has lost so many fighters, that the company is launching a new recruitment drive to fill its depleted ranks. In one of his latest messages, this time an audio file shared on Friday, Prigozhin claimed that he had more fighters coming to aid the fight, to fill gaps left by heavy losses.
“Recruitment centers for PMC Wagner have opened in 42 Russian cities,” Prigozhin added in a statement on the news. According to a list of sites shared by the mercenary company, these centers will be located at gyms and martial arts studios.
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How many recruits Prigozhin hopes to get is unclear. Although a Russian company, Wagner employs mercenary fighters from many of the areas it operates in, including Central Africa and the Middle East. In the last several months the company received an influx in numbers thanks to conscripting convicts in Russian prisons, promising them freedom in return for their service (if they survived). In February Prigozhin announced that that effort had ended, mainly because the government wouldn’t let him keep doing that. U.S. intelligence estimated in January that Wagner pulled in 40,000 new fighters that way, on top of the 10,000 non-convicts in its ranks. Exact losses are unclear. The British government estimates that Russian forces have suffered as many as 30,000 casualties fighting for the city, and Prigozhin has released videos showing corpses of his company’s fighters.
Prigozhin himself has admitted the battle for Bakhmut is a “meat grinder.” The Wagner boss seems to go from boasting about his fighters to admitting to massive casualties and a lack of supplies. He has regularly accused the Russian military of undercutting his forces, not supplying enough ammunition and equipment for them to fight. Russia, and for a private company still dependent on support from an actual standing military, it’s unlikely the Kremlin and Ministry of Defense can easily meet all of Prigozhin’s demands. Ammunition and weapons are in such low supply that according to the British Ministry of Defense many are reduced to fighting just with shovels.
On Saturday Prigozhin gave another battlefield update, this time on video. Prigozhin, clad as usual in military gear and claiming to be in Bakhmut, Prigozhin said that he was in desperate need of ammunition, as much as 10,000 tonnes per month, in order to wage war.
It’s not clear how successful this will be. The Russian government’s own recruiting efforts have been less than smooth. Early attempts were so bad the military attempted to find fighters at homeless shelters. Eventually the country called up 300,000 reservists, which sparked rare protests in Russia cities, as well as attacks on recruiters and recruitment offices. The Russian Ministry of Defense did claim that it successfully mobilized 300,000 fighters. Ukraine’s government has meanwhile claimed that Russia is trying to mobilize an additional wave of soldiers, as many as half a million, for a spring offensive.
How many contractors Wagner will actually get remains to be seen. It’s also unclear how quickly they’ll be sent to Bakhmut and if they’ll end up with the grisly casualties that the current Wagner Group has been suffering.
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