February 14, 2023 - 9:44am

For any Russian inmates still undecided about whether to join Wagner forces in Ukraine, it would appear the decision has already been made for them. On 9th February, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s confidante and the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, suddenly announced that “the recruitment of prisoners by the Wagner private military company has completely stopped”. 

Footage emerged last September of Prigozhin touring Russian prisons, offering inmates pardons in return for six months of frontline duty in Ukraine. The US National Security Council estimates that approximately 40,000 convicts accepted the offer, swelling the total number of Wagner forces in Ukraine to 50,000. Sent on highly dangerous reconnaissance missions and into repeated, head-on assaults, the use of inmates in attritional ‘human wave’ attacks has resulted in a high casualty rate, with the White House calculating that 4,100 had been killed and 10,000 wounded as of the beginning of January.

With such a high rate of attrition, it may be that Prigozhin has simply already exhausted the available supply of willing and suitable candidates. Figures from the Russian Penitentiary Service show that the prison population decreased by 23,000 between September and October, when Wagner was accelerating its recruitment programme, but fell by just 6,000 between November and January. 

Wagner’s reputation for battlefield cruelty may also be inhibiting its ability to recruit. Prisoner rights activist Olga Romanova claims that a second enlistment drive late last year failed to yield significant numbers due to a newfound reluctance among prisoners who had heard tales of Wagner’s harsh tactics, including torture and summary execution for desertion. 

On 8th February, the independent Agentsvo news outlet reported that Wagner agents had been resorting to increasingly desperate recruitment tactics, including intimidation and the threat of new criminal cases against those refusing to sign up. Prigozhin’s announcement may have been made to calm the fears of Russian citizens, who had already expressed anxiety about an influx of pardoned convicts into towns and cities, some with old scores to settle.

Prigozhin’s own explanation for halting prisoner enlistment was the facetious claim that he had been overwhelmed with American volunteers. But he also admitted in an interview with blogger Semyon Pegov on 10th February that a relevant agreement with an unspecified government agency had expired, thought by the Institute for the Study of War to be Russia’s Ministry of Defence.

Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks to Wagner recruits

While the Ukraine conflict has brought Putin’s long-time confidante out of the shadows and allowed him to build a public profile through state television, social media and even film, it has also led to him becoming locked in a public feud with Russia’s defence establishment. Prigozhin has repeatedly lambasted the military’s battlefield failings and the two sides have jostled to claim credit for Russia’s rare recent victories in Soledar and Krasna Nora. 

Last month, after the Russian Defence Ministry boasted that its soldiers had seized the town of Soledar, Prigozhin complained that “they are constantly trying to steal victory from Wagner”, forcing the Ministry to admit that “the direct assault on the residential areas of Soledar…was successfully carried out thanks to the courageous and selfless actions of Wagner’s assault squads”. Just this week, Prigozhin boasted online of Wagner militias capturing the town of Krasna Nora, and falsely asserted that his guns for hire were the only Russian forces within 50 kilometres of Bakhmut. 

As such, depriving him of the convicts with whom he built a force capable of rivalling Russia’s military would suggest that the defence establishment is gaining the upper hand over Prigozhin. Indeed, Romanova claims that the Defence Ministry is not ending the use of prisoner-soldiers in Ukraine, but rather taking control of recruitment. 

This is not the only sign of Prigozhin being reined in. Former Kremlin advisor Sergei Markov claims that in mid-January Putin ordered Prigozhin to stop criticising the Russian military and made him promise not to create his own political movement or join any parliamentary party unless requested. Meanwhile, on Saturday, a Wagner-linked social media channel published a Kremlin document advising state media to stop mentioning Prigozhin or Wagner by name. Prigozhin himself complained yesterday of scant media discussion of his group, the fault of unspecified “losers who are not capable of anything and weave their intrigues to put an end to Wagner”. 

The Defence Ministry reasserting its power raises the question of what effect this will have on a battlefield strategy currently so reliant on using vast quantities of Wagner convicts. While the military could continue similar tactics with those currently at the front, the Institute for the Study of War suggests that “the possible decline in the Wagner Group’s prison recruitment campaign may be an indicator that the Russian Ministry of Defence intends to sideline the Wagner Group in future offensive operations” and so Russia “no longer needs large numbers of convict volunteers for a high pace of attritional human wave attacks”. 

While the use of ‘human wave attacks’ has maintained a stalemate over winter, the UK Ministry of Defence has noted that “lack of trained personnel” has also led to around 824 Russian losses a day and “poor coordination”. As the Russian leadership demands “sweeping advances” in the burgeoning spring offensive, with the goal of occupying all of Donetsk Oblast, the military may be moving away from the use of repeated, highly attritional attacks in favour of a more targeted and offensive strategy.

For Prigozhin, the real war is far from Donetsk, and instead lies within the Kremlin. It is a battle he is currently losing.