May 19, 2024
With the Russian forces in Ukraine depleted, the Wagner mercenary group has sought to recruit convicted felons to join the war, but some have declined, according to a senior U.S. defense official.

With the Russian forces in Ukraine depleted, the Wagner mercenary group has sought to recruit convicted felons to join the war, but some have declined, according to a senior U.S. defense official.

The mercenary group is looking to pad its force by 1,500, “but many are refusing,” the official told reporters on Monday afternoon. “Our information indicates that Wagner has been suffering high losses in Ukraine, especially and unsurprisingly among young and inexperienced fighters.”

The admission by the defense official comes days after a video of Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group, went viral of him telling inmates that if they don’t want to join the war, they should send their children to fight instead. He said in a statement later that if he were in prison, he’d “dream of” joining the war to “pay my debt to the motherland,” according to the BBC, which verified the video and geolocated it to a penal colony in Russia’s central Mari El Republic.

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“We’re seeing the Kremlin increasingly straining to find new recruits to fill out their thin ranks,” the senior official continued. “And the Russians are performing so poorly that the news from Kharkiv province has inspired many Russian volunteers to refuse combat.”

DOD officials have infrequently provided death counts for either side of the war, citing difficulties in tracking such data, though most recently, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters on Aug. 8 that the Russians were in the “ballpark” of having “probably taken 70,000-80,000 casualties,” a total that included those killed or injured in the war.

In addition to looking at Russian prisoners for padding the troops, they have also sought to convince Tajiks, Belarusians, and Armenians to join the war, the official continued.

Despite Russia’s high death toll and apparent need for more soldiers, Kremlin officials have repeatedly declined to call up their reserve forces. If they choose to do this, it would likely mean admitting to the Russian people that there is a war going on, which they have labeled as a “special military operation,” and that it’s not going well.

In recent days, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to acknowledge the limits of the troop total, saying, “I must emphasize that we are fighting not with a full army but only with part, with contracted forces. Of course, this is linked with certain personnel parameters and so on. This is why we are not in a rush in this respect.”

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Comparatively, the Ukrainian forces have high morale, a source of struggle for the Russian military since it invaded in late February, in part because in the successful counteroffensive in the northeast, they’ve “liberated over 300 settlements in Kharkiv province,” the official added, but, “We all know that this fight is far from over.”

“In the vicinity of Kharkiv, we assess that the Ukrainians continue to make efforts to consolidate their gains and are holding the border,” a senior U.S. military official told reporters, though the official noted that Russia had made limited gains in the Donbas. “We have seen Russian forces make some minor gains in terms of territory, but we’re talking a few 100 meters and nothing considerably substantial at this stage.”

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