Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Wagner Group Redefined: Threats and Responses
Wagner Group Redefined: Threats and Responses

Wagner Group Redefined: Threats and Responses

Bottom Line

  • Wagner Group has suffered heavy casualties in Ukraine, and is turning to prisoners, foreign recruits, and newly recruited Russians to fill its ranks.
  • The length and ferocity of the conflict in Ukraine will determine Wagner’s availability for future deployments.
  • The West has an opportunity to respond to Wagner deployments in Africa now, while Wagner and the Kremlin are focused on Ukraine.

Who, what, and where is Wagner Group today? Once a Kremlin asset used exclusively in Africa and Syria, the mercenary group redeployed most of its forces to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.[1] Wagner Group has changed irrevocably since the conflict began, exploding from 5,000 seasoned veterans to a force of 50,000 troops, 80 percent of whom are former prisoners, in Ukraine alone.[2] The group’s future, however, hinges on the conflict’s length and severity.

The group’s own success, whether real or perceived on the ground in Ukraine, will also play a key role. Yivgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group’s financier and key leader, has inextricably tied the group to his own personal fortunes in and around Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Still, the United States and its allies have an array of responses to this and other mercenary groups promoting Russian influence in Africa.

Wagner forces, like Russian and Ukrainian forces at war in Ukraine today, are sustaining significant casualties. Some reports suggest that 800 to 1,000 Wagner Group recruits have died in Ukraine.[3] Wagner forces have been deployed in front-line assignments in Luhansk province earlier in the fall and in the area of Bakhmut, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, in November and December 2022. In August, a HIMARS missile hit a Wagner forward operating base in Luhansk, while retired Russian major general and presumed Wagner operative Kabnamat Botashev was killed while flying a Russian SU-25 over Popasna.[4] Video footage on Twitter shows alleged Wagner forces being repeatedly targeted and wounded or killed by artillery in the Bakhmut area.[5] Wagner forces have also been linked to the establishment of a defensive line featuring anti-tank fortifications, dubbed “the Wagner Line,” near Hirske.[6] Taken collectively, these developments demonstrate that the Wagner Group is deeply entrenched in the Ukrainian conflict and has sustained heavy casualties, which could affect the group’s capabilities in the future, including deployments in Africa.

Wagner Group has pursued any available means to rebuild its forces after these combat losses. First, the group has augmented its recruitment of Russian citizens, reflecting the Russian state’s increasingly lax enforcement of its 1996 anti-mercenary law, which sought to ban Russian citizens from participation in “armed conflict abroad for financial gain.”[7] Wagner is actively recruiting in the streets of Russia, with street signs in at least twenty-seven of Russia’s eighty-five districts.[8] The group also continues recruiting through the social media platform Telegram, advertising a “3-month business trip to Ukraine.”[9] In a highly-publicized move, Wagner has also begun recruiting prisoners, as seen in Yivgeny Prigozhin’s recent visit to a prison in Russia, where prisoners were allegedly offered “a presidential pardon after six months and a salary of 100,000 rubles ($1,454) a month.”[10] Unsurprisingly, these new recruits have not met the level of combat quality associated with Wagner units in the past. Ukrainian sources suggest that of the 6,000 prisoners recruited, 2,000 reached the front and 458 died by mid-October, a horrific one-quarter death rate for those deployed in combat.[11] In January 2023, Western reports state that Wagner Group has recruited 40,000 prisoners, a gigantic number dwarfing the group’s pre-war strength of 5,000.[12] Ukrainian armed forces officials have noted that Wagner’s prisoner recruits are unprepared for winter combat.[13] Others have suggested that these prisoners are being actively used as cannon fodder.[14] All of these developments point toward a changed emphasis on quantity rather than quality, perhaps borne out of attrition.

Non-Russians have also been targeted by Wagner recruitment. Syrian mercenaries were most likely the first foreign group integrated into Wagner formations in Ukraine. In March, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent the first group of at least 300 fighters to support Russia’s invasion.[15] Given Wagner Group’s previous combined operations with Syrian mercenaries in Central African Republic and Libya, and alleged testimonies from Syrian mercenaries,[16] it is likely that at least some of these forces are supporting Wagner operations in Ukraine. More concerning for Western governments is Wagner’s alleged recruitment of former special operations forces from Afghanistan. These former operators, who fled to Iran after the Western-backed Afghan government’s collapse, have few paths available. Wagner offers a way out. Former Afghan general Abdul Roaf Arghaniwal communicates with these soldiers and says that they fear deportation to Afghanistan more than fighting. He says that they have little choice but to fight.[17] These forces, regardless of their placement in special forces units or embedded with Wagner Group, would align with Wagner in composition, goals, and recruitment. This development could significantly increase Wagner’s combat capacity, in stark contrast to the group’s force dilution caused by prisoner recruitment.

Wagner’s force structure is clearly changing over time. The initial force sent to Ukraine has sustained casualties, similar to the Ukrainian and Russian armies, yet Wagner does not have the manpower reserves of a traditional army. Instead, the group now looks to a range of external mobilization options. Wagner’s capabilities in Ukraine and elsewhere, particularly in Africa, will change with this change in force structure. Given the recruitment of prisoners and others with limited experience, it is likely that Wagner’s human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, robberies, and imprisonments, will increase. Although Wagner forces have committed such crimes in Africa, including in Central African Republic [18], Libya [19], and already in Ukraine [20], employing criminals will likely exacerbate this trend. The group’s operational effectiveness will also vary based on its new force composition in both Africa and Ukraine. While prisoners may harm the group’s reputation and efficacy, former special forces or mercenaries from other countries may help the group win battlefield successes.

Wagner’s behavior in Ukraine will contribute to contract availability and new partner interest in Africa. As Wagner Group’s human rights violations will likely increase in frequency through the remainder of the Ukraine conflict, new partners will need to determine whether such a level of criminality is acceptable in their own countries. Further, Wagner’s success or failure in Ukraine will go a long way in determining the Russian state’s trust in the organization. Although the Kremlin works to maintain an air of discretion and plausible deniability relative to Wagner, the former undoubtedly provides strategic guidance for Wagner and its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, while complementing Wagner’s operations with arms and vehicle sales. The group’s success at the frontlines will play a key role in determining Kremlin support and trust, and such success is integrally tied into the group’s evolving force structure.

Despite some limited victories in Ukraine, Wagner is a far more effective tool of coercive diplomacy than a frontline shock force. Although Wagner’s effectiveness in Africa can and should be disputed, particularly its failures in Mozambique and Madagascar [21], the organization is much more effective in state capture—the monopolization of public institutions to encourage one’s own corruption [22]—in Africa than as a vanguard military force in Ukraine. In Africa and the Middle East, Wagner’s primary opponents may appear to be local militants, when in fact they are fighting to erode Western support and connections in states where they operate. Further, Wagner gains materially from its African interventions through lucrative mining contracts.[23] In these instances, Wagner is a low-cost, high-upside political tool for the Russian state. Although Wagner Group is attempting to copy its African strategy in Ukraine, allegedly launching an offensive to capture salt mines in the Bakhmut area, the group has lost over 1,000 troops in this area alone.[24] Instead, the group’s forces are facing increasing attrition rates and strengthened Western military commitments while gaining limited resources and likely losing more quality forces than it gains through replacements. As such, the speed of the conflict’s termination will determine the group’s success in the future.

Wagner’s commitment to operations in Ukraine appears to be less of a strategic move and more of a calculated attempt by Prigozhin to elevate his own stock in Putin’s personal circle. The organization was initially frozen out of the conflict as a competitor by Russia’s military establishment. The latter attempted and failed in building its own mercenary force, Redoubt.[25] Yet after Wagner’s involvement began, Prigozhin has reaped the benefits. He was awarded a Hero of the Russian Federation medal after Wagner successes in Luhansk province.[26] On the other hand, Prigozhin may have had little choice in the matter. His alternative, sticking to operations in Africa, may no longer have existed given the dire state of Russian forces in summer and early autumn. Thus, the Ukrainian conflict also demonstrates the undeniable link between Russian state demands and Wagner Group acquiescence.

The length of the conflict in Ukraine, rather than Russia’s victory or loss, is the key variable in determining future Wagner operations in Africa and elsewhere in the world. Should the war end quickly, regardless of a victory or loss, recruits will likely stream toward the organization. If Russia wins quickly, recruits will be decommissioned veterans with an interest in earning money abroad. If Russia loses quickly, these recruits and members of the far-right will likely rally around Wagner. In either case, the Russian state will happily accept this pressure-releasing mechanism, particularly among veterans or those who might disagree with the direction of Russian foreign policy.

If the conflict in Ukraine continues for a long time, attrition will continue among Wagner forces and the regular Russian army, which will limit the Wagner Group’s recruitment and future operations. Such an extended conflict could also deter veterans from “reenlisting” with Wagner for potential combat abroad. In the group’s worst-case scenario, Wagner will lose the remainder of its well-trained elements and will rely on diluted forces made up of untrained prisoners. In this case, future deployments will be fraught and success would be unlikely.

What can the West do at this key moment? Given Wagner’s changing nature, Western states should gauge their tools to combat the group. Although the public discourse favors a discussion about labeling Wagner as a foreign terrorist organization,[27] there are far more productive actions that will limit the group’s future operations. First, the United States and its allies ought to reconsider any possible ways to provide citizenship or refuge to former special operations forces from Afghanistan. These forces have an intimate knowledge of Western military operations and can be a boon to the Wagner group. Second, Western governments must focus responses on clear cases of Wagner Group crimes and disinformation. Such governments should follow France’s example after the massacre near Gossi base in Mali, calling out Wagner’s disinformation and providing clear evidence to support counter-claims.[28] Third, Western pro-democracy and media organizations need to stop romanticizing mercenaries—continuing this trend will feed into Russian propaganda and disinformation. Instead, Wagner should be viewed as it is, a tool of the Russian state that often commits crimes, sometimes fails in battle, and accomplishes little for host nations. Fourth, as the war in Ukraine continues, Western governments should provide as much intelligence, weapons, and equipment support as possible to combat Wagner forces. Wagner forces are vulnerable to HIMARs and other artillery strikes, and their future capabilities are limited by attrition in Ukraine.

Last, the removal of Wagner forces across Africa to fight in Ukraine presents a key opportunity for the United States, France, and other Western partners. This could be a pivot point for rebuilding security relationships and supporting pro-democracy movements in Africa, particularly in the Sahel region, where coups, instability, and jihadist activity have recently thrived. The Biden administration has already signaled its interest in building a greater rapport with African nations by recommending that the African Union gain a permanent on the G20.[29] The French government has committed to an updated campaign to combat Russian disinformation in Africa through a new cybersecurity strategy.[30] Further positive steps are essential at this critical point in relations between Africa and the West.

[1] Andrew Eversden, “Russia Pulls Some Wagner Forces from Africa for Ukraine: Townsend,” Breaking Defense, July 29, 2022,

[2] “What is Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries in Ukraine?,” BBC, January 23, 2023,

[3] “Report: Armed Forces of Ukraine have killed more than 500 Russian prisoners recruited by Wagner private military contractors,” Ukrainska Pravda, November 4, 2022,

[4] Stavros Atlamazoglou, “Russia’s Reliance on Wagner Group in Ukraine is Wearing Down Putin’s Favorite Mercenary Group, the British Military Says,” Insider, September 11, 2022,; Mary Ilyushina, “In Ukraine, A Russian Mercenary Group Steps Out of the Shadows,” Washington Post, August 18, 2022,

[5]#Bakhmut Has Become a Big Cemetery for #WagnerGroup and Russian Invaders,” Twitter, December 6, 2022,; “A Powerful Artillery Strike of the Ukrainian M777 Howitzer on the Concentration of Russian Military PMC Wagner in Bakhmut,” Twitter, December 7, 2022,

[6] Gianluca Mezzofiore and Paul P. Murphy, “Russian Mercenary Group Constructs Anti-Tank Fortification, Satellite Images Show,” CNN, October 22, 2022,

[7] “Russian Private Military Companies,” Congressional Research Service, September 16, 2020,

[8] Ilyushina, Washington Post.


[10] Pjotr Sauer, “‘We Thieves and Killers are Now Fighting Russia’s War’: how Moscow Recruits from its Prisons,” The Guardian, September 20, 2022,

[11] Report, Ukrainska Pravda.

[12] “What is Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries in Ukraine?,” BBC, January 23, 2023,

[13] George Barros et al., Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, December 4,” Institute for the Study of War, December 4, 2022,

[14] Levent Kemal, Ragip Soylu, “Wagner group: Russian prisoners recruited by mercenaries ‘already captured by Ukrainian forces,’” Middle East Eye, September 16, 2022,

[15] Ben Hubbard, Hwaida Saad, and Asmaa al-Omar, “Syrian Mercenaries Deploy to Russia en Route to Ukrainian Battlefields,” New York Times, March 31, 2022,

[16] Mohammed Amin, “Syrian fighters participated in Wagner Group massacres in Central African Republic,” Middle East Eye, June 9, 2022,; “Ukraine: Wagner Group Begins Relocating Syrian Fighters from Libya to Russia,” Syrians for Truth & Justice, March 21, 2022,

[17] Bernard Condon, “Russia recruiting U.S.-trained Afghan commandos, vets say,” AP News, October 31, 2022,

[18] Wagner Group Operations in Africa,” ACLED; “Mali: Massacre by Army, Foreign Soldiers,” Human Rights Watch, April 5, 2022,; “Central African Republic: Abuses by Russia-Linked Forces,” Human Rights Watch, May 3, 2022,

[19] “Libya: Russia’s Wagner Group Set Landmines Near Tripoli,” Human Rights Watch, May 31, 2022,

[20] Lorenzo Tondo et al., “Alleged Wagner Group Fighters Accused of Murdering Civilians in Ukraine,” The Guardian, May 25, 2022,

[21] Pjotr Sauer, “In Push for Africa, Russia’s Wagner Mercenaries Are ‘Out of Their Depth’ in Mozambique,” The Moscow Times, November 19, 2019,; Daniel Sixto, “Russian Mercenaries: A String of Failures in Africa,” Geopolitical Monitor, August 24, 2020,

[22] Elizabeth David-Barrett, “State Capture and Inequality,” NYU Center on International Cooperation, December 17, 2021,

[23] Raphael Parens, “The Wagner Group’s Playbook in Africa: Mali,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, March 18, 2022,

[24] Alia Shoaib, “The Financial Prize of Huge Salt Mines Could Have Driven Russia’s Wagner Group to Sacrifice 1,000 Men to Capture the City of Bakhmut, Says White House,” Business Insider, January 7, 2023,

[25] Lillia Yapparova, “A Mercenaries’ War: How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Led to a ‘Secret Mobilization’ that Allowed Oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin to Win Back Putin’s Favor,” Meduza, July 14, 2022,

[26] “Latest Defense Intelligence Update on the Situation in Ukraine – 18 July 2022,” Twitter, July 18, 2022,

[27] Kimberley Martin, “Russia’s Use of the Wagner Group: Definitions, Strategic Objectives, and Accountability,” Testimony before the Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security United States House of Representatives, September 15, 2022; Jason Blazakis, “Russia’s Wagner Group Is About More Than Mercenaries,” Newsweek, December 9, 2022,; James Petrila, Phil Wasielewski, “It’s Time to Designate Wagner Group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Lawfare, June 30, 2022,    

[28] Cyril Bensimon and Morgane Le Cam, “Sahel: In the Information War, the French Army Retaliates and Accuses Wagner,” Le Monde, April 23, 2022,

[29] Yasmeen Abutaleb, “Biden to Call for African Union to Permanently Join G-20,” Washington Post, December 9, 2022,


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.