SensusQ analysis: Head of Wagner Group warns of impending defeat in Ukraine

Rainer Pihlakas
May 5, 2023

Keywords: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mobilization, Casualties, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Open Sources Intelligence (OSINT), Ukraine, Russia, Conflict

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On April 29, in an interview with WarGonzo blogger Semyon Pegov, Yevgeny Prigozhin stated that Wagner's mercenaries will continue to fight in Bakhmut but would have to “withdraw in an organized manner or stay and die” if the situation did not improve immediately. Prigozhin argued that Wagner's doctrinal requirement was about 80,000 shells per day — which was the previous shell allowance prior to Russian Ministry of Defense apparent efforts to reduce Wagner’s influence. Prigozhin added that Wagner was currently receiving only 800 of the 4,000 shells per day requested. "Wagner, in a short period of time, will cease to exist. We will become history, nothing to worry about, things like this happen," Prigozhin said. Yevgeny Prigozhin also continued his efforts to convince the Kremlin to go on the defensive in eastern Ukraine. Prigozhin warned that the Ukrainian counteroffensive could take place before 15 May, but the Russian military is in no hurry to prepare to repel attacks. [1]

Yevgeny Prigozhin has previously said that battle for Bakhmut is a turning point for PMC Wagner. About 1.5 months ago, on 11 March, he announced that Wagner Group would reform itself into an army with an ideological component after the capture of Bakhmut. Some of his soldiers were to be disbanded and some of them were at the end of their contract. Only the best were supposed to stay and then he was going to start recruiting again. The ideology of the army was to be very simple - "justice". [2] Reform in general would have been expected, as Wagner Group had already gained considerable weight - both political and social. Moreover, without an ideological component, the PMC could not have evolved further. On the other hand, the heavy loss of Wagner's troops signalled to Prigozhin that he had to find a way out of the war or his troops would be completely depleted, and organizational reform would have been a fair justification for this.

Prigozhin had also previously highlighted the expected Ukrainian counter-attack. Thus, as early as 26 April, he stated that as soon as weather conditions in Bakhmut improved, Ukraine would launch a counter-offensive, which could "coincidentally" be on 9 May - Victory Day, a holiday commemorating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. According to Prigozhin, Wagner forces had already accomplished their mission, killing thousands of Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut. However, he reiterated that Wagner troops did not have enough shells, nor had they flanks protected and therefore Ukrainian counter-attack was likely to be successful. Due to the lack of shells, five Russian soldier soldiers died on the Ukrainian front instead of one, and this "is a crime against Russia," Prygozhyn argued. [3] Apparently, he was trying to make the Russian Ministry of Defence, which is responsible for the logistics of Russian troops, the scapegoat for the poor performance of all Russian troops.

FIGURE 1. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s interview with WarGonzo blogger Semyon Pegov.

The White House estimated on May 1st that Russia's military has suffered 100,000 casualties in the last five months in fighting across Ukraine. US national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that the figure, based on US intelligence estimates, included more than 20,000 dead, half of whom are from the Wagner mercenary group, which also includes convicts released from prison to join the fighting. [4] Yevgeny Prigozin said on 21 April that the Wagner PMC had 6,000 people who could participate in the battle. "These 6,000 people are Russia's last reserve to win this war," Prigozhin dramatically emphasized. [5] According to an earlier study by SensusQ, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, Russia’s largest Private Military Company, had recruited some 50,000 convicts from Russian prisons, 80% of whom had been killed or wounded, deserted or surrendered by the end of January 2023. [6] As far as SensusQ is aware, Prigozhin has never reported how many prisoners Wagner Group recruited, how many troops they had at most, how many of them have been killed and how many were eventually pardoned, but given the information from open sources, Prigozhin's claim of the remaining 6,000 soldiers today sounds quite realistic.

On 30 April, Prigozhin claimed that Wagner fighters advanced 230 metres in Bakhmut but lost 99 fighters in the process, which was again the result of the "ammunition hunger". With the doctrinal amount of shells the Wagner group losses would have been 5-10 times less, Prigozhin said. [7] On 3 May, Prigozhin claimed that Wagner's fighters advanced another 230 meters and captured 54,000 m2 of territory in Bakhmut but lost 116 fighters as a result of "ammunition hunger". [8] In addition, a Wagner soldier claimed that on 2 May he delivered to the Russian State Duma’s Defence Committee 39 boxes of fallen Russian soldier’s complaints of ammunition shortages. The complaints were written by the living comrades of the fallen soldiers, who blamed the Russian Ministry of Defence and claimed that 70-80% of the casualties were due to "shell-hunger" and asked to find those responsible for their deaths. [9] [10]

The boxes in the video are about the same size as a box of printer paper, which contains five packs of paper, 500 sheets each, for a total of 2,500 sheets. Of course, the letters of complaint shown in the video weren't as well packed as in the manufactured paper box, but even if the sheets were 80% as dense as in the manufactured paper box, that would be 2,000 complaints per box and 78,000 complaints for the 39 boxes shown in the video. It is doubtful that Prigozhin has 78,000 authentic names of fallen Russian soldiers unless Wagner's forces were larger and suffered more casualties than Ukrainian and Western sources have so far estimated. Thus, the complaint-related action is likely staged to ostensibly increase the number of Russian casualties in Ukraine.

FIGURE 2. 39 boxes of complaints from fallen soldiers, delivered to the Russian State Duma’s Defence Committee.

The first and last official record of Russian casualties in Ukraine dates back to September 2022, when Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that 5,937 Russian soldiers had been killed since the conflict began. [11] In April 2023, the BBC Russian service, in tandem with the independent Russian news outlet Mediazona, reported that the verified number of Russian servicemen killed in Ukraine reached 20,451. [12] These figures, although not corroborating Ukrainian and Western estimates, are important because these figures have been available to the Russians and are trusted by Russians who overwhelmingly disbelieve "Western propaganda". Thus, contrary to official Russian channels, Prigozhin has recently stressed the huge number of Russian casualties in Ukraine.

Given the personal popularity of the Wagner Group and Yevgeny Prigozhin in Russia, Prigozhin's statements on the real situation in Ukraine could be a wake-up call for many Russians who have so far blindly trusted the official information channels. Prigozhin has repeatedly called the Wagner Group the best military unit in the world, and there are probably many civilians as well as soldiers who have taken this to heart. Now, in the light of Prigozhin's recent warnings, they may change their perception of the course of the war in Ukraine. Acknowledging the fact that even Wagner's troops have a huge number of casualties and even Wagner's group may not resist the upcoming Ukrainian counter-attack, mobilised personnel may feel particularly threatened. This is likely to have a devastating impact on their fighting morale in the near future, when the Ukrainian counter-attack, the deadliness of which Prigozhin has repeatedly warned, begins.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, having regularly visited the front line in Bakhmut, probably has a better understanding of the real situation on the Ukrainian front than top-ranked generals of the Russian army and high-level Russian politicians. He has direct contact with the local commanders of the Wagner Group and may well understand the potential of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Therefore, he may prepare Russian society for an impending defeat by trying to make the Russian Ministry of Defence responsible for the "shell-hunger" and thus the scapegoat for the failure of the Russian armed forces and the Wagner Group in Ukraine. Interestingly, Ukraine's Armed Forces have stated that Russia has not experienced a shortage of ammunition in eastern Ukraine. [13] Thus, Prigozhin's attempt to exacerbate logistical problems seems even more of an artificial problem in order to justify the expected withdrawal from the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the near future.

It may be that Prigozhin believes that defeat in Ukraine cannot be avoided, and therefore does not care about the devastating consequences of his statements on the morale of Russian citizens and armed forces. It is also possible that, as Prigozhin's mercenaries are almost depleted, he is no longer able to gain any fame in Ukraine and is therefore deliberately hampering the fighting ability of the Russian armed forces. For Prigozhin's political ambitions, nothing could be worse than the success of the Russian armed forces after the failure of Wagner's group to capture Bakhmut. He may want to prove that without Wagner Group, no one can make significant progress on the battlefield. In this case, a general failure in Ukraine would benefit Prigozin's political ambitions - he could say that he had predicted such an outcome after the withdrawal or depletion of the Wagner group and he could commit himself to the hunt of scapegoats, a process that could further benefit his political ambitions.


[1] Большое разоблачение: Пригожин о предательстве и амбициях ЧВК. Apr 2023. [Online]

[2] Рыбарь: Евгений Пригожин заявил, что после взятия Бахмута ЧВК ждёт плавное переформатирование и преобразование в армию с идеологической составляющей. Mar 2023. [Online]

[3] Пресс-служба Пригожина: #1530. Apr 2023. [Online]

[4] Ukraine live briefing: Russia has suffered 100,000 casualties since December, U.S. says. May 2023. [Online]

[5] Политика Страны. Apr 2023. [Online]

[6] Impact of the death toll in Ukraine on the social situation in Russia. Mar 2023. [Online]

[7] Пресс-служба Пригожина: #1543. Apr 2023. [Online]

[8] Пресс-служба Пригожина: #1562. May 2023. [Online]

[9] Пресс-служба Пригожина: #1552. Apr 2023. [Online]

[10] Пресс-служба Пригожина: #1549. Apr 2023. [Online]

[11] Russia calls up 300,000 reservists, says 6,000 soldiers killed in Ukraine. Sept 2022. [Online]

[12] Более 20,000 установленных погибших: что известно о потерях России в Украине к апрелю. Apr 2023. [Online]

[13] Russia has no ammunition shortage and never had it – Ukraine's Armed Forces. Apr 2023. [Online]

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