Russian prisoners make up most of latest three-month death toll in Ukraine

Prigozhin says Wagner PMC won’t sign any contracts with Russian Ministry of Defense

In the run-up to Ukraine’s counter offensive, Russia’s army was still recovering from the heavy losses it sustained in the first few months of its full-scale invasion, a report has suggested, as death tolls from the last three months point to their reliance on ex-convicts fighting to avoid imprisonment. A BBC summary of Russian fighters they have confirmed died in Ukraine showed that the lives of Wagner Group mercenaries, most of whom were ex-prisoners, were spent freely and thoughtlessly in the battle for the city of Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, while many professional soldiers were relatively safe on the flanks.

The report corroborates the belief that Vladimir Putin’s only territorial success during their spring offensive was nothing short of Pyrrhic, a claim that is bolstered by the day as Ukrainian soldiers engaged in counter attack operations continue to retake the besieged city.

In the first three months of the war, 3071 professional Russian soldiers, including 792 officers, and 2,279 privates and soldiers of non-commissioned rank, were killed in Ukraine.

Their efforts to march on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv proved costly after a month of devastating fighting as Putin’s plans to conquer the entire country failed.

But no mobilised civilians were killed, nor ex-convicts, while only 23 Wagner Group mercenaries were reported dead. In those early stages of the full-scale invasion, Putin’s efforts to expand had not drawn Russian civilians into the conflict.

In the last three months, however, as those mobilised last September completed their training and headed to the front line, while the Wagner Group benefited from its mass recruitment drive in prisons across Russia, the statistics appear to have been flipped.

Only 546 professional soldiers and privates were killed while 2,768 Wagner mercenaries, prisoners and mobilised civilians were reported dead.

These numbers are likely substantial underestimates as they only include those that the BBC could verify; US intelligence officials suggested Russian casualties over the last 16 months of war were close to 220,000 (those killed and severely injured in Ukraine), a claim that was backed by UK defence minister Ben Wallace.

And while the Wagner Group staged their 10-month long attempt to capture the besieged city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, roughly 20,000 are believed to have died.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, an internationally-recognised war criminal, reportedly employed a human wave tactic during the encirclement assault, sending groups of at least eight prisoners over the trench to soak up Ukrainian fire to afford an easier advance for those behind them.

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Jack Watling, an expert in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), a defence think tank, said Prigozhin sent troops “forward in the expectation they would be killed”.

He added that Russia has also begun deliberately protecting its remaining professionals – the Kyiv retreat last March cost the lives of many of their specialist Airborne Forces (VDV), their most highly-regarded army careerists – and using them only to hold ground and carry out sniper attacks. They are only undertaking rare assaults when conditions are right.

Ultimately, the BBC’s report confirms what was already suspected, and to some extent known; that is, the humiliating Russian losses at the start of their full-scale invasion, coupled with the drawn-out bloodbath battle for Bakhmut, run by a Wagner Group made up of roughly 80 percent ex-convicts, has meant the death toll figures over the past few months are significantly skewed towards the untrained and unlawful.

But as the Ukrainians advance southward during counter offensives operations, while the Wagner Group withdraws from the hotpoints on the frontline, as they have already done in Bakhmut, Russia’s professional soldiers may begin again to make up more of those killed in action. For the mobilised soldiers, it is possible their numbers of dead will only keep rising.

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