The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What Made Wagner Useful To Putin & Russia + Notes On Ukraine’s Counteroffensive

People misunderstand Wagner’s role in the Ukrainian war.

Wagner is a prison to meat-grinder operation. Convicts were recruited, given a bit of training and sent on the most dangerous attacks. This meant that regular Russian troops were not expended, and that less civilians had to be drafted or recruited.

When Prigozhin complains about mistreatment, he’s probably right. To the Russian military, Wagner are useful, but scum. Remember that Prigozhin himself is an ex-convict, and he was sent to prison for theft, which included in one case choking a woman nearly to death.

Using convicts may have saved Russian troops, but convicts in the military never ends well. The same thing was done, without the mercenary cutout, in Afghanistan by the Russians and it did great damage to the Russian military.

Prigozhin, though I have no sympathy for him, is refusing to send more convicts into the meat grinder for Putin, or perhaps he’s running low on convicts and would now have to use his more valuable troops.

Which leads us to the counter-offensive. It’s going badly. So far, very badly. The equipment NATO gives Ukraine and even the training is all very nice, but NATO militaries are built around the assumption of air superiority or supremacy, and they don’t have that. This makes Ukrainian columns (and they keep attacking in columns, which seems unwise) very vulnerable to Russia air and artillery.

I’ve heard some people say the heavy brigades have yet to be committed, so we’ll see what happens. But I’d be surprised in the counter-offensive really changes the picture of the war. So far the Russians are betting they can win a war of attrition, especially if the attrition is born more by Ukrainians and Russian convicts than by Russian troops, and so far, that seems to be true.

This is especially the case as NATO equipment stores have been drawn down to the point where most NATO countries are leery of sending large amounts of equipment to Ukraine because it would leave the cupboards completely bare.

The war would already be over if there hadn’t been massive NATO supply and command and control, but Ukraine has lost a lot of men and I don’t see how NATO can keep up the resupply. Russia’s seems to have some supply issues, but it looks to me like Ukraine’s are more serious.

We’ll see how it plays out.

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  1. Bill H.

    The big question, for me, is after all of its bluster and denunciation of Russia, how does the US government then sit back and accept a “peace agreement” which allows Russia to keep the territory it has gained in Ukraine?

  2. Mark Level

    Thank you, Ian. As usual, you see things dispassionately and with few (if any) biases or illusions, the best way to view most important issues. I think your take on both Prigozhin & Wagner as an org are correct, based on the alternative sources I read, since the U$ MSM is just an absurd propaganda mill has been wrong (whether deliberately or due to “rose colored glasses”) as to 95% of the facts and data. Now neither Prigozhin nor the convicts that fought with him (& as Alexander Mercouris and many others have pointed out, Prigozhin had no military background & is not the actual ground commander of Wagner troops) are not the most salutary characters, I’d imagine there’s not many I’d want to sit down and have a shot of vodka and socialize with. Be that as it may, one difference between the Prigozhin folks and the Galitzian volk who control Zelensky is that Russia definitely slotted Wagner in to perform a very important job which they were fitted for, but they are not the political driver’s of “Putin’s SMO”. I put that in quotes because the stupid, propagandized public of U$A are brainwashed to believe that the demonic “Putin” figure is an all-powerful dictator who has the powers a Stalin or Pol Pot may’ve had. I have read so many moronic western dispatches about “Putin’s war,” “this is only due to the decisions of one mad dictator,” “the new Hitler” etc. (He is of course the US Empire’s Hitler # 74 (or so) alongside lesser figures like Manuel Noriega, Saddam, etc. etc. See Scott Horton debating bloody Bill Kristol here, though I don’t much respect Horton’s Libertarian economic beliefs, he certainly knows how to call out the MIC– . . . As to your main point, the vaunted “counter-offensive”, of course it will fail. Over-generalizing only a bit, obviously the Galician Nazis who sought to drive the 35% of Russian speakers in Ukraine out, bomb the piss out of civilians in the 2 breakaway Donetsk republics for 8 continuous years, etc. never had a chance in hell of “beating” Russia once they’d forced a full-scale commitment, given Ukraine is clearly very small relative to the size of Russia, Ukraine being 233,030 square miles to Russia’s 6,323,000+ sq. miles (11% of the world’s land mass), & Russia has a much larger economy and population as well as a long history as a major world military power. The fact that those pulling Zelensky’s (for the time being) puppet strings know better than to let Ukraine join NATO for now, & probably never will, speaks for itself. Yes, the Ukie cultural revolutionaries who imagined they could de-Russify the country (since the Bandera cult were the true “heroes” during WWII, slaughtering “foreign” Poles, Jews & Roma, etc.) and tear down the monuments to the evil Russians who destroyed Bandera’s one-time ally Hitler seem to have over-reached quite a bit. I seem to recall that when Bush Sr. was exterminating the remnants of Saddam’s forces on the “Road of Death” out of Kuwait, he encouraged the Northern Kurds to “rise up against the evil dictator” with tacit signals that U$ will support you– They stupidly did so and were exterminated by the chemical weapons Saddam then had, which had been sold to them by no less than Donald Rumsfeld a few years prior under both Reagan & Bush I. That was just one mass slaughter as far as I recall, but to dupe the Ukranians into an ongoing series of massacres in the Russian meat-grinder is cruel & sick beyond belief. As no less than the great War Criminal Kissinger once stated, “It may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.” One-time US servitor Saddam Hussein learned that message the hard way. It is now Ukraine’s turn to pay the price since they were complicit with a fascistic leadership who stupidly chose to believe in America’s “friendship” & good graces. What kind of friend has the U$ been to Guatemala (invaded at least 8 x in the 20th century by US or US-funded forces), the children of poor, victimized Iraq. (Madelaine Albright saying of the UNICEF report that our sanctions had already killed 500,000 Iraqi children, & would soon kill another 500,000 to Leslie Stahl, “We think the price was worth it.”)? . . . My only hope regarding the coming collapse of the failed NeoCon “revolution” in Ukraine is that the foreign policy Borg won’t stumble into the war that they’ve already promised us with China in 2024. But that may be a misplaced hope, as both DC and particularly the NeoCons seem entirely incapable of learning ANY lessons whatsoever from all their past failures, evidently semi-successful to them since their Raytheon & McDonnell Douglas stocks do so well.

  3. Daniel Lynch

    I share your dislike for mercenaries, and for convict labor of any sort. That said, I am skeptical of the Western claim that convicts make up 80% of Wagner.
    Wagner was playing a major role in the war before it began recruiting convicts, and in February 2023 Wagner announced that it had discontinued accepting convicts.

    Russia found itself desperately short handed last fall when the 6 month contracts of Russia’s SMO volunteers expired. Wagner stepped in to fill the gap while the regular Russian army spent the winter training its new soldiers and constructing defensive lines that are now coming in mighty handy against the NATO counteroffensive.

    Prigozhin has a long history of saying outrageous things to get attention, and perhaps to serve some ulterior motives. I assume most of the Prigozhin drama is kabuki theater that has been approved by Putin.

    One theory is that the Prigozhin / Bakhmut situation was a deliberate game to draw Ukraine into the Bakhmut meatgrinder. That Russia could have taken (or leveled) Bakhmut any time it wanted to, but it was more useful to draw out the Bakhmut battle to maximize Ukrainian casualties. That Prigozhin’s rants about ammo shortages, Russian leadership incompetence, and high Wagner casualties misled Ukraine into believing that it was worthwhile for Ukraine to continue pouring resources into Bakhmut.

    I’ve heard that Wagner’s main role in Bakhmut was a type of light infantry recon by force, sending a small patrol of convicts into the city until they drew fire, then reporting the location of the shooters to regular Russian army who then blasted the shooters with artillery. If so, that would be a common military tactic, one that was frequently used by the U.S. in Vietnam (send a patrol into the jungle until they stumbled into VC, then call in artillery and air support to blast the VC. It was just too bad if the grunts on the ground took casualties. Grunts are expendable).

    Agree on the counteroffensive and on the general strategies of the war. At this stage it’s all about attriting the other guy’s military while strengthening your own military. The farm fields and the farm villages that they are fighting over are by themselves not important. Attrition warfare is boring to watch, and may often appear to be a pointless stalemate, but if carried to the logical conclusion it can be a valid strategy.

  4. Purple Library Guy

    Yeah, that’s pretty much how I see it.

    I can see a lot of repercussions from this, too. I mean, sure, this isn’t technically actually NATO itself, but the Western media have been talking really big about how awesome this was going to be, and now the Russian military is popping NATO tanks like they were popcorn. If all the NATO, and US, kit proves just as mortal and vulnerable as anybody else’s, and does not even allow Ukraine to win in battle, that really hammers the US/NATO military mystique. The whole world is going to be thinking “These guys aren’t that tough.” The fear will be eroded.

  5. StewartM

    Using convicts may have saved Russian troops, but convicts in the military never ends well. The same thing was done, without the mercenary cutout, in Afghanistan by the Russians and it did great damage to the Russian military.

    Many experts trace the hazing and abusive treatment of young Russian recruits–that apparently didn’t happen much in WWII–to allowing convicts to serve in the Soviet military.

  6. Feral Finster

    The problem that Russia faces is that, short of WWIII, there is little or nothing that they can do that will affect the lives of the decisionmakers in Washington.

    So continual escalation is cost-free to Blinken, Nuland, or any of the other characters who really call the shots in Ukraine.

    n.b. at the outset of the war, Ukraine basically just released prisoners and handed them weapons and let them run wild. People in Kiev tell me that, in the opening phases of the war, the prisoners were a bigger danger than anything else.

  7. Ian Welsh

    Pre and early Ukraine Wagner is not the same outfit as later Ukraine Wagner, I’d suspect.

    But I’ve seen the convict point made by pro-Russian sources.

  8. bruce wilder

    I have tried to follow the war, but I am intensely conscious that there is not much reliable factual data on which to base any opinion on how well the war is going or what the prospects may be for either some decisive result on the battlefield or some other developments leading to negotiated settlement.

    For either side to concede much would seem to require a civil war or revolution to change the internal (domestic political) calculations. Overthrow Z, P, or B.

  9. Olivier

    @Ian “Wagner is a prison to meat-grinder operation.” In Ukraine yes but not elsewhere (e.g., in Africa).

  10. capelin

    “If all the NATO, and US, kit proves just as mortal and vulnerable as anybody else’s, and does not even allow Ukraine to win in battle, that really hammers the US/NATO military mystique.”

    Since WW2, the US and it’s gear has always had total or near-total air superiority, and satellite intel. Not this time. Plus drones. Whole different theater.

    Ah, the glory days of carpet bombing, and bullets bouncing off one’s heavy armor.

    Oh well, time to build more.

  11. VietnamVet

    The West intentions are clear; 1) war profiteering and 2) stressing the Kremlin till it collapses again and pick clean the remains. To date, neither side has been able to mass troops, armament, and break through the opposing defenses. Most likely due to satellites and drones detecting them and destroying them with artillery. McNamara’s sensor war has finally occurred and the proxy WWIII has turned into a replay of WWI. Either there is a partition, DMZ and armistice like Korea which prevented an atomic bomb exchange 70 years ago or it plays out to the end like a century ago in WWI. Empires once again will collapse.

    The Western Empire is a prime candidate with the Damocles Sword of unpayable debt hanging overhead and the globalist contempt of local populist nationalists. But Russia is fragile too. China will be the winner only if a global nuclear war is avoided.

  12. Tallifer

    It was interesting to read about Prigozhin’s latest interview in which he laments the insufficient Russian response to the Ukrainian offensive, of which he says, “they are doing all the right things.” He also acknowledges Ukrainian continuing progress.

    Deutsche Welle has good coverage and interviews.

  13. Soredemos

    I’ve seen zero serious evidence that Russia has any systematic supply problems (remember, we’ve been assured for a year and a half now that ‘Russia is about to run out of X’ and then it never happens).

    Prigozhin is a bullshit artist. I’m really surprised Welsh is taking anything he says or does at face value. He’s playing some role dictated to him by the Kremlin. In reality Wagner seems to get along just fine with the regular Russia army, as far as Wagners actual commanders go (Prigozhin isn’t a commander of anything. He’s just a guy with money who bought the company. When he puts on camo and records videos pretending to be one of his men, he’s LARPing). Russia also seems to be moving to more directly integrate Wagner into the military command structure, so the notion that they’re viewed as disposable fodder seems a bit hard to entertain.

  14. Purple Library Guy

    I suspect that, even with the counter-offensive going poorly, the US may be getting lulled into a false sense of security on this. I mean, it’s plausible they’re staying the course on the assumption that the war is stressing Russia badly and will cause Russia big problems down the line. But I’m not sure that’s the case, for two reasons that are difficult for the United States to perceive.

    The first reason is that the Russian economy has been pretty crappy in a “too laissez-faire” kind of way, and it’s quite possible that the war is pushing the Russian government into taking more control over it. And while in my opinion Putin’s broad scale economic thinking is frankly wrong, he is as far as I can tell a very competent manager. The Russian economy may prosper on a war footing. Neoliberal thinking cannot really envision increased prosperity from greater government intervention in the economy, so this possibility would fly under NATO elites’ radar.

    The second reason is that US elites tend to start believing their own propaganda. The drumbeat of claims that the Russian armed forces have been massively beaten up by this war and that attrition is favouring Ukraine due to (probably mythical) Russian “human wave” tactics and so on, has been relentless. And while on some level policymakers are no doubt aware that they themselves are responsible for many of those claims, those are still the claims they’re mostly exposed to. My somewhat-informed belief is that attrition has in fact lopsidedly favoured the Russians and their armed forces have not been that badly hurt. This is consistent with the vast Russian advantage in standoff weapons–artillery, missiles, air power, and even air/countermissile defence. They are using that stuff to inflict high casualties that the Ukrainians cannot reply to.

    If the Americans think the slow-moving front lines imply rough parity of casualties a la WW I, and this belief is reinforced by their own messages talking about high Russian casualties, but in fact this is not at all the case, the Americans could at some point be blindsided. A point could be reached where the Ukrainian ability to continue holding the whole front breaks down, while the Russian army is still relatively intact, and the Russians could quite simply win the war with a fairly solid economy and armed forces at a time when the Americans were under the impression the Russians’ army must be a tattered husk.

    I’m not saying that’s definitely what will happen; predictions are hard, especially about the future. But the bottom line for me is that the Ukrainians have the capability to hold territory against the Russians, mostly, which means the front lines don’t move much. But they don’t have the capability to stop the Russians from killing them and blowing up their materiel, faster than they can keep getting more. If the Russians are stubborn enough, and some other factor doesn’t change everything, eventually Ukraine will run out of soldiers and stuff.

  15. Ian Welsh

    Prigozhin wants all Russia successes to be because of Wagner and for Russia to fail now that Wagner is gone.

  16. Soredemos

    @Ian Welsh

    Prigozhin is a bullshitter selling his product. I don’t see much reason to put any stock in anything he says.

    @Purple Library Guy

    I would go as far as to say there’s no probably about it. There’s actually no real evidence that Russia has done ‘human wave attacks’ at all in this war. In fact all the evidence is that this is epic projection and that it’s Ukraine that has had to rely on vast numbers of poorly trained conscripts thrown into the fight. Ukraine is on wave eight or something of conscription, while Putin just days ago emphasized Russia has no need to call up a second wave of reservists, and in fact has had more than 100,000 recent volunteers sign up.

    ‘Well, of course Putin would say that…’, but the fact is that if Russia were losing people left and right, there would be extensive evidence of it. There isn’t. And it’s not like Ukraine is squeamish about publishing video footage.

    Wagner itself came to prominence in this war because it was a way to pick up some of the slack from the regular army after a bunch of the contracted soldiers time of service ran out. It was also a way to outsource casualties away from the regular army, but that doesn’t mean Wagner fighters were thrown away like candy.

    I simply don’t believe anything Prigozhin says. He claimed 20,000 Wagner dead, but he claims a lot of things that are verifiably false (that he founded Wagner, that there was no ammo for Wagner, that all his fighters were dead, that Russian Bakhmut was about to be taken from the flanks, etc, etc, etc). I would honestly be very surprised if the number of Wagner dead were even 5,000. It might be that 20,000 is close to the total number of casualties, and he’s misrepresenting that as all deaths.

    Part of the problem with the incredibly high Russian death figures, especially around Bakhmut, is that I don’t see where they would even happen. What we know about the current Russia way of war indicates that the general strategy is to fall back and let artillery do the job. Bakhmut featured a lot of brutal building to building fighting, but not 20,000 dead worth of it. There’s Western reporting that indicates Russian tactics around Bakhmut from the Ukrainian perspective, and they basically consisted of sending in probing forces, and when they encountered a dug in Ukrainian position would engage in a brief firefight before falling back and calling in heavy strikes. Rinse and repeat until the Ukrainian positions were obliterated. Where exactly are the supposed human wave attacks and heavy Russian losses even supposed to be slotted in?

    The idea that Russia uses human wave tactics is just a retreading of (literal, OG) Nazi propaganda. Propaganda that was adopted in the West during the Cold War, so now we have this Hollywood version of WW2 where the Germans were, if nothing else, highly competent military professionals who were only defeated because their superior soldiering was swarmed by the Asiatic horde (an implication, by the way, is always perplexion at why all these inscrutable Asian savages are so eager to fight and die for their totalitarian, backwards ‘cold and bitter land’).

    The reality is that the Soviet military casualties were so high because entire armies, numbering in the millions, were surrounded and mostly captured in the opening months of the war. A massive screwup, clearly, but once the USSR got its feet under it it generally fought no less competently or with heavier casualties than the Axis side. Which isn’t to say the losses weren’t high, because they were. The Eastern Front was possibly the most brutal fighting in human history (Japan vs China in the same war might have been even worse, though I’m not sure how you would objectively gauge that). But they weren’t higher than the Axis (remember: 70% of German casualties in WW2 were suffered on the Eastern Front). The Soviets didn’t simply cheat and swarm their enemy to defeat, a perception that is deeply ingrained in Western perception in everything from the rules of tabletop wargames to movies.

    Soviet causalities as a whole were so high because the ‘noble, cool professional’ Germans were waging a war of genocide against Eastern Europeans.

  17. different clue

    Turcopolier is one of the three blogs I read at each computer sit-down, along with Ian Welsh and Naked Capitalism. ( Turcopolier is the successor blog to Colonel Lang’s Sic Semper Tyrannis blog . . . moved to a hosting server in Iceland and changed its name).

    It gives a steady pro-Ukraine narrative. Naked Capitalism gives a steady pro-Russia narrative. I won’t know “what is happening” until it has happened so thoroughly that it can’t be changed or spun or denied..

    Does anyone else here read Turcopolier? If so, has anyone noticed over the last 3 or so days that it takes so long to ” load” ( or whatever that word is) that the computer says ” can’t find, took too long” . . . ? If anyone else has noticed this, does anyone else suspect it may some kind of denial of service attack or something against Turcopolier by anti-Ukrainian digital forces or operatives?

  18. different clue

    Two days later and Turcopolier is still unavailable/unlinkable-to. The next day I have off of work I will try getting it from a computer outside of my workplace-institution’s computer network and see if that makes a difference.

  19. Soredemos

    @different clue

    naked capitalism gives a pro-reality narrative.

    Patrick Lang was an occasionally mildly interesting Cold War fool. It may be nothing, just some fleeting technical problem and Turcopolier may return. But it may also be that Lang’s recent death, combined with the clear signs of the total collapse of his, and his co-writers, Ukraine narrative may have caused the site runners to throw in the towel.

    On that note, the pro-Ukrainian Western psyop website Oryx is officially giving up and will be closing in a few months. The shift of the Ukrainian army toward using so much donated Western equipment has made the scam that Oryx has been running of presenting destroyed Ukrainian vehicles as Russian untenable. So the choice is between honestly reporting an ever increasing number of dead NATO toys, or closing down. They’ve chosen the latter.

    I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Because while the Ukrainian offensive was always doomed, I never expected it to end this pathetically, with the total whimper of never even getting within ten miles of the first defense line. It can’t possibly burnout so totally. That would be just so unbearably embarrassing.

    We’ll see. Ukraine claims to still have plenty of reserves. At some point they might make a big, desperate push somewhere and actually achieve something more than fighting back and forth over a village of literally five buildings.

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