Russia's Mercenaries Playing Key Role As Putin Struggles With Losses: U.K.

Russia's private military company the Wagner Group is playing a key role in the war in Ukraine because Vladimir Putin's forces are facing significant troop shortages, Britain's Ministry of Defense has said.

In its daily assessment on Friday, the ministry said there had been a shift in the role of the mercenaries whose presence in Moscow's military conflicts had always been denied by the Kremlin.

British defense officials said that in the past, the private military group which has ties to Putin confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin, would usually carry out missions "distinct from overt, large-scale regular Russian military activity."

But since March, the group has operated in eastern Ukraine "in coordination with the Russian military" and is likely to be responsible "for specific sectors of the front line, in a similar manner to normal army units."

Ukrainian soldiers
Ukrainian soldiers and firefighters stand in front of a burning house on the outskirts of Bakhmut in Ukraine on July 27, 2022. Britain's MOD said on July 29, 2022, that Russia's mercenary army, the Wagner Group, is working more overtly with Russian forces in the Ukraine war. BULENT KILIC/Getty Images

"This new level of integration further undermines the Russian authorities' long-standing policy of denying links" between the Kremlin and the group.

Wagner's role in the war is likely to have been a response by the Russian defense ministry to "a major shortage of combat infantry."

Putin's forces have faced mounting losses with Ukraine saying this week around 40,000 had been killed. Western countries say the number is much lower, while Moscow has not updated its official tally of dead servicemen from the 1,351 figure it released in March.

As Russia seeks to make up for the losses, it has been reported that it is engaging in a covert mobilization program and elevating inexperienced soldiers to leadership positions.

Wagner appears to be central to Putin's ambitions although British defense officials said its mercenaries "are highly unlikely to be sufficient to make a significant difference in the trajectory of the war."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian defense ministry for comment on the daily British assessment, which tends to emphasize Moscow's losses and Kyiv's gains in the war.

In contrast with the veil of secrecy that used to hang over the Wagner group was a front-page article in Friday's edition of mass-circulation tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, which detailed how members of the group helped storm Ukraine's second-largest power station.

The reportage, complete with photos, gives an account of how the Uglegorsk thermal power plant in Svetlodarsk had been "completely liberated" thanks to Wagner personnel working with troops from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, which is backed by Moscow.

"This division is legendary," wrote journalist Alexander Kots, describing Wagner as "a Russian brand that is known throughout the world," which has "performed tasks both in Syria and in Africa."

He said that the operation entailed Russian troops going through two lines of defense and that there "were more defenders than attackers, just like at Azovstal in Mariupol," referring to factory in the port city which was the scene of a weeks-long Russian bombardment.

He said that Russian forces, including Wagner, worked together "as one single orchestra," and that he had been shown images of "enemies" killed during the battle, one of whom was an "African American."

"He did not have any documents with him, and the fighters say that this is typical for foreign fighters, unlike Ukrainians, who always have their papers," Kots wrote.