Institute for the Study of War: Wagner mercenaries return 130 POWs to Ukraine

Institute for the Study of War

April 16, 2023

The Russian military command appears to be increasingly shifting responsibility for offensive operations in Ukraine to the Russian Airborne troops (VDV). The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (UK MoD) reported on April 16 that it is highly likely that VDV commander Colonel General Mikhail Teplinsky has returned to a “major” but unspecified role in Ukraine after reports that the Russian MoD replaced him on January 13.[1] UK MoD noted that Teplinsky’s return to command in Ukraine will not be limited to just VDV units, but that it is also likely that Teplinsky will try to promote the VDV’s traditional role as an elite force.[2] ISW previously assessed on April 1 that milblogger speculation that the Russian MoD recalled Teplinsky from ”leave“ suggests that Russia may be preparing to reshuffle senior commanders following the failed winter offensive and in preparation for a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive.[3] The UK MoD’s apparent confirmation of Teplinsky’s reappointment to a senior command position supports ISW’s assessment, and additionally suggests that the Russian military command is likely seeking to place an increased emphasis on the role of VDV elements in Russian offensive operations. VDV units are actively engaged along critical sectors of the front in Luhansk Oblast and near Bakhmut and have recently received TOS-1A thermobaric artillery systems, further indicating that the Russian military command may seek to elevate the VDV to greater operational prominence.[4]

News of Teplinsky’s reappointment suggests that the Russian MoD is seeking to work more closely with the Wagner Group in order to complete the capture of Bakhmut, despite obvious tensions between Prigozhin and the traditional MoD establishment. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin seemingly confirmed Teplinsky’s Wagner affiliations in a public show of support for Teplinsky following Teplinsky’s reported dismissal over a disagreement with Chief of the Russian General Staff and overall theater commander Army General Valery Gerasimov in January.[5] Teplinsky became embroiled in the rising tensions between Prigozhin and the Russian MoD establishment (represented by Gerasimov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu) as the Russian MoD appeared to be actively trying to cut the Wagner Group off from artillery shell supply and otherwise interfere with Wagner’s ability to operate around Bakhmut.[6] Over the past few weeks, however, it appears that the Russian military command has been working more closely with Wagner, likely in an effort to expedite the capture of Bakhmut. The Russian MoD and Prigozhin publicly acknowledged on April 11 that VDV elements are engaged in the Bakhmut area and holding Wagner’s flanks north and south of Bakhmut while Wagner pursues the main offensive effort in the city itself.[7] ISW has recently observed that elements of the 106th VDV division are operating in the Bakhmut area.[8] Prigozhin has also scaled down his explicit rhetorical attacks on the MoD in recent days. Russian milbloggers have reported that Wagner forces are operating T-90 tanks within Bakhmut, suggesting that Russian leadership has allocated more modern assets to Wagner in their efforts to take the city.[9] Teplinsky’s reappointment is therefore likely also an attempt by the Russian MoD to posture itself better to work with Wagner to finish the task of taking Bakhmut.

Teplinsky remains highly unlikely to restore the VDV to its prior status as an elite force due to widespread losses to the most elite Russian units. VDV units suffered extraordinarily high losses in the early phases of the war in 2022, and a prominent milblogger claimed on Russian state television on January 31 that VDV forces lost 40 to 50 percent of their personnel between the start of the war and September 2022.[10] BBC Russia Service confirmed the deaths of 1,669 VDV personnel as of April 14, 2023.[11] Widespread losses to previously elite units that are now being restaffed with poorly trained mobilized personnel are likely to have long-term impacts on the combat effectiveness of these units, and the replacement of a single commander is highly unlikely to be able to solve such pervasive damage.[12]

Russian milbloggers seized on an opportunity to denigrate St. Petersburg Mayor Alexander Beglov in a manner that indicates that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s anti-Beglov campaign has permeated the Russian ultra-nationalist information space. Russian milbloggers criticized Beglov for standing in front of a Ukrainian flag at a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Interparliamentary Assembly in St. Petersburg on April 13.[13] The milblogger-amplified image shows Beglov standing on the left side of the podium as another official speaks, and the angle of the image shows Beglov standing directly in front of the Ukrainian flag—a perspective likely not indicative of Beglov’s actual location relative to the flag.[14] The milbloggers claimed that a “high-ranking Russian official” such as Beglov should not stand in front of the Ukrainian flag, with one even claiming that the act was analogous to a Leningrad City head standing in front of the flag of Nazi Germany during World War II.[15] The milbloggers also criticized Beglov for standing in front of the flag just a few weeks after the assassination of Russian milblogger Maxim Fomin (Vladlen Tartarsky) in St. Petersburg.[16] Prigozhin himself claimed that the Russian “deep state” is responsible for the flag’s presence, implying that Beglov is part of this deep state.[17] Other milbloggers claimed that the inclusion of the Ukrainian flag at the meeting suggests that Russia has failed to put itself on a wartime footing.[18]  One milblogger claimed that CIS protocol required the inclusion of the Ukrainian flag but noted the strangeness of the protocol given the current conflict.[19] Ukraine ended its affiliation with the CIS in 2018 and has never been a full CIS member state.[20]

Russian officials may have included the Ukrainian flag in an attempt to convey the fact that the Kremlin does not recognize Ukraine’s withdrawal from the CIS and refusal to conform to Kremlin-controlled international structures, falsely anticipating that the Russian information space would praise this underlying message. The Russian information space appears to be so poisoned against Beglov, however, that milbloggers jumped at the chance to criticize him regardless of the subtle Kremlin messaging. This attack against Beglov also suggests that Prigozhin’s Russian “deep state” narrative, about which also he notably warned in an April 14 essay, has the potential to similarly permeate the Russian information space.[21]

The Wagner Group returned 130 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) on April 16, suggesting that Wagner may have engaged in the exchange independent of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).[22] Ukrainian sources confirmed that 130 Ukrainian POWs returned to Ukraine but did not specify how many Russian POWs were exchanged in turn.[23]  The Russian MoD deviated from its normal routine and did not confirm the prisoner exchange at all. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin posted a video showing Wagner forces preparing Ukrainian POWs for the exchange.[24]  The lack of Russian MoD confirmation contrasted with Prigozhin’s engagement with the exchange may suggest that the Wagner Group maintains a level of autonomy from the Russian MoD and was able to negotiate the exchange with the Ukrainian government independent from the Russian MoD. In the posted video, Prigozhin claimed that he ordered Wagner forces to provide Ukrainian POWs with food and water before their release and personally wished them good luck and health. A Wagner-affiliated milblogger noted that Wagner’s kindness to Ukrainian prisoners is particularly uncharacteristic for a unilateral prisoner exchange that was purportedly not coordinated with the Russian MoD or another entity.[25] Wagner is notorious for the mistreatment of POWs, engaging in several high-profile and widely circulated executions of both returned Wagner POWs and Ukrainian POWs under Wagner’s control.[26] The milblogger also criticized Prigozhin‘s decision to release such a large number of Ukrainian servicemen ahead of the anticipated large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive.[27] Prigozhin’s decision to release so many Ukrainian POWs at such a time likely suggests that the exchange returned high-value Wagner members whom he intends to redeploy on the battlefield. Prigozhin has previously accused Wagner POWs of being traitors and supported their execution, but the conditions of the April 16 prisoner exchange likely imply that he is prioritizing replenishing diminished Wagner units over his continued effort to project Soviet brutalist strength and appeal to Russian ultranationalists.[28]

Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov also commented on the prisoner exchange on April 16. Kadyrov reported that five Chechens returned as part of the prisoner exchange but that he refused to meet them upon their arrival in Grozny.[29] Kadyrov claimed that the five Chechen fighters should prove their honor by returning to the frontlines, stating that Chechens do not interpret capture as an excuse to lay down arms but instead as an action forced upon them.[30] Kadyrov is likely using the POW exchange to fortify his own reputation as a capable and brutal silovik.

The Wagner Group may be attempting to force mobilized Russian personnel to sign contracts with Wagner, possibly in an effort to offset Wagner’s losses in Ukraine. Mobilized personnel from Moscow and Ivanovo oblasts alleged in a public complaint released on April 16 that the Wagner Group forced 170 mobilized personnel to sign contracts with Wagner.[31] Russian sources previously claimed that 100 mobilized personnel in Luhansk Oblast disappeared as of April 7 after refusing to sign contracts with the Wagner Group, and geolocated footage published on April 11 shows Wagner personnel detaining the mobilized personnel in Kadiivka before escorting the personnel to an unspecified training ground.[32] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) may allow mobilized personnel to fulfill their service obligations by signing contracts with Wagner, although the status of mobilized personnel initially assigned to conventional Russian units who have signed contracts with Wagner is unclear. Wagner’s reported impressment of poorly trained mobilized personnel, in addition to its change in approach to prisoner exchanges, suggests that Wagner is increasingly desperate for manpower as it continues to conduct highly attritional offensive operations in and around Bakhmut.

Key Takeaways

  • The Russian military command appears to be increasingly shifting responsibility for offensive operations in Ukraine to the Russian Airborne (VDV) troops.
  • News of Teplinsky’s reappointment suggests that the Russian MoD is seeking to work more closely with the Wagner Group in order to complete the capture of Bakhmut, despite obvious tensions between Prigozhin and the traditional MoD establishment.
  • Russian milbloggers seized on an opportunity to denigrate St. Petersburg Mayor Alexander Beglov in a manner that indicates that Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s anti-Beglov campaign has permeated the Russian ultra-nationalist information space.
  • The Wagner Group returned 130 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) on April 16, suggesting that Wagner may have engaged in the exchange independent of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).
  • The Wagner Group may be attempting to force mobilized Russian personnel to sign contracts with Wagner, possibly in an effort to offset Wagner’s losses in Ukraine.
  • Russian forces conducted limited ground attacks south of Kreminna.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in and around Bakhmut and along the Avdiivka-Donetsk City line.
  • Russian forces reportedly intensified the rate of artillery strikes in southern Ukraine.
  • Russian mobilized personnel continue to publish public complaints against Russian commanders alleging mistreatment.
  • A Russian source stated that the Wagner Group is involved in the removal of Ukrainian children from Bakhmut.