Boss of Russia’s private army says he lost more than 20,000 fighters in Bakhmut battle

Damaged armored vehicle in Russia's Belgorod region
An armored vehicle damaged in fighting in Russia’s Belgorod region, across from the Ukrainian border.
(Telegram channel of Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov)

The head of a Russian private army has again broken with the Kremlin line on Ukraine, saying its goal of demilitarizing the country has backfired, acknowledging Russian troops have killed civilians and agreeing with Western estimates that his Wagner Group has lost more than 20,000 men in the battle for Bakhmut.

Yevgeny Prigozhin said about half of those who died in the eastern Ukrainian city were Russian convicts recruited for the 15-month-old war. His figures stood in stark contrast to Moscow’s widely disputed claims that the war had killed just over 6,000 of its troops as of January. By comparison, official Soviet troop losses in its 1979-89 Afghanistan war were 15,000.

Ukraine hasn’t said how many of its soldiers have died since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022.


White House officials said Wednesday that Prigozhin’s comments were in line with their own estimates that Russian losses have accelerated. The White House estimated this month that Russian forces had suffered 100,000 casualties, including 20,000 killed, since December. White House National Security Council spokesman John F. Kirby said then that about half of those killed were Wagner forces.

Analysts believe many of those killed in the nine-month fight for Bakhmut were Russian convicts with little military training.

Prigozhin — himself a former convict — has frequently criticized Russian military officials for not supplying his troops with enough ammunition. He also has questioned their tactics, commitment and leadership capabilities, and complained they haven’t sufficiently credited his forces for battlefield successes.

He’s highlighted his forces’ sacrifices, and on Saturday touted what he claimed was the capture of the city of Bakhmut.

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In an interview with Konstantin Dolgov, a pro-Kremlin political strategist, that was published Tuesday, Prigozhin went even further in his criticism, questioning some of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rationale for the war. Prigozhin said Russia’s goal of “demilitarizing” Ukraine has backfired because Kyiv’s military has become stronger with Western weapons and training.

In invading Ukraine, Putin also cited the need to increase Russia’s security and prevent Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Since the war began, however, Ukraine has applied to join NATO, and cross-border attacks into Russia have increased.


In Washington, Kirby speculated Wednesday on Prigozhin’s motives.

“And it’s possible that this could be a sort of morbid way of him ... claiming credit for whatever they’ve been able to achieve in Bakhmut, but also trying to publicly embarrass the Ministry of Defense further that the cost was borne in blood and treasure by Wagner, and not by the Russian military.”

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In the interview, Prigozhin also challenged Moscow’s denials that its forces had killed civilians.

In what it says is probably a low estimate, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says that from February 2022 until early April 2023, it recorded 22,734 civilian casualties in Ukraine: 8,490 killed and 14,244 injured.

Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman with longtime links to Putin, is known for his bluster — often spiced with obscenities — and has previously made unverifiable claims, some of which he later backtracked on.

This month, his representatives published a video of him shouting, swearing and pointing at about 30 uniformed bodies lying on the ground, saying they were Wagner fighters who died in a single day. He alleged that the Russian Defense Ministry had starved his men of ammunition, and he threatened to give up the fight for Bakhmut.

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Prigozhin has frequently warned of a counteroffensive that Ukrainian officials have said they’re planning, and in Tuesday’s interview, he said that, given continued Western support, Kyiv’s forces might succeed in pushing Russian fighters out of southern and eastern Ukraine as well as occupied Crimea.


“A pessimistic scenario: The Ukrainians are given missiles, they prepare troops; of course they will continue their offensive, try to counterattack,” he said. “They will attack Crimea, they will try to blow up the Crimean bridge [to the Russian mainland], cut off [our] supply lines. Therefore, we need to prepare for a hard war.”

Prigozhin’s admission of heavy losses appears to show the effect of Ukraine’s strategy. Ukrainian officials have said their goal in Bakhmut was to exhaust and deplete Russian forces, distract them from protecting territory they occupy elsewhere, and buy time for more Western weapons and ammunition supplies to arrive, and for training to be completed.

Prigozhin’s interview, posted on a Telegram messaging app channel that has only 50,000 followers, wasn’t picked up by Russia’s largest state-run or pro-Kremlin media and is unlikely to be widely seen. Nor did it appear to get any mentions among military bloggers, whose popular Telegram pages are important sources of information about the war to many Russians.

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On the battlefield, the Ukrainian military’s general staff said Wednesday that “heavy fighting” was continuing in Bakhmut, days after Russia said that it completely captured the devastated city.

Bakhmut lies in Donetsk, one of four provinces Russia illegally annexed in the fall and only partially controls.

The head of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said that Kyiv’s troops “are continuing their defensive operation” in Bakhmut and have attained unspecified “successes” on the city’s outskirts. He gave no further details.


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“But now we don’t need to fight in Bakhmut; we need to surround it from flanks and block it,” Yevhen Mezhevikin said. “Then we should ‘sweep’ it. This is more appropriate, and that’s what we are doing now.”

Elsewhere, more attacks continued in a border region that Russian officials had claimed had calmed down after one of the most serious incursions since the war began. Russia shot down “a large number” of drones in the country’s southern Belgorod region, a local official said Wednesday, a day after Moscow claimed that its forces crushed a cross-border raid in the area from Ukraine.

The drones were intercepted overnight over the province, Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said in a Telegram post, and one more was shot down on Wednesday just outside the local capital, the city of Belgorod. He said that no one had been hurt, but unspecified administrative buildings, residential buildings and cars were damaged.

Ukrainian officials made no immediate comment.

In Moscow, Russia’s defense chief, Sergei Shoigu, vowed to respond “promptly and extremely harshly” to such attacks in the future.

Details of the incident in the rural region, about 45 miles north of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and far from the front lines, are unclear.

Moscow blamed the incursion on Ukrainian military saboteurs. Kyiv described it as an uprising against the Kremlin by Russian partisans. It was impossible to reconcile the two versions and determine with certainty who was behind the attack or to ascertain its aims.

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The Belgorod region is a Russian military hub holding fuel and ammunition depots. Like the neighboring Bryansk region and other border areas, it has witnessed sporadic spillover from the war.