Shielded by a small hill from Russian positions a half-mile away, a Ukrainian soldier spotted via drone feed a new foxhole that appeared overnight northwest of the embattled city of Bakhmut.
Three troopers of Russia’s Wagner paramilitary organization had crawled through no man’s land to establish a firing position, likely for a grenade launcher. The drone’s camera zoomed to Russian trenches behind.
“Corpses, corpses, corpses one atop another,” said Oleksiy, a soldier with Ukraine’s Third Storm Brigade who watched the footage and coordinated the response. “And now, look, these brave lads have come out our way.”
“They don’t even have their body armor on,” he shouted to a fellow trooper operating an American-made MK-19 grenade launcher above the staccato exchange of machine-gun fire. One of the bullets whizzed overhead. “Let’s hit them now.”
With a series of clinks, a volley of grenades flew to the Russian trench. “Done,” said Oleksiy.
These Wagner men, too, joined a long list of casualties that the group, which now relies mostly on convicts recruited in Russian prisons, has incurred in the monthslong battle for Bakhmut.
With their policy of executing on the spot troopers who attempt to retreat or surrender, and a disregard for losses that is shocking for modern warfare, Wagner’s disposable penal battalions have emerged as a unique threat to Ukrainian defenders, advancing at the time when the regular Russian military remains largely stalled.
No military in a democratic society can keep sending wave after wave of soldiers to near-certain death to gain another few hundred yards. Even Russia’s regular armed forces, known for their high tolerance of casualties, shy away from sending troops on clearly suicidal missions. Yet it is precisely such an approach that has allowed Wagner to come to the verge of capturing Bakhmut, at a cost that Ukrainian and Western officials estimate at tens of thousands of Russian casualties.