Historians and other observers have often noted that, while fascists are very good at starting wars, they are inevitably incompetent when it comes to executing them. “Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy,” wrote Umberto Eco in his seminal essay on “Ur-Fascism.” This is essentially a cognitive flaw, caused by their fundamental insistence on trying to force reality to conform to their view of the world.
Which is why a neofascist armed force like Russia’s Wagner Group is being ground into hamburger—forming a sea of crosses in one rural cemetery, comprised mostly of the cannon fodder it has recruited out of Russian prisons—as its mercenaries wage war in Ukraine on behalf of Vladimir Putin. Wagner Group officials recently announced they were drawing back on their prison-recruitment program—in part because they were alienating potential recruits who might object to “serving with rapists and murderers,” but simultaneously have launched an effort to recruit American veterans.
As Mark Sumner has been reporting, Russia’s latest offensive featuring Wagner troops has turned into a military fiasco. Captured Wagner fighters have described for CNN how their recruitment out of prison became a brutal nightmare of futile assaults in which waves of inexperienced recruits were slaughtered by Ukrainian defenses. Anyone who faltered, they said, was summarily executed by their own commanders.
“We couldn’t retreat without orders because if we don’t comply with the order, we will be killed,” one of the prisoners told CNN.
“One man stayed at a position, he was really scared, it was his first assault. We received an order to run forward. But the man hid under a tree and refused. This was reported to the command and that was it. He was taken 50 meters away from the base. He was digging his own grave and then was shot.”
It’s unclear how the release of recent videos from the Wagner Group showing deserters being executed with sledgehammers used to crush their skulls is affecting recruitment, but it’s unlikely to be a positive influence. Neither will the mounting death toll for Wagner fighters in Ukraine, including three notorious crime bosses who perished in combat.
Wagner founder Yevgheny Prighozin told an interviewer last week that his organization had stopped its prison recruitment program more than a month ago, though it is unclear why. As Duke University’s Simon Miles told Insider, that in addition to reflecting Prighozin’s desire to build a global fighting force, it's also possible that the well had run dry in those prisons. At least one Russian soldier taken prisoner told independent Russian media that the number of prisoners accepting Wagner’s offer of rehabilitation in exchange for war service had declined from more than 1,000 convicts in October to just 340 in December.
Russian officials long denied having any connection to the Wagner Group, which did not officially exist until recently. An incredibly secretive organization, its true ownership and funding sources remain unclear. But experts say it has served as a tactical tool for the Kremlin in hot spots where Russia has political and financial interests, and has deep ties to Putin—in fact, it is widely considered his private army.
Putin is reported to have ordered Wagner Group operatives into Kyiv to assassinate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has reportedly survived about a dozen such attempts. About 400 Wagner mercenaries were reported to have entered the Kyiv area from Belarus, and were offered “hefty bonuses” for killing key political and media figures, including the mayor of Kyiv, Zelenskyy, and his entire Cabinet.
According to German intelligence officials, Wagner Group operatives were primarily responsible for spearheading the butchery that has been reported and substantiated in Bucha. Der Spiegel reported that comments from troops intercepted by German intelligence—including flippant remarks about shooting men on bicycles, and orders to first interrogate soldiers and then shoot them—that demonstrate the atrocities in Bucha "were neither random acts nor the product of individual soldiers who got out of hand."
As Sumner recently observed, recent reports indicate that Wagner is apparently fading from the scene in Bakhmut, where most of the recent combat has occurred. Ukrainian sources say Wagner’s role there is diminishing, and Prighozin himself has said his mercenaries cannot take the city, blaming Moscow bureaucrats.
"Advance is not going as fast as we would like. I think they [Wagner mercenaries] would have already taken Bakhmut before the New Year, if not for our monstrous military bureaucracy and not the roadblocks that are set every day. Today we have a certain number of structural changes. The admission of prisoners to our ranks has been stopped," Prigozhin said.
There are indications, in fact, that Wagner may have fallen into disfavor with Putin. The Russian Defense Ministry until January had refrained from mentioning Wagner in its briefings, leading to accusations by a senior Wagner commander that the ministry was stealing the group’s achievements. More recently, reports have emerged that Russian state media outlets received a directive to avoid excessively promoting either Wagner Group or Prigozhin.
The fear within the Kremlin appears to be that Prigozhin—who also recently acknowledged that Wagner Group owns several notorious Russian troll factories, including the Internet Research Agency—could be preparing to supplant Putin. Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin Russian TV pundit, told The New York Times: “They apparently don’t want to bring him into the political sphere because he’s so unpredictable—they fear him a little bit.”
Which might explain why Wagner Group published those sledgehammer-execution videos—namely, to underline the threat of violence against their opponents inherent in their use of the tool as a symbol for their neofascist ideology. Prigozhin recently hinted at an alliance with the fervidly nationalist (but Kremlin-approved) political party Fair Russia, which vociferously supports the war. Fair Russia leader Sergei Mironov, an elected lawmaker, posed recently with a sledgehammer engraved with a pile of skulls. “This is a useful tool,” said Mironov, who shared the photo online. “With its help, we will put a dent in the Nazi ideology that aims to destroy our country.”
This rhetoric reflects the up-is-down alternative universe of Putin’s propaganda. A 2022 article in RIA Novosti, the Russian state-owned domestic news agency, titled "What Russia Should Do with Ukraine," reveals its shallow ruse. Its author, Russian political consultant Timofey Sergeytsev, openly admits that "denazification” has nothing to do with eradicating any far-right ideology, but is simply a euphemism for "de-Ukrainization"—the annihilation of Ukraine as a nation-state and a cultural entity.
Putin has argued since at least last year that Ukraine’s very existence is “anti-Russia.” Sergeytsev follows the logic: Ukrainian national identity, he says, is "an artificial anti-Russian construct that has no civilizational content of its own"; it is a "subordinate element of a foreign and alien civilization." In a culture long accustomed to considering Nazism anti-Russian, Ukraine is easily translated into “Nazi.”
This same alternative-universe framework forms the core of Wagner’s recruitment pitch to American veterans. The narrator of its U.S. recruitment video says:
You were a hero to your country, giving your best years in the army. You dreamed of defeating evil. You dreamed of doing much to make America great again. But in reality, you served criminal orders, the destruction of nations, the death of civilians, and all for the will of a bunch of families who thought they were earthly gods, deciding who would live under their rule and who would be destroyed.
You began to realize that this is the side of evil. This is not the America the Founding Fathers dreamed of. It has become the focus of the evil that is destroying the whole world, and today, the only country fighting this evil is Russia.
If you are a true patriot of the future great America, join the ranks of the warriors of Russia. Help defeat evil, or it will be too late for everyone.
Deception, as the men in Bakhmut discovered, is central to both the Russian and the Wagner Group enterprise, especially as it fails to recognize that pitting an army of poorly trained convicts against a Ukrainian army comprised of people defending their families and their homeland is inevitably a recipe for military failure. The prisoners interviewed by CNN explained that their incapacity was the product in no small part of the propaganda about Ukraine that they had been fed for years.
“We thought we’d be fighting Poles and various mercenaries. Germans. We didn’t think anyone was left in the Ukrainian army there. We thought they’d left the country,” said one.
“So it became clear they were just spinning lies to get us to enter into battle with the Ukrainians. No one really thought that the AFU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] would actually fight for their own country, for their loved ones. We only learned this after going in there.”