The price of Bakhmut. We reveal the staggering toll of Russia’s bloodiest battle since WW2 and Wagner’s inmates recruited to fight it
The price of Bakhmut. We reveal the staggering toll of Russia’s bloodiest battle since WW2 and Wagner’s inmates recruited to fight it
10 June 2024, 18:04

Art by Maria Tolstova / Mediazona

Yevgeny Prigozhin and his political strategists have spared no effort or expense to create an image of Wagner PMC as an effective and ruthless organisation that accomplishes its objectives at any cost. Behind this facade lie thousands killed in “meat assaults” and their grief-stricken relatives. Their slogan aptly describes their attitude: “Our business is death, and business is good.”

Mediazona, in collaboration with the BBC Russian service, obtained documents about Wagner PMC’s posthumous payments. The battle for Bakhmut, also known as the “Bakhmut meat grinder,” stands out as Russia’s bloodiest battle since World War II. Mediazona’s analysis of Wagner’s documents provides a detailed account of how the battle unfolded, the extent of losses suffered by the mercenaries, their methods and locations for recruiting prisoners, and the financial expenditures made to compensate the families of those involved.

Key findings

Mediazona and the BBC Russian Service have obtained access to a part of Wagner PMC’s documents that describe payments to relatives of deceased fighters. They contain over 20,000 records of those killed between January 2022 and August 2023;

— During this period, the PMC spent around 108 billion roubles, or $1.2 billion, on such payments—excluding most salaries and injury compensation;

— We are confident these documents are genuine: we cross-referenced them with our list of the deceased, the Probate Registry containing inheritance cases, messages by Wagner fighters’ relatives online, and leaked police databases;

— Most fighters died in the “Bakhmut meat grinder”: over 19,500 men. 17,000 of them were prisoners pardoned by Vladimir Putin;

— On the bloodiest days, PMC lost over 200 men per day, with a maximum of 213;

— Thanks to the numbering system for dog tags, we were able to establish how many prisoners in total went to war for Prigozhin: at least 48,000. For 43,800, we identified their prisons;

— Prigozhin wasn’t joking when he invited murderers and robbers to join Wagner: two-thirds of the penal colonies where we confirmed recruitment were maximum security. Prisoners were also taken from special regime, or super maximum security colonies, and, towards the end, even from colony-settlements and medical prison facilities;

— We built a map of recruitment and its approximate timeline. Wagner employees travelled almost all of Russia—from the European part to the most remote places like Kharp, the Arctic village where Alexei Navalny was murdered, Norilsk, a city in the Siberian Arctic, and Magadan region, in the Far East.

The documents that came into our possession recorded the disbursement of money to relatives of deceased Wagner fighters. This data covers both prisoners and regular mercenaries. Our source gained access to the files in August 2023, after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s death.

For each deceased, we know their dog tag number, full name, call sign, date of death, and two amounts. The first—usually smaller—likely pertained to salary arrears at the time of death, while the second was the 5 million rouble, or $55,000 payment stipulated in the contract with Wagner PMC for death in combat.

We don’t have other salary data or data on payments for injuries.

Why we are confident this data is real

To verify the documents’ authenticity, we used four methods:

1. Since the start of the war, Mediazona, together with a team of volunteers and the BBC Russian Service, has been maintaining a name-by-name tally of Russian army losses based on open-source data like obituaries and social media reports. A cursory check of the list showed that our database already contained 6,800 last names matching those in the Wagner PMC database. We excluded contentious cases requiring more thorough analysis: incomplete names, common last names, etc.

2. We cross-referenced the database of prisoners recruited by Wagner PMC with the Probate Registry, searching for complete matches of full names and dates of death, and found an overlap of more than 2,400 last names. Prisoners rarely leave inheritances; when we calculated Russia’s casualties using from inheritance cases with Meduza, we estimated that around 16,000 prisoners died during the Battle of Bakhmut. This estimate turned out to be slightly more conservative than the actual number.

3. We reviewed chat rooms used by relatives of Wagner fighters, where they exchange dog tag numbers and search for fellow soldiers. We found that everyone mentioned in those chats is listed in our table.

4. In December 2023, the New York Times published a major investigation into recruitment at Prison Colony No. 6, or IK6, in Kopeisk, Chelyabinsk region. The journalists obtained a list of 197 recruited prisoners and identified 48 who had died.

Upon reviewing this list, we discovered that seven additional people had died, and five men listed by the Times were not in the Wagner PMC database: at least two of these men are still alive, and one died outside of combat.

42174: A Conveyor of Death

“A white minivan drove onto the prison grounds, from which eight people in civilian clothes emerged. Four with bags and backpacks remained standing at a distance, while the other four walked up to the prisoners lined up outside.

Three burly men had guns (on prison grounds, no less!) tucked into soft waist bags. The fourth was elderly, bald, short, and had a Hero of Russia star on his chest.”

This is how, in August 2022, an inmate of IK2 in Rybinsk, Yaroslavl region, described the meeting with Wagner PMC boss Yevgeny Prigozhin. By that point, Wagner recruiters had already visited about two dozen colonies and taken hundreds of people to war from all over central Russia.

The deal with Prigozhin was simple: six months at the front in exchange for a pardon and complete erasure of criminal records, along with monetary allowances and insurance payouts to the family in case of death or severe injury. Over 70 inmates from Rybinsk IK2 joined Wagner, 23 of whom died within a couple of months. Compared to the losses in other colonies, this group could be considered fortunate.

We don’t know who exactly came up with the idea for “Project 42174”, Wagner PMC’s nickname for prisoner recruitment. It was probably Prigozhin himself, who in the 1980s was sentenced to 13 years in prison for theft and robbery; while recruiting prisoners, he repeatedly referred to his time in prison. In any case, the involvement of prisoners in the war could not have happened without Vladimir Putin’s approval—only the president can issue pardons.

The process of supplying prisoners to the war was straightforward and efficient. Recruiters, either under Prigozhin’s leadership or independently, would visit a colony and propose the deal. Those who accepted were then interviewed and vetted by Wagner PMC representatives, who claimed to evaluate their physical fitness and well-being. It remains unclear if any applicants were rejected during this screening. Even individuals with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis were enlisted for war, albeit they were allocated to a distinct unit called the “Umbrella” detachment, named after the corporation in the Resident Evil franchise known for producing biological weapons.

The prisoners left the colony after receiving identical handwritten certificates stating that they were released by decree of the President of the Russian Federation “On Pardoning” as of a specific date or without one. These decrees are classified and not published anywhere.

This certificate of no criminal record due to pardoning was published online by one prisoner’s relative

After two weeks of training, they were sent to the Luhansk region of Ukraine and assigned to assault detachments, meaning guys from the same prison ended up in different detachments and even in different platoons within those detachments, which is why many don’t know where the others were,” a mother of one of the survivors writes in a chat room for mercenaries’ relatives.

Relatives often have little information about the fate of their loved ones who were killed in action. Their understanding of the prisoners’ involvement in the war typically begins with a call informing them that their relative was leaving with Wagner PMC (although even this didn’t always happen). If they’re fortunate, they may receive another call from boot camp before the soldier is deployed “beyond the ribbon,” followed by a terse message from company representatives announcing their death.

One common topic of discussion in relatives’ chat rooms is the search for fellow fighters who served in assault detachments or were recruited from the same colony. This search is driven by the desire to learn more about how their loved ones died; sometimes, relatives are convinced that a mistake has been made and that the wrong body was sent back in the zinc coffin.

Recruitment from Kaliningrad to Magadan

During recruitment, each Wagner PMC mercenary was assigned a call sign and a dog tag with a personal number.

Before the 2022 war, all mercenaries received a personal number in the format M-xxxx. Even Prigozhin himself (M-3308) and Wagner PMC field commander Dmitry Utkin (M-0209) had “M” series dog tags.

Prisoners in Wagner PMC were assigned a separate “K” series of dog tags—because of this, they became known as “Kashniki” in obituaries and relatives’ chat rooms.

After being pardoned by Putin and signing a contract, the prisoners were issued a dog tag in the format Kxxx-xxx, where the first number is the penal colony and the second is the person’s own number. Both numberings were sequential: for example, the K1 dog tag corresponded to the very first colony visited by Wagner recruiters, while K617 was the last.

We found that those recruited from the same colony received dog tags with the same index, even if the recruiters returned there again. We know of only 10 cases where prisoners from the same colony were assigned a different index during repeat recruitment; otherwise, this rule was followed.

For example, all those recruited from the “Polar Wolf” supermax colony in Kharp village had K359 dog tags; Wagner recruiters reached it in mid-December 2022.

Thanks to the sequential numbering of dog tags, we can reconstruct the order and geography of recruitment, as well as calculate the number of prisoners who went to war—it should be no less than the number of the last deceased from the colony.

Why we are certain about the colony index

Above, we already mentioned the New York Times’ investigation into recruitment at IK6 in Kopeisk, Chelyabinsk region. By comparing the list of the deceased from that publication with Wagner PMC’s list, we discovered that the dog tags of all those recruited from this colony begin with “K206.”

Those recruited from other colonies were issued dog tags with different indices, meaning “K206″ is found only among prisoners from Kopeisk.

Relatives of Wagner fighters came to the same conclusion in chat rooms, as evidenced by numerous dialogues.

We don’t know what the 10 different dog tags for some colonies are related to; this was not a widespread practice.

Wagner’s documents contain 501 unique “Kashnik” indices—from K1 to K617. 116 numbers are skipped; there may be several explanations for this, but we don’t know the exact reason. We have documents specifically about the deceased, not the recruited—meaning the skipped indices could correspond to colonies where they managed to recruit just a couple of men, and all of them survived. In addition, the recruiters’ plans may have changed—and they didn’t visit some of the colonies they intended to.

In any case, we were unable to confirm the existence of dog tags of the deceased with indices not in our table, so we consider the list complete and the hypothesis of sequential numbering to be correct.

Thanks to leaked databases, messages in relatives’ chat rooms, texts of sentences, and prisoners’ lawsuits against colonies, we were able to match 341 dog tags and colonies. We were unable to establish another 161 colonies—however, the recruitment process there did not go as smoothly, and they account for only 4,500 of those who went to war. We know the type of regime, exact region, and exact colony for the remaining 43,800.

The first recruitment took place on July 1, 2022, at Yablonevka IK7 in Leningrad region. The K1-001 dog tag was issued to a prisoner with the call sign “GDR”; his name is not specified in the documents.

The death of GDR became part of the legend of the “Kashniki” in Wagner PMC. Prigozhin repeatedly told this story to other prisoners: GDR was 52 years old, had spent 30 of them behind bars, was surrounded on the battlefield, and blew himself up with a grenade. “As far as I know, he took about four people with him,” Prigozhin would add.

Prigozhin called him the first to die at the front, but the documents indicate otherwise: on July 15, the first to die was a prisoner from Yablonevka with the call sign “Polosaty” (“Striped”), followed by Chronos, and the next day Bobyl (“Homeless”), Bosco, and Vegas from Dzerzhinsk IK9.

The overall order of recruitment is clearly visible on the map below: the Wagner fighters moved from west to east and tried to cover almost all the colonies within the region they came to. It’s unlikely that Prigozhin personally visited all the colonies—judging by the speed with which they traversed almost all of Russia, there were several recruitment groups.

After initial successes in St. Petersburg, Wagner recruiters visited Nizhny Novgorod region, Karelia, Novgorod, and Pskov regions. Around August, they flew to Komi, and then returned to central Russia (Tula, Ryazan, Tver, Kaluga, Vladimir regions). In September, the recruiters went to the southwest—Rostov, Voronezh, Belgorod—and then picked up the remaining regions of the Central Federal District. Wagner groups reached beyond the Urals by October, and by December they were already in the Far East.

Speaking in the colonies, Prigozhin specifically invited murderers and robbers to join the PMC—and “dedicated ones, not petty criminals”—and promised they would enjoy it in Wagner. Judging by the recruitment data, the Wagner fighters were indeed looking primarily for those who had committed grave or especially grave crimes: most (227) of the colonies they visited are maximum security.

Prigozhin’s representatives also visited at least 74 medium-security colonies and 28 super maximum security colonies. In 2023, they also went to colony-settlements and medical prison facilities (7 settlements and 4 medical facilities).

The remaining 161 colonies, which account for a minority of recruits (about 4,500), are most likely lower-security regimes (medium security, colony-settlements, medical prison facilities). We were unable to establish separate dog tag indices for the groups recruited from pre-trial detention centers—although some relatives did mention recruitment in detention centers in chat rooms.

In early February, Prigozhin’s press service announced that “Project 42174” had been terminated. “We don’t refuse prisoners as such, but a decision was made—I won’t go into the details—according to which the prisoners will most likely go to military units, I don’t know, it’s already beyond my competence,” Prigozhin himself explained in an interview with milblogger Semyon Pegov.

Judging by the documents, Prigozhin wasn’t being disingenuous in this interview: the last known case of recruitment to us is February 7, 2023 (k616, Medical Correctional Facility No. 42 in Leninsk-Kuznetsky, Kemerovo). After that, prisoners were taken to “Storm Z” units by representatives of the Ministry of Defense.

The Bakhmut Meat Grinder

We don’t know what goal Vladimir Putin set for Yevgeny Prigozhin when allowing recruitment in the colonies. But we do know how Prigozhin treated tens of thousands of prisoners: almost all the Wagner fighters recruited from prisons participated in the “meat assaults” near Bakhmut—and this is where they died.

Prigozhin claimed that the Battle of Bakhmut began on October 8, 2022. Wagner PMC even has a medal “Bakhmut Meat Grinder.” The reverse of the award is engraved: “On October 8, 22, the command of PMC Wagner and General S. V. Surovikin made the decision to start Operation ‘Bakhmut Meat Grinder’ with the aim of saving the Russian army and Russia’s honour.”

But the fighting in the Bakhmut direction with Wagner involvement began much earlier. To determine the start date of the operation, we asked researchers from the Conflict Intelligence Team. In their opinion, the operation to capture Bakhmut began after the mercenaries managed to seize the Vuhlehirska Power Station in late July—a large industrial zone about 20 kilometres southeast of Bakhmut.

According to Wagner’s documents, the first recruited prisoner died on July 15, 2022. Based on this, we decided to consider this date the beginning of the Battle of Bakhmut.

The end date of the Battle of Bakhmut is also disputed: Prigozhin claimed that Wagner took control of the city on May 20, 2023, while Ukraine acknowledged its capture 10 days later. We decided to take the day when Wagner lost only one person—June 6, 2023.

Thus, the Battle of Bakhmut lasted 327 days. During this time, Wagner lost 19,547 personnel killed, 17,175 of whom were prisoners and 2,372 were “free” mercenaries.

If we count the time boundaries of the Battle of Bakhmut as defined by Prigozhin—from October 8, 2022, to May 20, 2023—then the death toll drops to 18,329.

Prigozhin summarized the results of the “Bakhmut meat grinder” in an interview with milblogger Konstantin Dolgov. He said that his PMC’s losses amounted to 20,000 killed.

“During the operation, I recruited 50,000 prisoners, of whom approximately 20 percent died. Exactly as many of them died as those who came to us under contract,” Prigozhin claimed.

Thus, Prigozhin acknowledged the death of only 10,000 prisoners and lied about their share in Wagner PMC’s losses.

As for the chances of survival, here Prigozhin seriously exaggerated the prisoners’ chances of returning from the front: 35.5% died, according to Wagner’s own list, or 34.4%, if we take the 50,000 figure from Prigozhin.

In other words, one in three prisoners died.

When signing a contract, Wagner mercenaries were assigned not only a personal dog tag number, but also a call sign—with few exceptions, unique. The documents show that in the first weeks of “Project 47174”, prisoners were assigned call signs that were easy to pronounce and remember: “Amper”, “Khmyr”, “Sadist”, “Jockey”, “Bely”, and so on.

But later, the principle of assigning call signs changed. Here are a few call signs of prisoners who died on the same day: “Pembroke”, “Rehydron”, “Servilius”, “Chist”, “Nerviano”, “Sirmione”, “Comedur”, and “Treviol”. However, quite memorable ones like “Shulga” and even “Navalny” are also found nearby.

This indifference to call signs probably has a simple explanation: no one even assumed that these mercenaries would be given radios, where these call signs are actually used. These are call signs for people whose term of service is one or two assaults, no more.

Sometimes this led to relatives being unable to find information about the deceased: the prisoner would tell his relatives a different, more pleasing call sign, for example, “Ryabok” (“Sandgrouse”) became “Voron” (“Raven”).

Ukrainian Losses

In the interview with Dolgov, Prigozhin explained that the point of the “Bakhmut Meat Grinder” was to kill as many Ukrainian soldiers as possible.

“The ratio is as follows: we destroyed 50,000 AFU fighters. Approximately, it’s difficult to calculate this precisely, 50–70 thousand have injuries on the AFU side... I have three times fewer killed, maybe even 3.2, and approximately half as many wounded,” he claimed.

The anonymous UALosses project tallies Ukrainian losses based on open source data. We have already used their data to compare the losses of the AFU and the Russian Armed Forces—at the time, we verified this database and deemed it genuine.

The UALosses project works on the same principle as Mediazona and the BBC’s tally of the losses—searching for publicly available obituaries. It’s not correct to compare the full database of losses and obituaries, but there are no other sources of information on AFU losses in the public domain.

The project singles out those killed in Bakhmut into a separate category: now it has over 8,900 names. But for Ukraine, unlike for Wagner, this battle is still not over.

Here is UALosses data:
— Killed in the Battle of Bakhmut from July 15, 2022 to June 6, 2023: 4,871 people;
— Killed in the Battle of Bakhmut whose date of death is unknown: 630 people;
— Total killed on all fronts for the period we need: 16,267 people.
The last figure is given for comparison—obviously, Ukrainian soldiers died not only near Bakhmut.

It’s unlikely that UALosses sees only 10% of obituaries—which means there are no 50,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed near Bakhmut. It should also be taken into account that not only Wagner participated in the Battle of Bakhmut, but also army units—and they also suffered losses.

“Free” mercenaries

When recruiting inmates, Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed they weren’t merely “cannon fodder” and would serve as equals with the regular mercenaries. Their relatives also believed in this: in Telegram chats, they often stressed that the recruits signed contracts after receiving a pardon. So this meant that inside the PMC, everyone should be equal.

According to the casualties data, that wasn’t the case even remotely.

Despite Prigozhin’s claims, the share of “those who came on contract” (as opposed to those who were recruited in prison) isn’t one half of the casualties, but rather 12%. And we know very little about “free” mercenaries.

Telegram channels associated with Wagner claimed the PMC wasn’t actively involved in the fighting in the first months of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “The first 700 fighters” came from Africa on March 19, claimed the “Special Ops Channel.” And on March 20, the first death record appears in Wagner documents: the mercenary’s call sign was “Znoy” (“Heat”). A day later, 11 Wagner fighters were killed.

In the spring of 2022 the PMC fought in the Luhansk region, including the operations in Sievierodonetsk and Popasna. Before the battle for Bakhmut, Wagner lost nearly 300 men.

Compared with the “Bakhmut meat grinder,” the numbers seem small, but it should be noted that at that point, Wagner wasn’t a huge organisation. In the 2021 leaks, no more that 9,000 names are mentioned. Most of the fighters remained in the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Libya. But even this force wasn’t sufficient for serious operations, and an advertising campaign couldn’t provide enough recruits fast.

The Wagner lists mention mercenaries with old, pre-war tags (“M” and “B” series), as well as previously unknown “B”, “A”, “P”, “S”, “T”, and “U” tags. The only plausible explanation could be found for the “P” series, Wagner’s pilots. There are 12 of them mentioned in the documents.

At least 73 inmates who served six months later decided to stay with the PMC, got tags of the “B” series, and were later killed. The total for KIA fighters with “M” and “B” series tags is 228.

108 billion in death money

It’s obvious that Wagner didn’t only spend money on compensations for KIA fighters, but even these figures are enormous. 

According to contracts, a fighter’s relatives received 5 million roubles ($55,000) plus 300,000 roubles ($3,300) for a funeral. The second sum could be replaced for a burial organised by Wagner itself: in that case, the records had labels “funeral on the cost of the Company.”

The posthumous lists also had information about last salary payments: for some fighters, they could amount to 1,500,000 roubles ($16,000).

The payments to relatives of recruited inmates add up to 92,500,000,000 roubles (over $1 billion).

The payments to regular mercenaries were 15,400,000,000 roubles ($150 million).

In total, during the war in Ukraine, the PMC spent 108,000,000,000 roubles ($1,2 billion) on posthumous payments.

“Did the war change people?”

31,000 of the 48,000 recruited inmates survived in the “Bakhmut meat grinder.”

A chat for Wagner fighters’ relatives has a topic which is named “Did the war change people?” Here are the first messages there:

Of course, there are “positive” examples, too: relatives write that war made a person more mature, they are happy that he has a clean slate after the pardon was granted. But those who didn’t use this chance could often be found in news reports: media write about former Wagner recruits committing various crimes nearly every day. By the end of 2023, according to Verstka, there were about 200 criminal cases opened against them.

The inmate recruitment conveyer is still working after the death of its creator. The difference is, convicts are now joining Russia’s Ministry of Defense Storm Z units.

After the failed mutiny attempt, Russian authorities try to bury Wagner PMC in oblivion, but the methods of Yevgeny Prigozhin are highly sought: “meat assault” tactics are now used in regular infantry units just as much as with inmates.

Data: Mediazona’s Data Team, Dmitry Treshchanin, BBC Russian Service

Visualisation: Mediazona’s Data Team

Text: Dmitry Treshchanin, Mediazona’s Data Team

With Yegor Skovoroda and Mika Golubovsky

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