Newly obtained documents show that 20,000 Wagner mercenaries were killed in the campaign to take the Ukrainian city, making it Russia’s deadliest battle since the Second World War

Alec Luhn

June 11, 2024

The Times


Almost 20,000 fighters from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group were killed in the intense battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut last year, more men than the Soviet Union lost in the decade-long invasion of Afghanistan.

Up to 213 mercenaries were killed each day, according to documents obtained by the BBC Russian Service and Mediazona, an independent Russian media outlet. Wagner lost more than 19,500 men in the ten-month campaign to take the city, most of whom were recruited from prisons. That makes the “Bakhmut meat grinder” Russia’s bloodiest battle since the Second World War.

Bakhmut had minor strategic value but took on totemic importance for both sides as troops fought from building to building, and near-constant shelling reduced the city to rubble.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s late head and a former chef and caterer for Vladimir Putin, came to national prominence with videos criticising the Russian military leadership for not giving his men enough ammunition during the battle. He finally declared victory in May 2023, holding up the flags of Russia and the mercenary group amid the charred ruins.

The next month Prigozhin led a brief coup attempt against Moscow. He was killed when his plane exploded over the Tver region in August, in what many believe was an assassination ordered by Putin.

Last year Prigozhin said in an interview about 20,000 of his men had been killed in Bakhmut, although he said only half were convicts. At least 5,000 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in Bakhmut, according to open-source data gathered by the UA Losses, a Ukrainian initiative to track war deaths.

The high body count in Bakhmut, while shocking, is unlikely to cause a backlash. Russian political figures haven’t commented, and state media ignored the news. Wagner paid nearly a billion pounds in compensation to relatives of those killed in the battle, the documents show, effectively buying their silence.

Some 17,000 of the dead were recruited from Russian prisons. Speaking with inmates in a jail yard in a 2022 video, Prigozhin offered them freedom for fighting for six months in Ukraine, regardless of their crimes. Deserters would be shot, he said.

Wagner recruited at least 48,000 prisoners to fight in Ukraine, two thirds of whom were from maximum security penal colonies.

These numbers help explain “how the Kremlin could sustain such a bloody operation, and why Prigozhin was so angry at the political leadership”, said Mark Galeotti, a Russia military expert.

Wagner’s Bakhmut losses also show that as many as 30,000 convicts went free in Russia after serving in Ukraine. Russia has suffered a wave of crime as fighters return from the front. In April a convicted murderer who fought for Wagner was sentenced to 17 years in prison for slitting the throat of a friend’s mother and stabbing a neighbour after he returned. “By signing 50,000 secret pardons, Putin has created not only 20,000 mostly nameless graves in Wagner cemeteries around Russia, but also 20,000 physically disabled and 10,000 mentally disabled and dangerous criminals that are now roaming the streets,” said Leonid Volkov, an aide to the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died in an Arctic prison in February.

The Russian military has continued to recruit tens of thousands of convicts, to the point that several Russian prison colonies have shut down owing to a lack of inmates. Last year the finance ministry proposed closing 57 prisons to avoid “unnecessary expenses”. Ukraine has also been recruiting prisoners, though not to the same extent.


Alec Luhn is a journalist focused on climate, conflict and migration who’s reported for The Atlantic, the Guardian, National Geographic, The New York Times, Scientific American, TIME, WIRED, CBS News radio and VICE News television. Previously based in Moscow and Istanbul, I broke stories internationally including deadly anthrax infections from thawing permafrost, the identity of the second Skripal poisoner and how Russia spills two Deepwater Horizons of oil each year. From Alaska to Somalia, I’ve reported from wildfires, droughts, earthquakes, war zones, melting glaciers, COP27 and 28 and a town invaded by polar bears.  I’ve received a Covering Climate Now award, a Milwaukee Press Club award, a Scripps environmental journalism fellowship and an Emmy nomination. I graduated with a dean’s prize from the University of Wisconsin, my home state.