Russian Forces Searching Abandoned Buildings For Thousands Of Deserted Wagner Convicts

A Russian ammunition box lies on the tarmac as Kherson International Airport lies in ruins after being used as a logistics hub and base by the Russian military during more than eight months of occupation until Russian forces abandoned it and withdrew in November, on February 14, 2023, in Kherson, Ukraine. The Ukraine Armed Forces reported that Russia is raiding abandoned buildings to find military deserters. Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Russian forces are searching abandoned buildings for troops who deserted their ranks, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Tuesday in its latest report on the status of the war, which will reach the one-year mark on February 24.

Ukrainian officials released an audio intercept on Sunday detailing “significant desertion among Wagner Group convict recruits and continued poor operational security among Russian personnel in Ukraine,” according to a report from the Institute for the Study of War.

“Due to the high rates of desertion from the ranks of the Russian occupation forces, massive raids have been conducted in the Chaplinsky district of Kherson region since February 20, 2023,” the Armed Forces said, adding that “particular attention” is paid to abandoned houses and buildings.

In the audio intercept, a Russian soldier claimed 3020 Wagner Group convict recruits deserted with their weapons from a position near Vuhledar in the Donetsk region.

The Wagner Group is a Russian paramilitary organization considered a pseudo-private army for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The group has reportedly recruited convicts to fight for Russia on the frontlines. It has been accused of being used to hide atrocities conducted in the Russia-Ukraine war to allow Russian deniability.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group and a Vladimir Putin ally, recently accused top Russian officials of “treason” and attempting to “destroy” the group.

Last month, Olga Romanova, the head of Russia Behind Bars, a charity advocating prisoners’ rights, said only a fraction of Wagner Group recruits are still fighting in Ukraine.

“Our data shows that 42,000-43,000 inmates had been recruited as of late December. By now, this is probably upwards of 50,000,” Romanova said in a YouTube video. “Out of that number, 10,000 are now fighting at the frontline because the rest have either been killed or wounded, went AWOL, deserted or surrendered.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine said crime in the occupied territory of Crimea, specifically the city of Sevastopol, has significantly increased since early 2023 due to the arrival of Wagner Group fighters. Ukraine said the fighters were amnestied as their contracts expired.

“Where they are detained for any crimes, they are not sent to correctional facilities but back to the front line,” the Armed Forces said.

The United Kingdom recently reported that up to half of the convicts recruited by Wagner to fight in Ukraine have likely been killed or wounded.

The U.K. Ministry of Defence said that the Russian Ministry of Defense and private military contractor (PMC) forces have likely suffered 185,000 to 200,000 casualties since the start of the invasion of Ukraine, including about 40,000 to 60,000 killed.

The rate increased significantly after a Russian “partial mobilization” was imposed in September.

“Wagner PMC forces have deployed large numbers of convict recruits. These have probably experienced a casualty rate of up to 50 percent,” the ministry added.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine also reported continued Russian shelling targeting civilian facilities and residences, especially in Kherson, on Tuesday.

“The threat of further Russian air and missile strikes across Ukraine remains high,” it said.

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