American and European media, as well as analytical centers, report that the Wagner PMC group has lost resources for further offensive, and Prigozhin himself is returning to activities in Africa, reducing activity near Bakhmut.
The author of this article recently visited Bakhmut. The mood of Ukrainian soldiers does not coincide with the conclusions of Bloomberg journalists and analysts of the Institute for the Study of War: the guys on the front-line claim that Wagner is not stopping the pressure. On the contrary, the attacks have become even more massive. Prigozhin does not seem to be in Africa either: the PMC leader posted a video from the city center, where he raises a Russian flag over the destroyed city administration building.
The issue is not the misinformation of Western journalists. According to Ukrainian fighters, in recent months there has been a change in the positioning of the Wagner PMC. If six months ago, it was a bunch of "convicts" who were sent to their deaths, now everything is different. Prigozhin is building a powerful structure with a popular brand and a large number of supporters.
The Molfar team explains how Wagner PMC builds its brand and continues to recruit soldiers to its private army.
We have previously told in detail who Yevgeny Prigozhin is, and you can read 👉 his story here.
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From prisoners to recruiting centers, Wagner's growth in social media
Wagner Prigozhin's group quickly became known worldwide thanks to a video in which he recruited prisoners for the war. The reason is obvious: it was the only place where he could quickly recruit the necessary number of fighters. Traditionally, Wagner's PMC had up to 20,000 members; during the full-scale invasion, their number tripled, exceeding 50,000. It is important to understand that Prigozhin did not just reach this number of troops once and that's all – no, he still tries to maintain this number of troops all the time, which made recruitment a constant process.
Prisoners were promised pardons in exchange for their service. According to various estimates, the PMC lost more than 30,000 people near Bakhmut. The untrained fighters were used as cannon fodder and easy targets for artillery, and they had little chance of survival, so such high losses are understandable. However, Prigozhin was not lying: those who managed to survive and serve for 6 months or more were indeed pardoned. Molfar has already written about a similar example before, describing the story of the now former 13 prisoners from Wagner PMC.
But freedom is not the only thing Prigozhin offers. The propaganda machine is working to simplify the process of recruiting new people and encourage men to voluntarily join the ranks of the Wagner PMC. One of these ways is to honor "ordinary" people, not commanders.
In March, the story of a Russian soldier with the call sign "Mantis" went viral. He was awarded the Platinum Star, a distinction given for special heroic deeds. Mantis joined the service from prison as an ordinary soldier, but during his service he was promoted to the commander of a storming unit.
Stories like this have a great impact on the motivation to go to serve with the Wagner’s. You see not just that the person survived, but that there is a rapid career growth and some awards. You think, "I'll go serve and get freedom, or even more importantly, a career," says a source in the Armed Forces of Ukraine who monitors the Wagnerians.
The Platinum Star is not the only type of order awarded by Prigozhin. The company also gives orders in the form of the Black Cross, Silver Cross, and Gold Cross to soldiers who have shown "valor." According to the PMC commanders, the Platinum Star is the level of the Russian hero award, the highest such award of the Russian Federation.
Just think about it: a private company forms its own pool of military awards and raises them to the level of the highest military honors of its state, and posthumously and lifetime awards them to former prisoners or ordinary Russians who went to wage a war of aggression in another state. Prigozhin himself tries to live up to the image of a great military leader: he is the only one among the Russian elite who is constantly at the front-line.
These and other similar steps are working. In 2022, the number of subscribers to the Wagner group on VK grew from 7,000 to 355,000, and by early 2023, it had reached almost 400,000.
As of March 2023, the total number of visitors to the five largest Russian social media groups belonging to the Wagner PMC was over 2 million.
Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the number of subscribers to Wagner's resources on the Telegram messenger social network has increased from less than 2% to more than 250%. The growth was in all groups, and the number of subscribers to Wagner's resources on Telegram began to increase.
Recruitment of militants to the Wagner PMC
Subscribers are not the most important indicator of support for the group's activities, so we turn our attention to another – recruiting. In 2023, the PMC started opening its recruitment centers:
- On March 2, 2023, Prigozhin's press service announced that "recruitment centers were opened in a number of cities, and the first one in Moscow";
- On March 10, 2023, Prigozhin's press service published a list of 58 recruitment centers in 42 cities of the Russian Federation;
- On March 22, 2023, according to the post, hiring is carried out in 73 centers located in 41 cities of the Russian Federation;
- On March 25, 2023, according to Wagner's post on VK, mobile recruitment centers were launched.
In other words, the group recruits people not only in prisons, but also as an employment center. Particular attention is paid to regions where there is less work for men, and journalists are afraid to pay attention to such things because of censorship. There are plans to visit 36 thousand (!) settlements in Russia for mobilization into Wagner's units.
It is also worth looking at the vacancies for joining Wagner posted on Russian job search sites. As of the end of March 2023, such vacancies were found:
- Avito – 3 vacancies for the position of a shooter;
- 15 vacancies for volunteers on JobVK;
- 26 vacancies on GorodRabot.
Judging by the fact that Wagner has been continuing attacks on Bakhmut for more than 6 months, losing huge human resources there, this process is going well. The media, on the other hand, report from month to month about the loss of forces and the inability to continue the offensive in the Bakhmut direction. But the offensive is ongoing.
Wagner PMC Development Efficiency: Prigozhin's Efforts in Figures and Graphs
Yevgeny Prigozhin uses all possible methods to develop the Wagner brand in Russia, including controversial means. For example, in March 2023, Wagner ads were spotted on the PornHub porn site: you can see the ads if you access the resource from a Russian IP.
We have already demonstrated an increase in the number of visitors to the Wagner PMC's social media sites, and now we will pay attention to the separately created pages on the Internet and the quoting of Wagner by the Russian media.
First of all, let's analyze the development and advertising of the Wagner brand in terms of incoming traffic to the organization's domains.
Wagner PMC owns the following domains:
- wagnercentr.ru – website of the Wagner Center in St. Petersburg;
- vk.link/wagner2022org – Wagner website for hire, created on the VK website builder. Visit data is not available at the link vk.link/wagner2022org, there is general data for the domain vk.link (website builder from VK);
- wagner2022.ru (inactive, archive) – probably the former Wagner website, redirected to vk.link/wagner2022org. In September 2022, the Ukrainian IT army reported that it had hacked wagner2022.ru and got private data of mercenaries. In September 2022, according to SimilarWeb, the site received the largest number of visits – 321.2k, most likely the news of the website hacking added number of visits to it;
- wagner2022.org (inactive, archive) – copy of the website wagner2022.ru;
- orcestrwagnera.vsite.biz – a website with recruiting contacts and news, probably not official, but used by one of the recruiters with the call sign "Bavarian".
Over the past year, the number of visits to Wagner's recruitment websites has grown from zero to a total of more than 2.6 million visitors.
In addition to direct efforts by Wagner's command, the Russian media also contributed to the development of the brand. They mention the name of the PMC in their articles and materials, which leads to an increase in the media awareness of Prigozhin's company.
During the year from March 2022 to March 23, the quotation of Wagner in the Russian media increased more than 20 times!
Expert opinions: what do the high rank Ukrainian militaries say about the Wagner PMC?
Along with statements about poorly trained "convicts" and hastily trained militants, the Ukrainian military emphasizes that there are still many professionally trained combat groups in the ranks of Wagner. And these professional combat units do not stop their activities; quite the contrary, they actively use poorly trained fighters to find weaknesses in the defense of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Therefore, in practice, all attempts to discredit Wagner's units lead rather to underestimation of the enemy, which is harmful at the stage of planning and preparation of military operations.
The head of Ukrainian intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, speaks at length about the professionalism and coordinated work of individual Wagner groups: "Wagner is better than the mobilized Russian units in everything, their assault units consist of prisoners, but they are commanded by professionally trained and prepared military personnel".
Pavlo Kazarin, a journalist and Ukrainian Armed Forces soldier who spent the last month in Bakhmut, speaks about the Wagner fighters as well-coordinated militants who fight "as written in tutorials" and they have "many years of combat experience," which obviously should not be underestimated.
Serhiy Velychko, one of the commanders of the Kraken special unit of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, speaks about the Wagner fighters as "respectable warriors who know how to fight" and that "they should not be underestimated" because "they have traveled the world to fight, they understand all their actions".
The Wagner PMC brand is gaining more and more influence
Until February 24, 2022, it appeared that Wagner was a group that operated as a military satellite of the Russian army in Syria, as well as an organized crime group in a number of African countries, where it captured enterprises and set up a business aimed at enriching its boss, Prigozhin.
With the start of the full-scale invasion, the situation changed. Prigozhin was no longer just building an army; he was building a brand that was developing in different directions. For example, Russian cities were filled with billboards mentioning Orchestra W, as the militants called themselves in the organization: soldiers became "musicians." To keep the words in line with reality, the command even composed a Wagner anthem. This has a historical tradition even in Ukraine: Cossack units and Ukrainian military formations had their own songs in the early 20th century.
In order to reach the wider masses, Wagnerian propaganda created the Wagnerian Youth Club, which the Molfar team also wrote about earlier. According to the description of the club's activities, the organization was created with the aim of:
- holding various patriotic events for patriots of "our homeland";
- organizing meetings and roundtables with prominent politicians, bloggers, military and other personalities who promote "true Russian values" and work for the benefit of "our homeland";
- developing public speaking skills in debates;
- conducting volunteer activities for the benefit of the front-line;
- preparing young people for military service;
- training in UAV operation.
In short, it is a youth training center for future PMC members. The story is somewhat reminiscent of the youth groups of United Russia, the main Kremlin party.
Another example of an attempt at inclusive activity is a hackathon. This is true: The Wagner PMC held its own hackathon a few months ago. It is believed that the Wagner employees will create software for the needs of their own company as well as for other army groups of the Russian army.
We wrote about the participants of the Wagner Hackathon in detail earlier 👉 you can read it here.
Prigozhin succeeded in building a strong brand. First of all, his influence on the war in Ukraine is evident. Despite all the texts about his dismissal or the PMC troops defeat, it is Prigozhin who spends all his free time in Bakhmut and installs rags with Russian colors there. Second, he became a role model. It was after the popularity of the Wagner PMC grew that other companies in Russia began to launch their own private armies, trying to follow Prigozhin's example. So far, no one else has managed to grow up to a similar scale.
You can read about the 37 private military companies of the Russian Federation operating in 34 countries of the world at this link 👉 Catalog of Russian PMCs
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