An advocacy group estimates that only 1 in 5 of Wagner’s recruits remain active in Russian forces.

A worker placing a portrait at the grave of Dmitry Menshikov, a mercenary recruited by the private paramilitary group Wagner, killed in Ukraine, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, last month.
A worker placing a portrait at the grave of Dmitry Menshikov, a mercenary recruited by the private paramilitary group Wagner, killed in Ukraine, in Saint Petersburg, Russia, last month.Credit…Igor Russak/Reuters

Out of 50,000 mercenaries — many of them prison inmates — recruited by the private paramilitary group Wagner to fight alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine, only about 10,000 remain actively serving, according to a new estimate by Russia Behind Bars, a prisoner rights organization.

The organization’s founder, Olga Romanova, said in an interview on Monday with TV Rain, an independent Russian broadcaster based in the Netherlands, that according to her organization’s data, the other 40,000 recruits have either deserted or surrendered, or been injured or killed.

Wagner’s mercenaries have played a large role in the battle for eastern Ukraine and have also carried out military operations in Africa and elsewhere. Human rights groups have said that the Kremlin is relying on the extralegal use of prisoners to replenish its decimated military.

In September, a visual investigation by The Times revealed footage that appeared to be Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the Russian businessman and close associate of President Vladimir V. Putin who founded Wagner, promising convicts release from prison in return for a six-month combat tour in Russia’s war against Ukraine. In the video, he also warns that any who sign up and try to desert will be shot.

The estimates by Russia Behind Bars could not be independently verified, but the overall number of fighters roughly aligns with a late December assessment shared by John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council. Mr. Kirby said Wagner had about 50,000 people fighting in Ukraine at that time, including 10,000 contractors and about 40,000 inmates recruited from Russian prisons.

In a statement earlier this month, the British Defense Ministry said that Russia was “highly resorting” to convict labor in an effort to meet wartime production demands.

On Friday, the White House said the United States was designating the paramilitary group as a significant transnational criminal organization, a move that will expand the number of nations and institutions that can be prevented from doing business with the company.

At a news briefing, Mr. Kirby told reporters, “Our message to any company that is considering providing support to Wagner is simply this: Wagner is a criminal organization.”

New York Times – January 24, 2023