Russian convict-soldiers in Ukraine have been issued with smartphones to allow commanders to track their positions, with the threat of execution if they flee, British intelligence officials have said.
The brutal tactic is designed to keep officers safe “at the expense of” recruits who are seen as “expendable”, the UK's Ministry of Defence said.
At least 10 soldiers who have been drafted into the notorious Wagner Group have been shot for failing to obey orders on the front line or for desertion.
The inexperienced troops, largely drawn from Russia’s prisons, have been given a smartphone or tablet in a new “offensive tactic to make use of the large number of poorly trained convicts it has recruited”, the ministry said in its intelligence briefing tweet.
Wagner’s commanders then use commercial satellites to ensure combatants follow their planned line of attack on to the assault objective.
“At platoon level and above, commanders likely remain in cover and give orders over radios, informed by video feeds from small uncrewed aerial vehicles,” the MOD said.
The infantry “are ordered to proceed on the pre-planned route” usually with artillery fire-support and sometimes alongside armoured vehicles.
But if any Russia soldier attempts to flee the battlefield or move off their planned route they face severe punishment.
“Wagner operatives who deviate from their assault routes without authorisation are likely being threatened with summary execution,” the tweet said.
“These brutal tactics aim to conserve Wagner’s rare assets of experienced commanders and armoured vehicles, at the expense of the more readily available convict-recruits, which the organisation assesses as expendable.”
The grim policy is largely being used around the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, which Russian commanders are desperate to seize despite suffering very significant losses.
A former commander from the Wagner Group, who managed to escape, has stated he was aware of 10 executions of mercenaries who refused to fight, eight of them former prisoners.
Andrei Medvedev told The Insider, a Russian opposition news outlet, that he had videos of two executions.
He was also the former commander of convicted murderer Yevgeny Nuzhin, a Wagner deserter who was extrajudicially murdered with a sledgehammer in a filmed execution last month.
Under its ultranationalist financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, once President Vladimir Putin’s chef, Wagner have taken a much greater role in the Ukraine war but have suffered high casualties.
The group, which was known for its ruthless operations in Syria, has grown significantly to an estimated 8,000 soldiers since the February invasion and has its own internal security unit to conduct executions.
“Reports of systematic executions within Wagner forces emerge, suggesting that Wagner leadership is willing to go to great lengths to preserve the Wagner Group’s image as a highly disciplined force,” the Institute for the Study of War think tank reported.
“Such reports also indicate that Wagner Group forces struggle with morale and discipline issues among new recruits, similar to those of conventional Russian forces, but combat it with harsh punishments.”
By contrast, the mainstream Russia army announced last week that it would boost morale with the establishment of two “frontline creative brigades” made up of opera singers, actors and circus performers, thought to include clowns.