At least 21,000 Wagner mercenaries have been killed fighting in Ukraine, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The Ukrainian leader said the private military company had suffered “enormous losses,” particularly in eastern Ukraine where its “most powerful group” was fighting.
“Our troops killed 21,000 Wagnerites in eastern Ukraine alone,” Zelensky told reporters in Kyiv on Saturday, adding that another 80,000 Wagner fighters had been wounded.
“These were enormous losses for the Wagner PMC,” said Zelensky, who characterized its fighters as a “motivated staff of the Russian army” and mostly convicts who “had nothing to lose.”
CNN could not independently verify the claim by Zelensky, made during a press conference with Spanish media to coincide with a visit to Kyiv by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
The trip by Sanchez is his third visit to Ukraine. It comes as Spain takes over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union and follows news that CIA Director William Burns also recently traveled to Ukraine to meet with Zelensky and Ukrainian intelligence officials.
Zelensky’s claims about Wagner’s losses comes just a week after the private military company’s boss Yevgeny Prigozhin led his men in an abortive rebellion against Moscow.
Wagner troops had marched toward the Russian capital, taking control of military facilities in two Russian cities in what Prigozhin said was a response to a Russian military attack on a Wagner camp, before a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko defused the crisis.
The future of the Wagner Group is now unclear, with the deal brokered by Lukashenko requiring Prigozhin to move to Belarus and his fighters given the option of either signing up to the Russian military or enforcement agencies, returning to their families and friends, or also going to Belarus.
In his speech Saturday, Zelensky said Prigozhin’s rebellion had “greatly affected Russian power on the battlefield” and could be beneficial to Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
“We need to take advantage of this situation to push the enemy out of our land,” Zelensky said.
“They are losing the war. They have no more victories on the battlefield in Ukraine, and so they are starting to look for someone to blame,” he said.
However, he said the counteroffensive would not be rushed because he valued human lives and needed to be strategic in where he sent troops.
“Every meter, every kilometer costs lives. You can do something really fast, but the field is mined to the ground,” he said. “People are our treasure. That’s why we are very careful.”
Also during Saturday’s conference, Zelensky expressed fears of losing bipartisan support from the United States, following “dangerous messages coming from some Republicans.”
“Mike Pence has visited us and he supports Ukraine – first of all, as an American and then as a Republican,” Zelensky said.
“We have bipartisan support however there are different messages in their circles regarding support for Ukraine. There are messages coming from some Republicans, sometimes dangerous messages, that there may be less support.”
“The most important thing for Ukraine is not to lose bipartisan support,” he added.
When asked by a reporter if he was in danger and feared for his life, Zelensky responded: “It is more dangerous for Putin than for me, honestly. Because it’s only in Russia that they want to kill me, whereas the entire world wants to kill him.”