The fate of Russia’s premier mercenary force: exclusive interviews with two former Ukrainian soldiers fighting on battlefield video and CNN teleportation
The bodies of the Ukrainians lay side-by-side on the grass, the earth behind them splay open by a crater. The victims were bound to the spot by Russian mercenaries and their arms were pointed to where they had died.
One of the Ukrainian soldiers who will collect the bodies says that there is no need for a grenade. The mercenaries realized they were running out of bullets.
These events seen and heard on battlefield video, exclusive to CNN, along with access to Wagner recruits fighting in Ukraine, and candid, rare interviews CNN has conducted with a former Wagner commander now seeking asylum in Europe, combine to give an unprecedented look at the state of Russia’s premier mercenary force.
While helping the group to cloud analysis of its exact capabilities, limited official information about Wagner and long-standing Kremlin denials about its existence have added to its infamy and allure.
More than seven months of fighting have thrown a harsh light on failings in Russia’s military performance in Ukraine. Russia’s small gains, especially compared to Putin’s initial ambitious targets in the war, have come at huge cost, decimating frontline units and starving many of manpower, as well as critically important experience.
“They have more weighty, more meaningful experience than the army. The army are young soldiers who were forced to sign a contract, they have no experience,” he said.
The Russian army can’t handle the war without mercenaries according to Gabidullin, who added that there’s a big myth about a strong Russian army.
The two Wagner prisoners interviewed this week by CNN spoke of huge losses as they were sent to storm Ukrainian positions, with fighters refusing to go forward instantly executed by commanders, they said.
Wagner fighters have even been offered bonuses – all paid in US dollars – for wiping out Ukrainian tanks or units, according to a senior Ukrainian defense source and based on the intelligence gathered on Wagner since the start of the war by Ukrainian authorities.
Yusov also said that Wagner is increasingly being used to patch holes in the Russian front line. This was also confirmed by a US senior defense official, who added that Wagner is being used across different front lines unlike Chechen fighters, for instance, who are focused around the Russian offensive aimed at Bakhmut.
He says that this has led to challenges with regards to logistical support for extended operations, as well as the need to supply Wagner troops with ammunition and food.
The invitations to contact recruiters have been spread via social media. One recruiter contacted by CNN offered a monthly salary of “at least 240,000 rubles” (about $4,000) with the length of a “business trip” – code for a deployment – of at least four months. Much of the recruiter’s message listed medical conditions that excluded applicants from joining: from cancer to hepatitis C and substance abuse.
It’s a move that would have been unthinkable months ago for the private military company once considered one of the most professional units in the Kremlin’s arsenal.
It is also possible that parts of the Russian establishment are trying to choke off Prigozhin’s access to resources. Prigozhin had to secure the agreement of Russia’s prison service, the Interior Ministry and other agencies to begin his prison recruitment scheme. It’s possible the assent was withdrawn as Prigozhin has made a dispute with the military establishment.
Working on Ukrainian investigations into possible Russian war crimes, Belousov fears that this lax recruiting will see the scale of war crimes increase.
Wagner’s struggles in Ukraine: a problem of political and economic incompetence for a Russian army with a drug dealer, David Gabidullin, told CNN
The engineer has taken to selling drugs in order to make money, according to a recording of the questioning. He volunteered to joinWagner because he believed it would expunge his criminal record so that his daughter wouldn’t have any problems after becoming a lawyer.
Wagner’s struggles in Ukraine have set in motion a wider problem: discontent in its ranks. For a group that depends on the appeal of its salaries and work, that’s critical.
The defense intelligence spokesman for the Ukrainians said in August that theUkrainian intelligence service noted a decline in thepsychological state of the soldiers. He has also seen a trend in Russian troops.
The reduction in Wagner recruitment requirements point to demoralization too, he said, and the number of “truly professional soldiers who are willing to volunteer to fight with Wagner” is also decreasing.
Ex-commander Gabidullin, who says he talks to his old comrades on an almost daily basis, explained that this demoralization was due to their dissatisfaction “with the overall organization of the fighting: [the Russian leadership’s] inability to make competent decisions, to organize battles.”
A mercenary who contacted Gabidullin for advice was too incompetent. I got a call from him saying that he wouldn’t be there anymore. I’m not taking part in this anymore,’” Gabidullin told CNN.
The fate of a fallen mercenary and the mistreatment of his prisoner: the case of Alexander Medvedev, an armored soldier
In one clip, a fallen Wagner mercenary lies, in death, almost peacefully, his left hand gently gripping the black earth. The battlefield has many dead bodies and the flaming wrecks of armored vehicles around him. The shots can be heard through the smoke.
“I’m sorry, bro, I’m sorry,” the soldier’s comrade says, lightly patting his back, stripped of his shirt by the battle that killed him. “Let’s get out of here, if they shoot us, we’ll lie next to him.”
They would round up those who were not willing to fight and shoot them in front of newcomers, he claims. Two prisoners were brought who did not want to fight. They shot them in front of everyone and then buried them in the trenches that the trainees dug.
He should have been prosecuted for attempting to mis treat prisoners, after he confirmed that Medvedev had worked in his company.
Warped in a frozen lake with a Russian army: The story of a man who didn’t want to leave the country for a long time
There was nothing real about it. There were no definite orders for us to act in a certain way. We planned the way we would do it. Who would open fire, what kind of shifts we would have…How it how it how it would turn out that was our problem,” he said.
He escaped arrest at least ten times, and dodged bullets from Russians, after crossing the border in a daring defection. He said he used white camouflage to blend into the icy lake.
He told CNN that after he saw troops being turned into cannon fodder, he didn’t want to go back for another tour.
He started off with 10 men under his command, a number that grew once prisoners were allowed to join, he said. There were more dead people and more people coming in. In the end, I had many people under my command. I didn’t know how many. They were moving very quickly. Dead bodies, more prisoners, more dead bodies, more prisoners.”
On the battle of Andriy and Borisych in Bakhmut: a clash between Ukrainian soldiers and a competitor in the fight for independence
But in reality “nobody wanted to pay that kind of money,” Medvedev said. He alleged that many Russians who died fighting in Ukraine were “just declared missing.”
“Our advantage is that yes, we do, we really can choose the guy whom the [Russians] call a clown. The man who is currently leading the free world on our planet is really this guy.
When asked about whether the fate was meted on Nuzhin, he said his death gave him the strength to leave.
Southwest of the city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian soldiers Andriy and Borisych live in a candle-lit bunker cut into the frozen earth. For several weeks they have been confronting hundreds of fighters belonging to the Russian private military contractor Wagner throwing themselves against Ukrainian defenses.
Another group follows, he says, to claim another 30 meters. “That’s how, step by step, (Wagner) is trying to move forward, while they lose a lot of people in the meantime.”
Only when the first wave is exhausted or cut down do Wagner send in more experienced combatants, often from the flanks, in an effort to overrun Ukrainian positions.
“You fought, but they didn’t die,” says Odesa resident Grigory Vasilievich Moseikin (Szelensky)
“Our machine gunner was almost getting crazy, because he was shooting at them. I know I shot him, but he doesn’t fall, he said. And then after some time, when he maybe bleeds out, so he just falls down.”
CNN could not independently verify his claims that they are getting drugs before the attack.
Even after the first waves were eliminated, the attack continued as the Ukrainian defenders say they ran out of bullets and found themselves surrounded.
As he talks to CNN the fields above him sound almost constant in shelling. A distant thud is followed by an outgoing whine from a weapon a few seconds away.
Andriy says he had told the engineer: “Obviously, you know that you will be killed (in battle). You are afraid to fight for freedom in your country.
Andriy contrasted Russian President Vladimir Putin with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who not so long ago was the country’s leading comedian.
Even if Russia sends many more fighters to storm their positions, they will resist, according to the Odesa resident who joined after the invasion.
Most of my guys are volunteers. They had good business and good job but they came to fight for their homeland. And it makes a great difference,” he says.
The sarcastic reply to Prigozhin to CNN on his decision to end recruitment in Russian prisons and the problems it might have caused
Private military contractor Wagner will have to look for new fighters beyond Russia’s prison system, a fertile recruiting ground for the past nine months, according to its boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin said his company has stopped the recruitment of prisoners. People who are working for us now are fulfilling their obligations.
The Russian oligarch did not give any reason for the decision, but there are several plausible explanations for the change of tack. The pool of recruits may have dwindled, the Ministry of Defense may have intervened, or the operation may have stretched Prigozhin’s finances. Prigozhin may have been told his way of war did not fit Russian priorities on the battlefield.
After signing up between 40,000 and 50,000 prisoners from jails across Russia, the number of volunteers from prison may have shrunk so far that the campaign is no longer delivering.
Figures from the Russian Penitentiary Service may support that. There was a decline in the prison population between November and January of 6,000 compared to a drop of 23,000 in the same period last year.
They said that dozens of prisoners, some with just weeks left of their sentences, had signed up after visits from Prigozhin in August and September. They said he arrived in a helicopter at their prisons and made a number of pledges, including that his criminal record wouldn’t be a problem.
The experiences of prisoners who finished their contracts may have deterred others from doing the same. Prigozhin was seen last month with some of the demobilized fighters, many of whom had clearly been wounded.
The lawyers spoke to agentstvo that there had been a decline in volunteers from the prison population due to information aboutWagner’s high casualties.
The finances of Wagner’s parent company – Concord Management – have always been very opaque, with dozens of subsidiaries involved. It is extremely difficult to get the money to sustain such a large increase in ranks.
The sarcastic reply Prigozhin issued to CNN after they asked for comment on the decision to end recruitment in Russian prisons was uploaded to the Wagner Group’s VKontakte page.
Olga Romanova, who is with the prisoner advocacy group Russia Behind Bars, believes that the Russian Ministry of Defense is now in charge of any further recruitment in Russia’s prisons.