The fate of the Wagner mercenaries in the Russian army and in the shadow of the Ukrainian crater: how many Ukrainian soldiers have lost since the invasion of Ukraine?
The bodies of the Ukrainians were side by side on the grass next to the crater. The victims were dragged to the spot by the Russian mercenaries, with their arms pointing to where they had died.
“There is no need for a grenade, we will just bash them in,” another says of the Ukrainian soldiers who will come to collect the bodies. The mercenaries then realize they have run out of ammunition.
According to the Ukrainian defense ministry, there is body armor and helmets on the fighters in the footage, but they don’t have them. In another video a fighter complains about being ordered to attack Ukrainian positions when their unit is short of bullets.
While helping the group to cloud analyze its exact capabilities and activities, limited official information about it and the denials of its existence by the Russian state have added to its infamy and allure.
And as Russia’s prospects of victory in Ukraine – or even claiming a positive outcome – look thin, life as a Russian mercenary doesn’t hold the same appeal it might once have had.
They have a 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 cannot handle war without mercenaries, which is a big myth according to Gabidullin.
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 said that it has lead to significant logistical challenges with the need to supply the troops with armor and food while Ukraine increases its attacks on Russia.
The invites to contact recruiters were sent via social media and online. 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.
The convict campaign may have caused overspending on top of the already strained finances. Prigozhin’s companies had to buy weapons and other equipment for the prison recruits, train them at camps in Russia and in occupied territory in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, transport them to combat areas and feed them.
Working on Ukrainian investigations into possible Russian war crimes, Belousov fears that this lax recruiting will see the scale of war crimes increase.
On Thursday, Prigozhin announced that Wagner had stopped recruiting convicts to fight in Ukraine, saying “those who work for us now are fulfilling all their obligations.” CNN is unable to independently confirm the claims of the decision.
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.
Ukrainian defence intelligence spokesman Yusov said that from phone calls in August the Ukrainian intelligence services noticed a decline in the psychological state of the troops. He has also seen this trend in Russian troops.
The demoralization is linked to the reduction in the number of soldiers who are willing to fight with the company.
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 lacks the ability to make competent decisions.
For one mercenary who contacted Gabidullin for advice, that incompetence was too much. “He called me and said: ‘That’s it, I won’t be there anymore. I’m not taking part in this anymore,’” Gabidullin told CNN.
A fallen Wagner mercenary and a gunman in the trenches: Prigozhin apologizes to the soldier who killed him
In one clip, a fallen Wagner mercenary lies, in death, almost peacefully, his left hand gently gripping the black earth. Around him, the battlefield smolders alongside dead bodies and the flaming wreckage of their armored vehicles. The shots crackle through the smoke.
The soldier stripped of his shirt after the battle that killed him apologized to the other soldier. “Let’s get out of here, if they shoot us, we’ll lie next to him.”
They would round up people who didn’t want to fight and then shoot them in front of new people. “They brought two prisoners who refused to go fight and they shot them in front of everyone and buried them right in the trenches that were dug by the trainees.”
Prigozhin previously said that he should have been charged for attempting to mistreat prisoners, because he served in his company.
Norwegian General Rei Medvedev left his country after he had crossed the border into Norway and evaded arrest (at least ten times)
“There were no real tactics at all. There were no clear orders about how to behave after we received instructions about the position of the adversary. We just planned how we would go about it, step by step. How it would turn out was one of the issues that we had.
Medvedev spoke to CNN from Oslo after crossing its border in a daring defection that, he says saw him evade arrest “at least ten times” and dodge bullets from Russian forces. He crossed into Norway over an icy lake using white camouflage to blend in, he said.
He told CNN that he knew by the sixth day of his deployment in Ukraine that he did not want to return for another tour after witnessing troops being turned into cannon fodder.
He started with 10 men and grew the number once prisoners became allowed to join. There were more dead bodies coming in. He said that he had a lot of people under his command. “I couldn’t count how many. They were out in the open. More dead bodies, more prisoners, more prisoners.
How Russian troops are fighting in the outskirts of Bakhmut? A reply to Medvedev on the Ukrainian propaganda in the war in Ukraine
But in reality “nobody wanted to pay that kind of money,” Medvedev said. He claimed that many Russians who died in the war inUkraine were declared missing.
The propaganda in Russia will soon stop and the people will rise up, all of them up for grabs and a new leader will emerge.
He said that Yevgeny Nuzhin’s death made him leave, since he felt the fate would be meted on him.
Southwest of the city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian soldiers Andriy and Borisych live in a candle-lit bunker cut into the frozen earth. They have been fighting hundreds of fighters belonging to the Russian military contractor for several weeks.
He says another group will 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.”
When the first wave has been exhausted or cut down, do you send in experienced fighters from the flanks in an attempt to overrun Ukrainian positions?
The story of Andrey and his brother-in-law, Zelensky, of a Soviet soldier killed in a battle for his freedom
The machine gunner was almost crazy because he was shooting at them. He said, I know I shot him, but he doesn’t fall. And then he falls down after he bleeds out.
“It looks like it’s very, very likely that they are getting some drugs before attack,” he says, a claim that CNN has not been able independently to verify.
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 speaks to CNN, the fields above Andriy’s bunker reverberate to almost constant shelling. The whine of outgoing artillery is followed by a distant thud a few seconds later and a few kilometers away.
The engineer was told by the man that he would be killed in battle. But you’re afraid to fight for your freedom in your country.”
The comparison was made between Putin and Zelensky, who was not very long ago the leading comedian in the country.
Andriy, who is from the southwestern city of Odesa and joined up within days of Russia’s invasion, says that no matter how many more fighters are sent to storm their positions, they will resist.
The majority of my guys are volunteers. They had (a) good business, they had (a) good job, they had a good salary, but they came to fight for their homeland. He says that it makes a difference.
A message from Prigozhin on the decline of inmates from the private military contractor’s prisons: “We are sorry that we have no more prisoners”
The boss of the private military contractor said it needs to find new fighters beyond Russia’s prison system.
Prigozhin said on his company’s Telegram channel Thursday: “We have completely discontinued the recruitment of prisoners into Wagner PMC. Those who work for us now are fulfilling all their obligations.”
There are a number of plausible explanations for the change of tack, but the Russians didn’t give a reason. The pool of recruits may have dwindled, the Ministry of Defense may have intervened, or the operation may have stretched Prigozhin’s finances. Prigozhin might have been told his way of war doesn’t fit Russian priorities.
The number of volunteers from prison has waned so far that the campaign is no longer delivering.
Figures from the Russian Penitentiary Service may support that. Compared to September and October of last year, when there was a decline in inmates, the prison population decreased by 6,000 between November and January.
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 had arrived at their prisons in a helicopter and made bold promises about wages and other benefits, as well as a pledge that their criminal records would be expunged.
Others might not join up if they know about the experiences of prisoners who completed their contracts. Many of the demobilized fighters had clearly been wounded and Prigozhin was seen with them last month.
One of the lawyers that spoke to Agentstvo said that the decline of volunteers from among the prison population was due to information about the high casualties that were known.
Concord Management has a very opaque finances with many subsidiaries involved. It is very difficult to determine the sources of cash to sustain a large increase in ranks.
In response to a request for comment on the decision of Wagner to no longer recruit inmates from Russian prisons, Prigozhin joked that millions of US citizens had applied to join the mercenary group.
CNN spoke to several prisoners, and it appears that they are suggesting a new strategy. They said they were employed by the ministry of defense.
The last message would be sent by Viktor Sevalnev. A convict who had served time for armed robbery and assault was sent from prison to serve his sentence in Russia. The act of survival was the one that resulted in Sevalnev’s death after an assault on a factory outside Soledar.
In a last message to his wife, he said he feared officials from the Russian Ministry of Defense would soon take him from his hospital bed, where he recorded the audio message, and execute him. His remains were returned to his wife in a closed coffin.
CNN spoke to prisoners who worked for a unit known as 08807 which they all said they were employed by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Some held documents suggesting they were ultimately deployed to an element of the Luhansk separatist army, which has been suborned into the Russian defense ministry. The unit 08807 was deployed in October to the frontlines around Soledar, known as a “Shtrum” brigade – for storming Ukrainian lines – and suffered catastrophic casualties.
Usov claimed the development was due to internal squabbling among the Russian military leadership, and that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the new leader of the Ukrainian operation, Valery Gerasimov, were creating a convict resource they could control through the ministry. Usov said that the ministry had fewer convicts, but they would be used in the same way as cannon fodder.
Grainy footage shows Sevalnev and his unit dancing at a camp inside of Luhansk, just before their deployment. It also shows them eating and joking just behind the frontlines the night before they began an assault on a key factory in Soledar, which would prove fatal for the majority of Sevalnev’s unit, survivors said.
Three other survivors spoke to CNN in the hospital. One prisoner said that Sevalnev had been wounded once, then sent back to fight on the frontline, where he was wounded again.
He said none of the surgeries were being performed on anyone. CNN is withholding his name and those of the other surviving convicts for their safety. “People walk around [the hospital] with bullet wounds, with shrapnel stuck in their legs.”
Before his imprisonment, he described catastrophic losses. “Our batch was 130 people, but we also have many amputees, and we probably have 40 people left”, he added, saying many different groups of prisoners were added to their unit over time. He said his unit had only 15 survivors and that the 08807 was now called 40321, or “Storm unit.” He mentioned the meat grinder. He told CNN he had been sent back to the frontline because his injuries didn’t heal.
I don’t have any complaints about war. People hear a machine gun and run. It’s not good. He said that they set everyone else up because no one had his back. The soldier who was wounded in the leg after 25 days on the front described how he felt no fear. soil falls down to the trench and I don’t feel any fear in that area. I don’t know what it is.
Nemes Tarimo, a former student accused of drug-related offences, and the fate of three in Tanzanian convicted convicts
The fate of convicts employed by Wagner appears no better, according to relatives of three convicts over the summer who appeared in an August CNN report.
His brother claimed that one had gone missing for four months. Another had fallen silent too, but was sending his brother his salary, collected monthly from a rented office in a sealed plastic bag. A third had appeared in a video with Prigozhin. A friend described the man’s appearance, drinking and desire to return to the front.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has also elaborated on the legality of the pardons that Wagner has insisted convicts are given, telling reporters last month any presidential decrees pardoning prisoners were likely classified. There are various classifications of confidentiality in the decrees. That’s the reason I can’t say anything about the decree. I can really confirm that the entire procedure for pardoning prisoners is carried out in strict accordance with Russian law.”
Wagner’s recruitment has also snared prisoners who are not Russian, and may not have been convicted of a crime. Tanzanian student Nemes Tarimo was on an exchange in Moscow when he was apparently arrested on drugs charges and held on remand. He was convicted in March last year to seven years in jail, according to the Tanzanian foreign ministry, citing information from their Russian counterparts.
Wagner released a ghoulish video of a memorial ceremony in Tarimo’s honor at a graveyard in Molkino, western Russia, saying he died in October near Bakhmut. Tarimo’s body was returned to his country of origin in late October, with the foreign ministry saying he accepted an offer to fight in return for money and his freedom.
His cousin told CNN that he was a very obedient boy as a child. He was a very religious person, but not a scamp. She said they did not know anything about his recruitment until after he died. Even though he was still alive, we never heard of the report that he had been arrested for drug-related offenses. A lot of grief and sadness is given by the family. He never even had a dream of becoming a soldier.”