What does it take to lose a Russian mercenary? The story of the Ukrainen soldier’s scream and their confrontation with the Russian army
The Ukrainians’ bodies lay side-by-side on the grass, the earth beside them splayed open by a crater. The arms of the victims pointed to the place they had died.
The Ukrainian soldiers will come to collect the bodies after bashing them in with a grenade. The mercenaries realized they have run out of bullets.
Bodycam footage purportedly from Wagner fighters in August passed to CNN by the Ukrainian defense ministry shows mercenaries complaining of a lack of body armor and helmets. In another video, a fighter complains about his orders to attack Ukrainian positions when his unit is out of bullets.
The infamy and appeal of the group have only been reinforced because of the limited official information about its existence and ties to the Russian state.
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 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.
Russian citizens are not allowed to be mercenaries in foreign wars, but there are exceptions that allow Russia’s paramilitary units to provide services to Russian conglomerates that the Kremlin considers strategic in nature. Russia’s state arms conglomerate, as well as energy industry giants, are included.
Recruiters and war crimes against the Kremlin: The story of two Ukrainian prisoner departures during the first Ukrainian attack on Russia
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.
That has led to significant logistical challenges, he says, with the need to supply Wagner troops with ammunition, food and support for extended operations, all while Ukraine has upped its attacks on Russia’s logistics.
Wagner’s invitations to contact recruiters have also spread via social media and online. CNN has been contacted by at least one recruiters who offers a monthly salary of at least 240,000 rubles ($4000), with the length of a business trip coding 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.
For a long time, the private military company was considered one of the top units in the Kremlin’s arsenal.
Similar efforts to mobilize Russia’s prison population for combat include monthly salaries worth thousands of dollars and death payments of tens of thousands of dollars to recruits’ families.
Working on Ukrainian investigations into Russian war crimes, Belousov fears the scale of war crimes will increase due to the fact that recruiters are less strict.
Wagner struggles in Ukraine: a problem for a group that doesn’t want to lose its footing, or how Ukrainian intelligence services see it
Although direct recruitment from prisons is new, it hasn’t been a problem for employment with Wagner. He told CNN that he had served time for murder in prison, as well as telling them that other commanders had served with the group after prison sentences.
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.
From intercepted phone calls, Ukrainian intelligence services in August noted a “general decline in morale and the psychological state” of Wagner troops, Ukrainian defense intelligence spokesman Yusov said. He has seen it in Russian troops as well.
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.
The ex-commander said that the demoralization was due to their unhappiness with the overall organization of the fighting. [the Russian leadership’s] inability to make competent decisions, to organize battles.”
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 am not taking part in this anymore according to Gabidullin.
The fallen mercenary Prigozhin of the Battalon Colony. Is he guilty of trespassing?
In one of the clips, a fallen mercenary rests his left hand gently on the black earth. Around him, the battlefield smolders alongside dead bodies and the flaming wreckage of their armored vehicles. Occasional shots crackle 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 did not want to fight and shoot them in front of newcomers,” he alleges. “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 has said that he should have been prosecuted because he tried to treat prisoners in his company.
How he crossed into Norway and how he ended up in Ukraine: An interview with a fugitive soldier in the prison camp
There was no real use of tactics. We just got orders about the position of the adversary…There were no definite orders about how we should behave. It was just planned, step by step. How it would turn out was the biggest problem for us.
He escaped at least ten times from Russian forces after crossing his border, and spoke to CNN from that point on. 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 began with 10 men under his command and the number grew once prisoners were allowed to join. There were more dead bodies and people coming in. He said that he had a lot of people under his command. I don’t know how many. They were in the air. More dead bodies, more prisoners, more prisoners.
The Operation of the Wagner Prisons in Light of the Death of a Sergei Medvedev Detected with a Sledgehammer
No one wanted to pay that kind of money. He claimed that many dead Russians were declared missing.
“Sooner or later the propaganda in Russia will stop working, the people will rise up and all our leaders …will be up for grabs and a new leader will emerge.”
When asked if he fears the fate meted on another Wagner defector, Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was murdered on camera with a sledgehammer, Medvedev said Nuzhin’s death emboldened him to leave.
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 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.”
The Russian oligarch did not give any reason for the decision, but there are several plausible explanations for the change of tack. It may be that the pool of recruits have dwindled, the Ministry of Defense may have had to intervene, or the operation may have affected Prigozhin’s finances. Alternatively, Prigozhin may have been told that his way of war no longer fits 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.
The Russian Penitentiary Service released figures that could support that. They showed that the prison population decreased by 6,000 between November and January, compared to a drop of 23,000 inmates between September and October last year.
They said that dozens of prisoners with just weeks left of their sentence were among the first to sign up. They said he arrived at his prisons in a helicopter and made a number of promises, including that his criminal records would be expunged.
Other prisoners’ experiences with completing their six-month contracts may have deterred them from joining. Prigozhin was seen last month with some of the demobilized fighters, many of whom had clearly been wounded.
One of the lawyers who spoke to Agentstvo said the decline of volunteers from among the prison population was in part due to information about Wagner’s high casualties becoming known.
Concord Management has a lot of subsidiaries involved, and their finances are very opaque. It is very difficult to determine the source of cash to sustain such an increase in ranks.
In response to CNN’s request for comment on Wagner’s decision to end recruitment from Russian prisons, Prigozhin issued a sarcasm-laced reply through the Wagner Group’s VKontakte page, and joked that millions of US citizens had applied to join the mercenary group.
CNN spoke to several prisoners who seemed to indicate a disturbing new strategy. They say they were directly employed by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
This is the last message Viktor Sevalnev would send. A man who had been in jail for a violent crime and was sent to serve his sentence in Russia was sent back to jail. After most of his colleagues died in an assault on a factory outside Soledar, it was the act of survival that proved fatal to Sevalnev.
In a last message to his wife, he said that he feared that the Russian Ministry of Defense would take him from his hospital bed and execute him. The body was returned to his wife in a closed coffin days later.
Voice of a soldier on the frontlines: The sniper unit of Luhansk was set up to fight an enemy factory in Soledar
The prisoners recently captured by Ukrainian forces said that they were employed by the ministry, according to a Ukrainian intelligence official.
Usov said the development had “echoes of internal squabbling among the Russian military leadership,” and that the Russian defense hierarchy, defense minister Sergei Shoigu and the new head of the Ukraine operation, Valery Gerasimov, were creating a convict resource they could directly control through the ministry’s own private companies. Usov said the ministry had fewer convicts for now but they “will be used in the same way … as cannon fodder,” as Wagner does.
Sevalnev and his unit were dancing at a camp inside of Luhansk in Grainy footage obtained by Gulagu.net. 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.
The convicts spoke of casual mistreatment on and off the battlefield, but Sevalnev’s fate stood out. According to a recording of a call to his wife from a Russian separatist official who arranged the body’s repatriation, his abrupt death was apparently caused by shrapnel injuries.
“No one is being operated on here, no surgeries performed on anyone,” he said. CNN is withholding his name and others for their own safety. People in the hospital walk with bullet wounds and saccato stuck in their legs.
A former soldier before his imprisonment, he also 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 was called 40321 and only 15 survivors were left. He said it was the meat grinder. He told CNN he had been sent back to the frontline, with injuries that weren’t healed.
“I don’t have any complaints, war is war. Some come here, hear the machine gun, and run. It’s not good. He said that they set everyone else up because no one had his back. This soldier was wounded severely in the leg in October, after 25 days on the front, but described how he felt no fear. “In the trench, 2-6 meters from me a shell lands, soil falls down to the trench, but I don’t feel any fear at all. I don’t know why it happens like this with me.”
Nemes Tarimo’s death and the fate of his convicts in Tanzania: a relative of a prisoner accused of drug crimes
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 said 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, portrayed as a lucky returnee. A friend described his zombie-like appearance, heavy drinking and urgent need to return to the front.
The legality of the pardons that are given to convicts is explained by the Kremlin spokesman, who last month said any presidential decrees pardoning prisoners were likely classified. He said there are two types of decrees: open and closed. I can’t say anything about the decrees because of that. I can confirm that the pardoning of prisoners is carried out in 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. His body was returned to Tanzania last month, according to state TV, with the foreign ministry saying in a statement that Tarimo had accepted an offer to fight in return for money and his freedom.
He was obedient as a boy, his cousin told CNN. He wasn’t a scamp, but was a very religious person.” She said that they only heard about his recruitment after he died. “When he was alive, we never heard about this report but now that he’s died we are told he was arrested for drug-related offenses. As a family, it gives a lot of sadness. He didn’t have a desire to become a soldier.
Prigozhin’s comment on the recent Russian invasion of Bakhmut: “I know there are many of them, but what they don’t know”
Prigozhin believes there is enough ammunition supply in Russia, as “the industry has reached the required levels” and can provide for the country’s needs but said he “can’t solve this problem despite all of my acquaintances and connections.”
PrigoMoscow claimed that he was told to “go and apologize to someone that I have a difficult relationship with,” but he didn’t know who that person was.
Russia has come under criticism for its handling of the military operations in Ukraine, and in January the Defence Ministry decided to replace the commanders leading the war.
Prigozhin praised the general for managing a orderly withdrawal of Russian forces in the southern Kherson region last year but he was not pleased with the Ministry of Defense’s larger handling of the situation.
“The Chief of the General Staff and the Minister of Defense are handing out commands right and left, that the Wagner PMC should not receive ammunition, they are also not helping with air transport,” Prigozhin claimed in a recording posted by his press service on Telegram. It can be considered to be high treason when there are many losses of fighters in the war for Bakhmut.
One of the gathering places for the dead was this one, Prigozhin said. These are the guys who died yesterday. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD). There needs to have been more of them. They’ll get their bodies.
Apparently, the message got through to someone. In a message and voice note Thursday, Prigozhin said a shipment of ammunition was now on its way to his forces.
He said that it was reported at 6 am that there was an event that started shipment of ammunition. The main papers for the train have been signed and most likely the train has started moving.
On the emergence of Vladimir Putin in the era of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine: a video message to defenders of the Fatherland Day
His unexpected rise prompted speculation about possible elite infighting in Moscow as Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine sputtered. Shoigu, a top rival of Prigoshkin was involved in a fight with the businessman over military contracts given to and then taken from one of his enterprises.
He even began to acknowledge his role in Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election, admitting that he had founded the Internet Research Agency, the notorious St. Petersburg troll farm that the US government has sanctioned for interfering in American elections.
In a recent recording, Prigozhin criticized unnamed functionaries for having breakfasts, lunch and dinner on golden dishes and sending their daughters, granddaughters, and whoever else they want to vacation inDubai showing no shame at all.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hasn’t been seen in public in years, doesn’t have a clear successor, and some political advisers believe that an upstart might be able to build a power base independent of Putin.
All five state-owned firms are headed by friends of Putin from when he was a KGB agent. In effect, this schema allows Putin’s closest inner circle, through frontmen like Prigozhin, to manage the cartel-like structure that constitutes what many think of today as the Wagner Group.”
Whether the Wagner frontman will retain his usefulness to Putin after such crude public criticism, then, remains to be seen. He’s certainly shown little sign of dialing down his media campaign.
On Thursday, Prigozhin posted a video greeting on his Telegram channel to commemorate the Defenders of the Fatherland Day. In the video, Prigozhin is shown a building in the distance that Wagner fighters claim to have taken close to downtown Bakhmut.