Members of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group have released another disturbing video apparently showing the second sledgehammer execution of what they say is a captured defector.
The clip posted in the private army’s semi-official Telegram channel over the weekend comes around three months after Wagner publicized the violent end of Yevgeny Nuzhin, a former prisoner recruited into the group who then turned against Russia.
The new video eerily echoes the Nuzhin footage. The clip allegedly shows Dmitry Yakushchenko, a convict from Russian-occupied Crimea who joined Wagner while serving a 19-year prison sentence for robbery and murder. “Through the chance given to him for liberation and atonement for sins, he ended up in the Wagner Group,” the Telegram post reads.
It adds that Yakushchenko “escaped to the side of the enemy,” after being sent to fight in Ukraine. While in the captivity of Kyiv’s soldiers, he gave an interview to local media which was widely shared in November.
The new video opens with a clip from that interview, in which Yakushchenko discusses how he only agreed to fight for Russia to “find any kind of loophole” to escape his imprisonment.
The video then cuts to a shot of Yakushchenko in a dark room, his head taped to concrete blocks on the wall. Behind him, a man in camouflage fatigues can be seen holding a sledgehammer. “I went to the front as part of Wagner Group,” Yakushchenko says, according to Meduza. “While on the front line, I realized that this isn’t my war. Today, I was on the streets of Dnipro, where I was hit in the head and lost consciousness. When I came to, I was in this room—where they told me I was going to be put on trial.”
The screen then goes blurry as Yakushchenko is apparently struck in the head with the hammer, receiving further blows as he collapses to the ground.
The caption under the video said Yakushchenko “fell ill with the same disease” as Nuzhin, “from which you lose consciousness in the cities of Ukraine [...] and then you wake up in the basement at your last court session.”
Independent Russian outlet Agentstvo reports that it’s likely that Yakushchenko was in fact returned into the hands of Russian authorities in a Dec. 1 prisoner swap. MediaZona journalist Dave Frenkel also questioned if Yakushchenko is really being killed in the clip.
Despite the theatrics, it appears skeptics may have been right. On Monday, a second video of Yakushchenko was released. In it, he says he was ashamed to have been taken captive by Ukrainian forces, but he was ultimately able to provide Moscow with information which saved lives.
“For that reason I’ve been forgiven, for which I’m extremely grateful,” Yakushchenko says in the footage. It’s left unclear what happened to him, though it’s possible that his execution was deliberately staged in order to cast doubt on Nuzhin’s much more realistic-appearing death video.
When asked to confirm the authenticity of Yakushchenko’s execution, Putin ally and Wagner founger Yevgeny Prigozhin was quoted by his press service on Monday giving an odd answer making reference to Soviet war and spy dramas. He added that the journalist asking about the execution clip shouldn’t “take everything so sadly,” pointing out that: “Children are having fun.” “Know that good will always triumph over evil,” Prigozhin added.
Over the weekend, reports emerged that Russian state media outlets have received a directive in recent weeks to avoid excessively promoting Prigozhin or his mercenary group. Pro-Putin TV pundit Sergei Markov told the New York Times: “They apparently don’t want to bring him into the political sphere because he’s so unpredictable—they fear him a little bit.”
Regardless of the Kremlin’s fluctuating sentiments towards Wagner, sledgehammers have become something of a sick symbol for the mercenary group and the invasion of Ukraine more generally. Following the release of Nuzhin’s execution video in November, Wagner reportedly sent a bloodied sledgehammer to the European Parliament to protest being labeled a terrorist organization.
In December, a group of masked men threw sledgehammers at the Finnish embassy in Moscow and last month Russian nationalist lawmaker Sergei Mironov posed with a sledgehammer engraved with a pile of skulls. “This is a useful tool,” Mironov said after sharing the photo online. “With its help, we will put a dent in the Nazi ideology that aims to destroy our country.”