As convicted murderers and rapists quickly become Russia’s new “heroes” on the battlefield in Ukraine, captured members of the notorious Wagner Group say they’ve been stiffed on payment and witnessed public executions on the frontline.
“Those who disobey are eliminated—and it’s done publicly,” Yevgeny Novikov, a former inmate recruited by Wagner, told Polygon Media and the independent outlet Mozhem Obyasnit in a new report out Tuesday. Citing recorded interviews the ex-Wagner fighters gave Ukrainian authorities, the publications said they independently verified the men’s identities.
The men’s accounts come as pro-Kremlin military bloggers lavish the mercenary group with praise for a major assault on the Ukrainian town of Soledar in the Donetsk region, where British intelligence says Russia now controls a large chunk of territory.
“It is the ‘musicians’ who are freeing these cities,” one popular pro-war Telegram channel wrote, using a popular nickname for Wagner. “The result speaks for itself and you just have to give them their due.”
Former inmates say the reality is not so heroic.
“There are squadrons of liquidators there made up of [members of assault teams]. … Shelling began, one of the prisoners laid down and didn’t cover his own [men]. The shelling stopped, he went back, and the higher-up shouted to him: ‘Why didn’t you go forward?’ And they killed him. The higher-up is killed if his team deserts,” Novikov was quoted saying.
Another former inmate identified as Alexander Drozdov, who was serving a sentence for attempted murder, said the majority of the prisoners in Wagner’s ranks are “completely insane” inmates freed from lengthy terms for drug offenses.
They “are very different from ordinary mercenaries, they are just fucked up and bulldoze their way through,” Drozdov said.
According to him, the mercenary group makes clear distinctions between the prisoners and professional mercenaries, making the two groups wear separate uniforms, while those “with HIV have their own signs of ‘distinction’—a red bracelet on their arm.”
While Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has talked up the prisoners-turned-mercenaries as “patriots” and “heroes,” one inmate said the group made it clear to prisoners that they were forbidden from aligning themselves with the private army.
“You’re not Wagner, you’re a project, don’t even call yourself [Wagner]. Because you are just a project,” inmate Sergei Vershchagin was quoted saying.
Vereshchagin said he was recruited and sent to fight in Soledar after Wagner recruited him while he was serving time for a double homicide.
“They didn’t pay me any money,” he told Mozhem Obyasnit.
The deranged scheme to pump up Russia’s war machine using inmates considered “disposable” has resulted in heavy losses among the freed prisoners, with The Insider citing public data in early November to report more than 500 dead in just two months. But perhaps that’s exactly what the Kremlin is counting on.
Ukrainian intelligence said back in September that they believe Russia will “eliminate all the prisoner-mercenaries in one way or another” once they finish their battlefield stints. Prigozhin has already made a show of sending off the first groups of inmates who completed their contracts with Wagner, though many of them said they intended to sign up for another round.
Drozdov, the inmate, said the deaths among the ranks of Wagner’s assault teams were “absolutely gigantic.”
While the Kremlin has largely played dumb about Wagner’s activities in Ukraine, it seems the Russian leader was on board with Prigozhin’s prison-recruiting scheme all along: Members in the first group of inmates recruited to fight were freed from prison before they ever even set foot on the battlefield, thanks to a “secret” decree from Vladimir Putin, Eva Merkacheva, a member of Russia’s Human Rights Council, told RIA Novosti on Monday.
The group is now apparently on the hunt for fresh recruits as they seek reinforcements to help Russia take the Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut.
Olga Romanova, the head of the human rights group Russia Behind Bars, said this week that Wagner has launched recruiting efforts at prisons in Chechnya, according to local media.
“Up until last week we would say that Wagner is everywhere except Chechnya. They bypassed Chechnya. Now Wagner is everywhere, including Chechnya. They made a deal with [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov,” Romanova said.
She said the fresh recruitment drive came after a long pause prompted by inmates fleeing the frontline and turning themselves into Ukrainian authorities. When the number of deserters began to skyrocket, a Telegram channel linked to Wagner released video footage of the brutal sledgehammer execution of former inmate Yevgeny Nuzhin, who went against the group after winding up in Ukrainian hands.
Since then, according to Romanova, would-be recruits are shown videos of other executions so they know how the group deals with “traitors.”
The group appears to be using the same tactics to recruit ordinary Russians elsewhere. Several residents of St. Petersburg—Prigozhin’s hometown and the site of the group’s first official headquarters—told the outlet Vot Tak they had received cold calls from the shadow army urging them to join.
A 23-year-old man identified only as Artyom told the publication he received a call from someone who said he was representing Wagner and told him “we have a holy war against fascists and faggots.”
After Artyom made clear he wasn’t interested, the man reportedly grew frustrated, saying, “The Wagner Center in St. Petersburg is located at 15 Zolnaya Street. If you want to repay your homeland or help in some way, come—we won’t hurt you.”
“Nobody’s threatening you, but keep in mind we live in the same city.”