Interviews with former prisoners who fought in Ukraine paint a conflicting picture of former prisoners’ struggles in the ranks of the Wagner forces. On the one hand, the men tell the Reuters news agency about Bahmut’s complete hell, on the other hand, they praise the second chance they got in life.
You were criminal, now you are a hero, says the owner of the Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin For a soldier who returned from Ukraine, on a roof terrace on the shore of the Black Sea. The scene can be seen in a video published by a Russian news site in October, which was filmed in the resort village of Gelendzhik.
It was the first public video showing Wagner mercenaries recruited from prison and who had returned from the Ukrainian front, reports the Reuters news agency. Since then, the news agency has reviewed that video and more than a dozen other videos and images of Wagner soldiers using facial recognition software. The videos were published between October 2022 and February 2023.
By comparing the footage with social media posts and Russian court documents, the news agency identified more than 30 prisoners who had returned from the fighting. In the end, Reuters managed to contact 11 men, five of whom agreed to interviews via phone and messaging services.
The extraordinary interviews paint a picture of how Prigozhin has recruited soldiers from Russian prisons, what the training of mercenaries has been like and how they see the future after returning from the front.
Prigozhin began his prison tour in the summer of 2022 with the aim of strengthening his mercenary army. The promise that Prigozhin would pardon the prisoners who had served in Ukraine for six months quickly ran out.
Four of the men interviewed by Reuters said Prigozhin had recruited them personally. One of the soldiers visible in the roof terrace video, Rustam Borovkov, 31, said he listened to Prigozhin’s recruitment speech along with hundreds of other soldiers. According to him, the men were given three days to think about it, after which about 40 of them decided to take the offer.
Borovkov himself was sure that he would enlist even before Prigozhin got to his prison. According to him, prisoners who wanted to participate were given a lie detector test to screen for drug addicts.
“They explained everything to me”
Another Wagner soldier interviewed by Reuters, 29 years old Jevgeny Kuzhelev, said that the recruitment process had lasted about two weeks, during which the prisoners had been allowed to change their minds without penalty. Based on a video that spread on social media in September, the situation was different: in it, Prigozhin gave prisoners in the Volga region five minutes to make a decision, and said that those who lose their minds will be shot as escapees.
of the United States According to Reuters, by mid-February, Wagner had already suffered losses of more than 30,000 soldiers, including 9,000 dead, most of whom were prisoners. In some estimates perhaps as many as 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers recruited from prisons have died in Ukraine.
In particular, Wagner uses prisoners in Bahmut, whose bloody battles of consumption have been called a meat grinder. One of the interviewees described Bahmut’s battles as “absolute hell”.
Of the five soldiers interviewed by Reuters, four were seriously injured and therefore returned home from Ukraine earlier than planned. Despite this, the interviewees praised their education, and according to some, it had even saved their lives.
The discharged Wagner soldiers say that the training was short – two or three weeks – but intensive, and it was partly organized by veterans of the Russian special forces.
“Everything was organized at the highest level,” said Borovkov, who says he attended the training in the Russian-occupied region of Luhansk. “It wasn’t just about them giving me a machine gun, showing me how to shoot and that’s it. Not at all, they explained everything to me, and in great detail. Minesweeping, demining, tactics, shooting, physical training. All.”
“It was absolutely clear that they were going to die.”
According to those interviewed, most of the prisoners who accepted Prigožin’s offer already had military experience. About the kidnapping doomed Dmitri Jermakovtold Reuters that those recruits who understood the gravity of the situation and asked instructors to repeat the drills were the best equipped for war.
Others hoped to gain their pardon by facing as little war as possible.
“It was absolutely clear that they were going to die,” he said.
Interviewed told of mercenaries who wept and vomited when faced with the reality of war on the Ukrainian front. Despite this, they effusively praised Prigožin, who had given them “a second chance in life”.
Wounded soldiers said they were told that hospital time would count toward their time in service, and they would be pardoned despite being wounded.
“I wish all real men would join Wagner.”
For some of the prisoners, the amnesty was the main reason for going to war. For example, Borovkov said that he wanted to go home to his family and his little child.
Still, the amnesty was not always the main reason, because prisoners who only had a short sentence left joined Wagner’s ranks.
Some of the interviewees told Reuters that they would have gone to Ukraine as volunteers even if they were free men. Some speeches convey a warlike spirit.
“It was unbelievable”, Andrei Jastrebov, 22, told Reuters. “So much adrenaline. I wish all real men would join Wagner.”
All The men interviewed by Reuters also saw their future in Wagner’s ranks, or at least considered it. The lure was the salary.
Some wanted to return to the front, others to become mercenaries in Africa or the Middle East. According to the men, Wagner has also promised support roles to those who have been wounded so permanently that they can no longer be hired as actual soldiers.
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