Russian propaganda is almost the only working tool of Putin’s regime. Some argue that sanctions do nothing to stop Russia, but only help to destroy the “rotting West”. Others focus on intimidation, rattling off either nuclear weapons or hellfire. And others complain that Russian culture is banned worldwide: Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and so on. But as we see ourselves, in today’s Russia we hear completely different music and very different orchestras.
PMC Wagner, or as they call it – “the orchestra”, increasingly captures the attention of the Russian regular army, both on the battlefield and in Media. Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, does not even stand close in popularity and media presence to the founder of PMC Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin. And on the 26th of January, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is taking additional actions to degrade the Russian Federation’s capacity to wage war against Ukraine by sanctioning eight individuals and 16 entities, and four aircraft, sanctioning Wagner Group as a Transnational Criminal Organization.
What is PMC Wagner, where did it come from and how did Prigozhin become the most famous “conductor” in Russia – read this article.
Chapter one. Maestro and convicts
The name Eugene Prigozhin is on everyone’s lips today. Those who did not know him – finally recognized him when a Youtube video appeared online of a man who looked very much like Prigozhin, recruiting convicts for the war with Ukraine. Evgeny Prigozhin, or as he is called “Putin’s Cook,” is wanted by the FBI, owns several restaurants and retail food businesses, companies that build business-class housing complexes. In addition, Prigozhin owns other assets. For example, companies servicing the Defense Ministry, pro-Kremlin Media, and the infamous “troll factory” that spreads disinformation through countless bots, both live and automated.
While the USSR lasted, Prigozhin was convicted and spent considerable time in prison. On November 29, 1979, the Kuibyshev Court in Leningrad sentenced him to 2 years probation under the article for theft. In 1981 the Zhdanovsky Court in Leningrad(now Saint-Petersburg) sentenced him to 13 years in prison under articles of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR “theft”, “robbery”, “fraud”, “involving a minor in criminal activity”. He was pardoned in 1988 and released from the penal colony in 1990.
According to the Bellingcat investigation, in 2019, it was possible to find evidence of the connection of Prigozhin’s operations with the Ministry of Defense of Russia and the GRU.
In September 2022, Prigozhin officially admitted that he created the Wagner PMC. He also confirmed that his mercenaries participated in many military campaigns, including one in Ukraine. According to Prigozhin, he has long avoided admitting ties with the group so as not to frame its members, whom he called “the foundation of Russian patriotism” (from an article by Radio Liberty).
In the mid-summer of 2022, reports began to appear about the recruitment of prisoners to the “Wagner Group”. On September 14, a video appeared in Telegram (social media platform) channels, with Prigozhin, speaking to the prisoners, convincing them to join the “Wagner PMC” and take part in combat operations.
“I need only stormtroopers… Those who move forward are the most vigorous, they are the ones who survive.” A video of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s speech to prisoners in one of the colonies, who are invited to the war zone, has appeared.
The next day, RTVI journalists received a comment from the press service of the Concorde company, which unequivocally confirmed his personal involvement:
“You are absolutely correct in pointing out <…> that the man in the video has a very well-put speech, just like Yevgeny Viktorovich. And a man who looks like Yevgeny Viktorovich, very clearly explains simple, understandable things to ordinary people”.
The same video and article also shows the main motivation – a guaranteed release from custody in six months:
“In six months, you`ll go home with a pardon. Those who want to stay with us – stay with us. So there is no option to go back to prison. Those who decide to take part and on the first day say, ‘I got it all wrong,’ we mark them as ‘deserters’ and then a firing squad follows. <…> Do you have anybody who can get you out of prison with a ten-year sentence? What do you think? Two people can get you out. It’s Allah and God – in a wooden box. And I take you alive. But I don’t always bring you back alive.
On September 16, Prigozhin personally confirmed the recruitment, responding to outraged comments about the release of prisoners for serious and violent crimes:
“Those who do not want PMCs, prisoners to fight, who argue on this subject, who do not want to do anything and do not like this topic, send your children to the front. Either PMCs and convicts, or your children – it’s up to you.”
However, judging by the mobilization, which was announced in 5 days, it was decided that both would participate.
There are known cases of murders of defecting prisoners, the most high-profile being that of Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was executed with a sledgehammer, as reported by the Wagner channel Grey Zone on November 12.
•The hummer of revenge•
The video (has scenes of a violent nature) shows former Wagner Group member Evgeny Nuzhin, who escaped from the frontline and voluntarily surrendered to the Ukrainian military on September 4, 2022. In captivity, he immediately began to surrender all the facts that he knew, as well as in passing accusations that in fact did not exist, thereby hoping to get leniency from the Ukrainian side.
And they seemed to believe him, for example, on October 12, 2022 he even gave an interview to their media, saying that he wanted to fight for Ukraine, and judging by the feedback in the comments, even the Ukrainian viewers believed in his sincerity.
But here, apparently, only not in the “Wagner”, because anyone who is approximately on the subject knows that the sledgehammer and the traitors have a close connection for the “orchestra”. And so, having disappeared suddenly from under investigation in Kiev, the traitor received their traditional Wagnerian punishment.
Prigozhin, in his typical style, confirmed and cynically commented on the execution video:
“I prefer to watch history novels in the theater. As for the sledge-hammered, this show suggests that he did not find happiness in Ukraine, but met with unkind but fair people. I think this movie is called “To a dog, dog’s death.” It’s a great director’s work, it’s easy to watch in the same breath. I hope no animals were harmed during the filming.”
In the interview for which Nuzhin was executed, he also mentioned shootings and executions, even for verbal altercations with the command.
In a big interview with the Moscow media msk1.ru, the coordinator of the human rights center “Russia Imprisoned” claims that when the employees of the “Wagner Group” arrive to the colony, they cut off communication, ban visits with relatives or a formal quarantine is introduced in connection with COVID-19. The colony’s management ignores journalists’ questions about the recruitment of prisoners and the actual violation, which may be qualified under the Criminal Code article “Mercenarism”.
The legal situation became clear only on January 9, 2023, when the pro-Kremlin RIA Novosti newspaper reported from the words of Merkacheva, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council:
The prisoners involved in the special operation were released before they were taken out of the colony, but the pardon procedure was a state secret, Merkacheva, a member of the HRC, told RIA News.
She said that relatives of the prisoners reported that they have all the documents confirming their release. But the decrees themselves are closed – because of state secrets.
That right, legally it is drawn up as a presidential decree of pardon. But in this case it is classified and recognized as a state secret. Legally, those released cease to be prisoners from the moment they leave the colony. This makes it possible to avoid formal responsibility of the colony’s administration for their further fate.
At the end of December, the first prisoners started to return to Russia. One even received The State award from the hands of Putin:
This is Hayk Gasparyan, convicted of robbery.
Telegram channels, including those associated with Wagner, referred to Hayk Gasparyan as “the first former prisoner to receive a State award”. In November 2020, the Nagatinsky District Court of Moscow indeed sentenced a certain Hayk Arsenovich Gasparyan to seven years in a strict regime prison for robbery.
From the court materials, Gasparyan together with an accomplice, attacked a man in a cafe on the territory of the Embassy of Kyrgyzstan and tried to steal three hundred thousand rubles (5600 cad). Gasparyan used pepper spray, while his accomplice shot from a traumatic pistol, hitting the victim in the eye.
Read more in the article on 161.ru
The social media “Rotunda” identified some of the inmates from the latest wave of releases:
- Ivan Anurin, 30, from St. Petersburg, who was serving time for two robberies
- Alexander Nikitin, 33, from the Leningrad region, four times convicted of theft and robbery
- Vitali Gorbunovich, 42 of St. Petersburg, was convicted of robberies and thefts six times
- Rail Khusainov, 35, from Naberezhnye Chelny, convicted of selling drugs
“Current time,” “The Agency,” and the BBC Russian Service also name many names from the first wave. Read more in the article.
This causes serious concern that former recidivist prisoners, with an uprising experience with weapons and direct participation in the war, will start to massively return to Russian cities in big streams and the recruitment had been going on for months. Although the survival rate of prisoners in the Wagner group is absolutely minimal, since they are used as assault troops and thrown on the fortified defence lines of Ukrainian soldiers, the few that make it to Russian cities pose a great danger to everyone around them.
This is also understood by the regional police, who comment on the events at press conferences:
I just want to say: a federal law has established appropriate supervision of citizens who fall within the hallmarks of threatening behavior. They will be no different from all other citizens who have previously transgressed the law and are under the appropriate administrative supervision of the internal affairs agencies.
Chapter Two. The First World Tour.
The first military operation of the Wagner Group is considered to be the invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In 2017, this was officially confirmed by the Security Service of Ukraine. A squad under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry Uktin took part in the battles in Donbas region. According to the Security Service of Ukraine, the squad was involved in the shootdown of the IL-76 plane in Luhansk, the storming of Luhansk airport and the fighting in Debaltsev. There were 1,570 names and identities of Wagner PMC fighters identified, including those who died on the territory of Ukraine.
The name “Wagner” goes back to the call sign of the founder of the Donbas group, Dmitry Utkin, who has been its formal founder since 2014.
Alexander Zlodeev, a former group member, fled to France, gave an interview to Gulagu.net media.
According to Zlodeev, when he first signed a contract with the PMC, there were two structures inside: military and administrative. The formation did not yet bear the name of the Wagner PMC, the mercenaries signed a contract with a company registered in the Moscow region. “They were paid in cash while you were at the training ground, paid 60,000 rubles (~1120 cad, a relatively big paycheck for most Russians),- explains Zlodeyev. – If you were on a business trip, it was 130,000 to 150,000 (2800 cad).” The salaries came from the GRU (The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation). Initially, there were about 200 men in the formation, but later it grew to 1,500 fighters, says the ex-Vagnerovets.
PMC received equipment, weapons and ammunition in the military units of the Ministry of Defense. Including the base of the tenth separate Special Forces brigade in the M/U 51532, said Zlodeev. The headquarters, camp and center of combat training of the PMCs were located in the adjacent areas of this military base.
Full transcript, as well as links to the video, can be found in the article by The Insider.
The Wagner Group’s Syrian campaign began in 2015, with fighters mainly acting as assault infantry to seize and hold oil fields, supported by artillery and the Russian Army Air Force.
You can read more in Wagner commanders’ interview for Radio Liberty. We will pay attention to two particularly high-profile cases in the Syrian campaign.
The first is the 2017 assassination of Mohammed Taha Ismail al-Abdullah. A defector from Assad’s government army, who was captured and particularly brutally executed by members of the Wagner Group. Novaya Gazeta journalists, together with Conflict Intelligence Team analysts, studied the footage in detail and identified the participants. A retelling and links to the original investigation are available at lenta.ru.
Another one is dated February 7, 2018. Several units of the Wagner PMC that took part in the clash near the city of Hasham (Deir Ez-Zor province) suffered significant losses after being hit by artillery and the US Air Force. The formation existed in a “gray area,” so it could afford both bloody brutality and open clashes with NATO countries.
After the capturing of Palmyra, where the Wagner Group was directly involved, the relationship between the defence minister and self-named PMC owner Prigozhin spoiled significantly. According to Zlodeev, “everything was cut off, it became very bad,” including the supply deterioration. This happened because Vladimir Putin praised Prigozhin for his achievements in Syria, and Sergei Shoigu(The Minister of Defence of Russian Federation) did not like this.
That conflict led to the losses of the Wagner PMC near Hasham, where the gas fields were situated, in 2018, says Zlodeyev. “Then the PMC fighters crossed the river and started taking over the oil fields. The NATO military called the Ministry of Defense and asked, “Is that yours?” And the Defense Ministry replied: “No, not ours”. And the Wagner PMC troops came under fire”, – says Zlodeyev.
According to an investigation by the TV channel “Current Time” based on documents from the Security Service of Ukraine, M-Finance LLC, affiliated with Evgeny Prigozhin, paid the salaries to military specialists sent to the Central African Republic. Russian authorities officially acknowledged sending Russians to the CAR in March 2018. They said then that five military and 170 Russian civilian instructors had been sent to the CAR to train local troops. On May 3, 2022, Human Rights Watch published a report that Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group were involved in the killing and torture of civilians in the Central African Republic.In January 2019, Novaya Gazeta published the materials of an investigation conducted by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Dossier Center. According to these investigations, the local driver of Russian journalists, Bienvenu Duvokama, was connected to Emmanuel Cotofio, a former employee of the CAR gendarmerie. Cotofio, on the other hand, was linked to Russian citizen Alexander Sotov, related to the Wagner Group back then. On July 30, 2019, the Dossier Center published the final report of its own investigation. This and many other irrefutable evidence, show not only the physical presence of the Wagner PMC in CAR but also the numerous atrocities committed by members of the group.
Chapter Three. Musicians.
According to Vladimir Putin, one of the goals of military aggression is the denazification of Ukraine. So it’s more terrifying to study those who, according to propaganda, “fight the Nazis,” but in fact are adherents of the ultra-right ideology.
Here is a photo of Dmitriy Utkin with Nazi tattoos on his body
Utkin’s love of Nazi ideology is evidenced by his fellow servicemen’s comments in an interview with the Wagner group commander for Radio Liberty (link above)
“Wagner in general is a tough man, not a slacker, – says one of the PMC commanders. – He came to the positions near Palmyra, undressed, he had a German swastika on his arm [shoulder], a tattoo. He has a helmet with horns. He is a Rodnover [native-born].”
Dmitri Utkin’s war name itself, “Wagner,” goes back to the name of Hitler’s favorite composer. Pagan attributes, runes and symbols, in general, have become a distinctive feature of the Wagner group. As have other closely affiliated paramilitary groups of ultra right views, such as the Sabotage Assault Reconnaissance Group (DShRG) “Rusich”, who are also open neo-Nazis and take part in the invasion of Ukraine.
Both Alexei Milchakov, the leader of the Rusichi, and Dmitry Utkin, the commander of the Wagner group, served in the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division of the Airborne Troops.
Read more in the informnapalm article.
In general, the presence of ultra-right-wing people in such units is not surprising. Such ideological beliefs are spread through many “gray field” paramilitary formations. Surprisingly, it is indeed Vladimir Putin’s weapon of choice in his “denazification”.
For example, here is a photo from 2016 from an official event with Putin. As you can see, Wagner commanders were awarded for their participation in military actions in Ukraine in 2014.
In September 2022, a former mercenary of the Wagner PMC Marat Gabidullin, who now lives in France and opposes the war in Ukraine, gave an interview to Radio Liberty. There he comments on the events in Syria and the situation in the units:
The realization began in 2018. On the morning of February 8, we had a battle for the “Konica” factory in the province east of the Euphrates. There were orders to take control of the plant. We didn’t succeed, the Americans “smeared” us, and we lost a lot of guys. That was the first time I wondered: why did it happen, why were we thrown into the fire? There was a sweep in the town of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Here I understood that we were fighting for the slaves and the power of Bashar al-Assad, killing the people of Syria.
“The Wagner PMC is not subject to any laws so anything can happen there. Yes, you can get beaten. You can get locked in an iron container. In winter or summer, it makes no difference. And it doesn’t matter whether a person has broken something or not. They didn’t touch me. I saw a guy get beaten up badly. He wasn’t guilty of anything. Yes, that was the practice. Such people there, there’s no other way to deal with them. “PMC Wagner” works by the rules of organized crime, just like Russia.
And funding issues, which “everyone understands,” but it’s helpful to get confirmation directly from the participants:
— Did you know who was paying you?
— Wagner is considered a “private military company,” but in fact it is not private at all, it is state-owned. This is money that you and I earned. It’s your money, it’s my mother’s money, my wife’s money. There’s no private investment there. They don’t feel sorry for the money, so they pay a lot of it. They may steal some of that money, but they don’t feel sorry for it either.
— Why do you sound so confident? What is the basis of your assertion?
— I was part of the command corps and worked in the office and a lot of paperwork went through me. You don’t have to be a gifted mathematician here. Prigozhin is not Abramovich or Potanin, he doesn’t own an oil company. His income would not be enough to support the PMC. It is solely budget money.
The very location of the Wagner Group’s base, literally 1.5 kilometers from the military unit near Molkino farm in Krasnodar Krai, confirms the involvement of the Russian Ministry of Defense in its financing. (Author’s note)
All these bases are quite close to the cities: 9.8 km from Adygeisk (a small town of about 12k people) and 25 km from the suburbs of Krasnodar (megalopolis with 1.2 million people).
Chapter Four. Critics’ reviews.
In the summer of 2022, an active media campaign aimed at heroizing and PR of the Wagner group began.
Billboards with the text “The Orchestra “W” awaits you!” began to appear on the streets of Russian cities.
The media also mentioned banners on the streets of Yekaterinburg, Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar and other cities. “The Orchestra W awaits you. For the sake and greatness of Russia”
Some regional media have published ads about how to get into the PMCs, the large salaries by Russian standards, social guarantees, and career-oriented team. It is claimed that in order to join, it is enough to call a specified number, give your name, age, number and date of the estimated arrival at the main base for training – a farm Molkino in Krasnodar Territory. Read more in the article “Volgograd citizens are invited to become “musicians” of the company “Wagner” for 240 thousand rubles per month” on the website V1.ru.
Of course, all ads do not mention the participation in an illegal armed formation. The legal status of regular army soldiers is regulated by international conventions. Whereas mercenaries are not protected or regulated by any of these conventions. The mere fact is that when a mercenary takes a gun in his hand – he commits a crime. And now the Russian government turns a blind eye to this, relying on various PMCs in a nearly lost war with Ukraine and common sense. This does not negate the fact that PMC fighters do not have any legal status. Even in Putin’s Russia there were precedents. For example, immediately after their arrival in Russia, the members of the PMC Slavic Corps (the actual ancestor of the Wagner PMC) were arrested on charges of mercenarism, and were convicted under Article 359 of the Criminal Code. Read more in this article of the Fontanka.
The symbol of the Wagner group, in general and of their incredible cruelty in particular, was the sledgehammer. After the publicized case of Evgeny Nuzhin’s extrajudicial execution, Prigozhin decided to make it his own “brand” instead of denying it.
On November 23, 2022, the press service of Concord published a video with an alleged “gift to the European Parliament,” where in a violin case (a reference to the “musicians”) there was a sledgehammer with fake blood traces and an engraved logo of “PMC Wagner” on it.
Prigozhin also published an appropriate New Year’s greeting:
On December 20th, a group of unknown persons threw sledgehammers at the Embassy of Finland. But it is not just sledgehammers that Prigozhin’s PR companies are known for; they also have their own artists and songs.
One of them is Viktoria Tsyganova, performing a song called “Wagner”. This song has become an unofficial anthem and was performed, for example, by the choir of the infamous Sima-Land company, known for its blatantly fascist-like militaristic actions.
And of course, the Kremlin concert “Hello, Land of Heroes” could not do without this performer, whose repertoire already includes several songs dedicated to the Wagner PMC and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in general. Her name is mentioned in the announcement on the site of the State Kremlin Palace
Akim Apachev’s songs, especially the most popular “Summer and Crossbows,” also gather their millions of views and listens
It should be noted here that it is difficult to validate the lack of cheating on Youtube views, because Prigozhin’s boto-farmers clearly do not miss a moment to promote the popularity of songs about their organization. This is just the tip of the iceberg, because apparently, there are entire selections of popular songs that glorify and heroize the Wagner Group.
The Wagner Group receives media support from political figures, such as Kursk Oblast Governor Roman Starovoit, who spoke in his Telegram channel on January 8 about his visit to the training camp where the Wagner PMC mercenaries train mobilized soldiers:
The first week of the new year with my colleagues from the administration of the Kursk region and Kursk citizens from the voluntary people’s squadron, trained in the camp of PMC “Wagner”. Surrounded by real men – patriots of Russia.
Already hundreds of Kursk citizens, here and at sites in our region, have been trained and will be able to defend their homeland and support our army in case of need.
Wagner’s group is also represented in the popular Russian social network “Vkontakte,” where they have an official group where they periodically post announcements about recruitment, telling how to get there and what the criteria are.
Vacancies in PMC Wagner / Job / Courses / PMC post is pinned
3 Jun 2022
How to get in the PMC Wagner, what is in the army, what jobs, what employees are given out of the equipment, social guarantees.
If you have balls of steel and you are ready to go, write on WhatsApp/Telegram.
Monetary remuneration from 240 thousand (4500 cad).
Also, advertisements inviting new mercenaries are posted on various social media. They lead to the same page and are displayed in the feed for users.
Vacancies in PMC Wagner / Job / Courses / PMC
Wanted to get in a good squad? Job for all military specialties.
Perhaps the main media coverage of the Wagner group’s activities is provided by their associated Telegram channels:
The “Reverse side of the medal” channel is the closest to the mercenaries of the Wagner group, they put its emblem on the military equipment in Syria:
Also, the so-called “war correspondents,” a group of pro-Kremlin military journalists who quickly gained popularity for their coverage of Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, write about Wagner’s mercenaries on a regular basis.
The Russian film industry did not skirt the task of glorifying the mercenaries of the Wagner Group either. On October 6, the film “The Best in Hell” was released, which can be easily seen in the film library of the #1 TV Channel with a direct mention of Yevgeny Prigozhin as the producer and screenwriter:
In addition, these films have been released:
- The Tourist (2021).
- Solntsek [Sunshine] (2021).
- PMC Wagner. Contract with Homeland (November 11, 2022)
And most importantly. On November 4, the PMC Wagner Center opened in the heart of St. Petersburg. The website (opens only from Russian IP addresses) presents the division and mission:
Today we break stereotypes. We know how to be the best. And from now, we are building the future together. Do you have any ideas for improving the defence capability and development of our state? We are waiting for your suggestions.
And a brief description of what the residents should do is also given:
“PMC Wagner Center” is a complex of buildings with free accommodation for inventors, designers, IT specialists, experimental production and startup spaces. The mission of the Wagner Center PMC is to provide a comfortable environment for generating new ideas to improve Russia’s defence capabilities, including information security.
It is suggested to send a resident questionnaire, and a free office is promised.
On November 26, the center hosted a meeting with pro-Russian activists from Serbia, as reported by the RIA FAN news agency Prigozhin
Serbian activists visited PMC Wagner Center in St. Petersburg
26 November 2022 23:03
Prominent public figures from Serbia visited the PMC Wagner Center at the invitation of St. Petersburg to see with their own eyes the achievement of the famous organization. They also talked to journalists and spoke about their vision for the development of PMC.
Head of the Russian-Serbian center “Eagles”
We can assume that the establishment of non-state relations between the controlled structures will be part of the Kremlin’s new strategy to promote its interests outside Russia.
Chapter Five. Conclusions
The role and weight of Prigozhin and his PMCs increased significantly in 2022. However, it remains a minor player within the Russian political system. The governors of border regions quietly refuse Prigozhin the allocation of areas for constructing his “defence lines”. And Prigozhin mocks these governors at his convenience on social media.
The governor of St. Petersburg, though, with whom Prigozhin has a long-standing personal enmity, feels at ease in his position and is not affected in any way by his attacks. Read more in this long Radio Liberty story.
In addition, Prigozhin has long been a headache for certain generals of the Defense Ministry because of his aggressive criticism of the Army in Prigozhin’s media.
The size of his own army is at most 50,000 men, 80% of whom are newly recruited prisoners (according to John Kirby, from a DW article). This is roughly equal to the size of one FSO, Putin’s personal security service. Not to mention the Ros Gvardiya (National Guard of Russia), the Interior Ministry, the FSB, and other security agencies. In addition, technical support for the Prigozhins’ soldiers remains on funding from the Defense Ministry, and thus can easily be cut if necessary.
Nevertheless, the activities of the Wagner group are absolutely criminal, from recruitment to participation in wars. Especially now, when the war in Ukraine still remains devastating and horrible for the Ukrainian people.
We urge that the participation of the Wagner Group in this war have to be considered mercenarism, as defined in the “International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries“, adopted at the UN General Assembly and ratified by Ukraine.
Participation in an illegal armed formation must itself be criminalized, and its participants must be prosecuted both abroad and in Russia, when Putin’s regime inevitably ends.
We believe that evil must be punished so that it never happens again.