They talk tough. They look tough. But Russia’s “elite” mercenary prisoner force wants to go back to jail. And they’re getting executed for it.
The convicted rapists, drug dealers and murderers are cold, hungry and unpaid. And they’re keen to tell their Ukrainian captors about their former employer’s public executions.
“Those who disobey are eliminated – and it’s done publicly,” one captive claimed earlier this week.
The prisoners are supposed to be the Kremlin’s saviours. State-controlled media is lavishing rising star Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group with praise.
Touted as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal chef, Prigozhin’s been brazenly criticising his political opponents for their Ukraine war failures.
He’s been pointing to his private’s army’s performance as an example of core Russian values.
But they’ve not been as tough as expected.
Despite being heaped with Russia’s best remaining tanks and combat aircraft, the mercenaries have reportedly taken heavy casualties in their attempt to seize the salt mining town of Soledar.
Not all of them were by Ukraine.
“There are squadrons of liquidators … Shelling began. One of the prisoners laid down and didn’t cover his own men. The shelling stopped, he went back, and the boss shouted: ‘Why didn’t you go forward?’ And they killed him. The boss is killed if his team deserts,” the former inmate reportedly said.
According to the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), some prisoner-mercenaries are appealing to human rights organisations to be returned to jail.
“Losses in so-called meat grinder assaults are said to be enormous, especially among convicts whose role is to reveal Ukrainian positions by advancing to draw their fire,” Russian propaganda analyst Kseniya Kirillova writes.
Putin’s shock troops
Prigozhin is apparently proud of his prisoner stormtroopers. He was reportedly jailed in the 1980s for “attempted burglary”.
His recruiting tours of Russia’s most notorious prisons have been televised. He promises good pay, pardons – and participation in a “holy war against fascists and f***ots”.
Wagner’s social media videos emphasise the prisoner-recruits’ tough-guy reputations and laud them as “patriots” and “heroes”.
But once on the front line, things change.
Prisoners of war taken from around the Bakhmut battlefield are telling their captors of conditions within Wagner’s jailbird squads.
“There were 107 of us in total,” one POW said.
“Everyone was loaded into IL-76, and soon we were in Luhansk. No units. No companies. No formations. They unloaded it and said: ‘You are not Wagner at all. You are a project. Don’t even call yourself soldiers because you are just a project.’”
The prisoners are given different uniforms to regular Wagner mercenaries. Those with HIV are tagged with red bracelets. Rapists and paedophiles are assigned to separate squads. All are provided only the most basic equipment.
Then they’re trucked to the front lines.
“[They] are very different from ordinary mercenaries. They are just f***ed up and bulldoze their way through,” the captive said.
“They told us: ‘A step back is f***ed up. We only go forward.’ That’s why I didn’t go back, because they would have f***ed me.”
“Thousands of their people were lost: The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told his people this week.
“This is what madness looks like.”
It came as Prigozhin proclaimed his mercenaries had captured the village of Soledar on the outskirts of Bakhmut, Donetsk.
“I want to emphasise that no units other than the Wagner fighters took part in the assault on Soledar,” he said.
That’s the message of personal success in the face of bureaucratic incompetence Prigozhin has been pushing for months.
“Why is Wagner so successful? More successful than even the Russian army?” Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov posted to Telegram shortly afterwards.
“Prigozhin’s criminal past is a plus now because world politics is criminalised.”
Russia’s Ministry of Defence, however, disagreed.
It reported its airborne troops were leading the assault on Soledar. And that the fighting was ongoing.
But Prigozhin has suffered a political setback.
His personal choice of overall military commander for the Ukraine war, General “Armageddon” Sergey Surovikin, has been sidelined after just three months. Now the Russian President has installed the more moderate Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov in the role.
A US military official told media on Tuesday that prisoners were being used by Russia to “take the brunt” of Ukrainian fire on the front lines to clear a path for “better-trained forces”.
The tactic appears to have been working, though with horrendous losses.
Price of victory
The Ukrainian President conceded his army’s attempt to recapture the Donetsk region has been halted.
“Everything is completely destroyed. There is almost no life left,” he said of the situation in Soledar.
But there are reports of roaming squads of Wagner troops shooting any Russian prisoner not where they’re supposed to be, or not fighting with sufficient enthusiasm.
“In order to maintain control of the situation, the Russian military leadership has increased the number of patrols to detain and return deserters to the units,” a Ukrainian armed forces operations report reads.
“Unsurprisingly, morale among the group’s soldiers is falling,” the CEPA report reads.
It quotes Russian prisoner rights activist Vladimir Osechkin as saying stories of reprisals against “rebels” within Wagner’s ranks are spreading.
“The fact they have resorted to such a serious level of force within their structure is testimony that no other form of motivation is working,” he said.
And accounts of their behaviour continue to surface.
“In the first assault, I was the second group. There were two people there who were just scared. Artillery worked. They were frightened – their first time in the war. And then these two were ‘nullified’ at the base,” a former prisoner called Izmailov told Ukrainian media.
“They were digging their own grave. They were simply shot and buried.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel