This article was originally published on 23 November 2022. It is being repromoted in light of recent questions being asked about Russian oligarch and founder of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Here Ido Vock looks at Wagner’s transition from a gang of mercenaries to a gang affiliated with the Russian army that has its own political wing.
BERLIN – In September a 55-year-old Russian named Yevgeny Nuzhin appeared in a video published online by Yuri Butusov, a Ukrainian blogger. A haggard-looking Nuzhin, sitting on a mattress in a basement in Ukrainian captivity, explained that he had been recruited from a prison to join the Wagner Group, a notorious Russian private military company (PMC).
As with other volunteers, he said, he was offered a week’s training before being sent to Ukraine in September. At the front, he was ordered to retrieve the corpses of dead Russian soldiers, but immediately surrendered to Ukrainian forces. He expressed his desire to join a unit of Russian volunteers fighting for Ukraine.
In November another video showing Nuzhin was published, this time by a Telegram channel associated with Wagner. This video showed Nuzhin with his face taped to a brick wall in what appeared to be another basement. A man standing behind Nuzhin is then shown hitting him in the head twice with a sledgehammer, killing him instantly. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner, gloated in a statement: “To a dog, a dog’s death.”
Nuzhin’s brutal murder has increased international scrutiny of Wagner, as the group has become increasingly central to the Russian war effort. As the founder of Wagner, Prigozhin has used the Ukraine war to establish himself as an increasingly prominent part of the Russian political system, running what sometimes amounts to a private army and carving out his own place in Russian politics.
Wagner is not the only Russian PMC, the for-profit organisations which grew out of networks of veterans of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, but it is easily the most prominent. Prigozhin spent nine years in prison in the 1980s. On his release he started selling hot dogs in post-Soviet Russia. He has known Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, since the 1990s, when he began serving him onboard New Island, a floating restaurant in Saint Petersburg, an activity which earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef”.
Prigozhin’s business empire expanded far beyond catering, to murky activities needed by the Kremlin. The US has sanctioned him for allegedly running the internet troll farms that interfered in the 2016 US election. And while in the past he would sue journalists for suggesting he was linked to Wagner, he recently took credit for founding the group in 2014. “Prigozhin’s fledgling catering industry happened to have the right amount of showy Russian nouveau riche glitz to catch Putin’s eye in Saint Petersburg back in the Nineties,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian security services, said. “This is an opportunist who happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time.”
Since its founding Wagner has been deployed as a shadow arm of Russian foreign policy – used to prop up Kremlin allies around the world, always conveniently deniable and difficult to conclusively link to Putin. Wagner mercenaries turned up wherever there was a war in which the Kremlin had a stake. They have reportedly been deployed on battlefields in Ukraine, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Wagner has been linked to several atrocities in Africa, such as a March 2022 massacre in the Malian town of Moura, in which government forces and Wagner soldiers allegedly murdered over 300 people during a campaign against Islamist rebels.
The group also fought in support of Bashar al-Assad’s forces during the Syrian Civil War. In fact, Nuzhin’s murder seemed to deliberately echo one of the most infamous episodes of that conflict. In 2017, Russian-speaking men later identified as Wagner mercenaries were filmed beating Muhammad Taha Ismail al-Abdullah, an alleged deserter from the Syrian army, with a sledgehammer before decapitating him and playing football with his head.
The murder became Wagner mythology, celebrated on certain corners of social media and in online memes. “That viral video is really part of the Wagner Group brand now,” Candace Rondeaux, a researcher at the New America think tank, told me. “One meaning of the sledgehammer video [of Nuzhin’s execution] is reinforcing this prior meme.”
And while Wagner mercenaries were present in Ukraine from the start of the war in Donbas, in the east, in 2014, the group was an integral part of this year’s full-scale invasion. Veterans of the group reported being invited to a “picnic in Ukraine” a few weeks before the start of the war. “They were ready, prepared and assembled” from the beginning, Rondeaux said. “They had deployment orders early enough to make them available for [the pre-invasion] mobilisation.”
As the invasion floundered in the months afterwards, Wagner became increasingly crucial to Russian plans. Though the group’s soldiers did not demonstrate any particular military prowess, they did help to plug Russia’s increasingly chronic manpower deficiencies. Wagner’s power and influence steadily grew. Sources told the BBC in late November that Ukraine negotiated with Wagner to exchange Nuzhin, suggesting the group may conduct its own prisoner of war swaps.
[See also: Could China stop Russia going nuclear?]
If Wagner had once recruited veterans of Russia’s most elite military units, once the invasion began it was signing up more or less anyone willing to enlist. By the summer, this included prisoners. Prigozhin – formerly rather publicity-shy – would fly in to remote prison colonies by helicopter to deliver a speech to inmates like Nuzhin, inviting them to fight in Ukraine.
One speech, delivered in Mordovia, about 800km east of Moscow, was filmed and published by allies of Alexei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader, in September. It shows Prigozhin pacing around a prison courtyard, surrounded by uniformed prisoners. “The war in Ukraine is hard, nothing like those in Chechnya,” he told those assembled. He had three rules for those willing to enlist: no deserting, no using alcohol or drugs, and no marauding. Deserters and those who have second thoughts would be executed. Prisoners who served for six months would be granted a pardon. He gave those present five minutes to make up their minds.
It seems unlikely that the person filming the clip, who appears to be in the first row of those assembled, could have captured Prigozhin without him noticing. The PR department of Concord, the catering company owned by Prigozhin, did not make much effort to deny that the man in the video was in fact Prigozhin. “The person who looks like Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] explains simple things to ordinary people in a very understandable way,” the statement, published on the Russian social media site VK, dryly noted.
Many prisoners accepted the offer. Although it is far from clear that Wagner’s promises of freedom after six months have any legal validity or will be upheld, the number of prisoners who enlisted with the PMC suggests that many chose to take the chance. Some with long sentences resolved that dying in Ukraine was preferable to spending decades in a prison colony.
The conditions for recruits are reportedly dire. The independent Russian publication the Insider has reported on a prisoner who signed up to Wagner to escape prison torture, who claimed that his comrades had their fingers cut off for using their phones at the front. Recruits are intimidated by being shown a video of a soldier who was skinned alive for shooting an officer, he said.
This is no surprise. In recent years the quality of Wagner’s intake has gone down. “For years now Wagner has been recruiting the dregs, the disciplinary problems, the kinds of people who others don’t want to touch,” Galeotti said. “Even before Wagner started recruiting convicts, its ethos was at least as much a reflection of underworld criminal culture as it was military culture.”
To Russia’s criminals, known as the vory, “someone who is a turncoat is of course marked for death”, Galeotti said. An armed criminal gang, even one which has become part of a de facto unit of the Russian army, maintains the codes of the underworld. It is this worldview which explains why Nuzhin needed to die.
Prigozhin has used his increasingly crucial role in the Ukraine war as an opportunity to raise his public profile and become a genuine player in Russian politics. US intelligence sources have claimed that he has criticised the defence minister Sergei Shoigu’s prosecution of the war to Putin personally. He has even escalated a long running feud with Alexander Beglov, the governor of Saint Petersburg, calling him corrupt and accusing him of running a “criminal organisation” in an official complaint to the Russian attorney-general. Their dispute, according to Russian media, originates with Beglov refusing to award Concord lucrative public contracts. Prigozhin is rumoured to be considering founding his own political party.
“Prigozhin is gradually becoming a real player on the Russian political scene, building up his charisma, impudently commenting on the army, coming into violent conflict with the governor of Saint Petersburg, encouraging the public execution of ‘traitors’ and recruiting military personnel from prisoners,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Now Putin needs him in this capacity, because the dictator needs cannon fodder at all costs.”
Wagner’s transition from a gang of mercenaries used for plausible deniability in conflicts around the world to a gang affiliated with the Russian army with its own political wing reflects the breakdown of Russia’s constitutional order under Putin. “The only question is whether Putin will be able to restore the state monopoly on violence,” Kolesnikov added, “after he has outsourced part of this monopoly to Prigozhin.”