- Elizaveta Fosh, Olga Ivshina and Ksenia Shurmanova
- BBC Russian
For years, businessman Yevkin Prigozhin’s personal army, the ‘Wagner Group’, stayed out of the limelight. Russia’s top leadership has consistently denied its existence.
But during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it began to play an increasingly important role in the war.
Some of its fighters who have served prison terms have been awarded Russia’s top medals.
On the last day of 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the southern part of the country and honored soldiers and officers who fought in Ukraine with the country’s best medals.
Among these honored soldiers was a war-weary young man with a beard in a completely different uniform from the rest. He was a fighter of the Wagner group.
The young man was identified as Ike Kasparyan, who specializes in martial arts. He was arrested in October 2019 for robbing a cafe in Moscow. A few months later, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In December, Wagner appeared in a video on a Telegram channel affiliated with the group. In it, Kasparyan is seen claiming to have arrived in Ukraine to join the war after being released from Ryazan city prison.
He joins 40,000 former Russian prisoners the US believes are being held in Ukraine. They are part of the Wagner Group’s 10,000-strong workforce.
According to the Washington Post, this is in line with data collected by human rights group ‘Russia Behind Bars’. The human rights group is investigating the role of Russian prisoners of war.
good sum and adventureDr
Yevkiny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group, visited prisons in Russia last year for a prisoner recruitment campaign.
He promised to expunge the criminal records of prisoners of war in Ukraine and Russia in his organization.
It later emerged that they had been sent to the most dangerous locations on the Ukrainian front and many of them had been killed.
The Ukrainian military has claimed that many of the Wagner group’s prisoners were victimized and most of them were killed.
However, Wagner’s group did not always rely on prisoners to fill its ranks.
It was established in 2014 and its activities increased from 2015-16. The missionary group was formed to help pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But soon its activity spread beyond Eastern Europe. The mercenary presence of the Wagner group can be seen in Sudan, Syria, Libya and many other countries on the African continent.
The biggest draw for those who join is the big paycheck and the promise of adventure.
A former fighter told the BBC: “Romantic people joined the organization to protect Russia’s interests across the border.”
Before the war in Ukraine, most of those who joined the Wagner group were from small towns with little chance of finding well-paying jobs.
A job in a Wagner earns you $1500 (Rs 1.22 lakh approx) and a fighter jet sends up to $2,000 (Rs 1.6 lakh).
Wagner’s fighters fought alongside President Assad in Syria. He took part in the war to help General Haftar against the UN-backed government in Libya.
According to one estimate, 15,000 people have joined the Wagner Group between 2014 and 2021, even then a limited number.
But very few people know about this group within Russia. When Russia launched a massive war in Ukraine, its influence and stature increased.
Yevkini Who is Prigogine?
Before the war, Russian authorities denied Wagner’s existence.
Moscow denies using these mercenaries to expand its influence in other parts of the world. Officials said private armies are banned in Russia and joining such an organization is a punishable offence.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin sued several journalists for associating his name with Wagner.
In 2019, when President Putin was asked about Russian fighters in Syria. At the time, Putin had said that some private security companies were working there, but they had nothing to do with the Russian government.
Putin made a similar statement in 2020 when asked about Russian fighters in Libya.
But everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin was critical of the Russian military and spoke openly about his ties to the Wagner group when the Russian military initially failed to achieve its goals in Ukraine.
Finally, last September, he admitted that he founded the organization in 2014.
He recently said that Wagner’s militia played a key role in the capture of the Ukrainian city of Soledor.
A video of the battle was recorded by Wagner fighters, which went viral. After the incident, General Valery Gerasimov, commander of the Russian operation in Ukraine and head of the General Staff, was heavily criticized.
Seeing one of Wagner’s fighters being honored and shaking hands with Putin not only boosted the fighters’ morale, experts say, but was also an attempt to appease the secretive group.
The group has also been accused of war crimes. These allegations have recently been made in Ukraine and earlier in Libya and the Central African Republic.
Last August, Russian state television aired a report about a man killed in Ukraine.
A soldier blew himself up, killing three Ukrainian soldiers along with him, the news said.
Konstantin Tulinov, 26, was accused of car theft, robbery and drug offenses and was in prison when the war began, the report said.
According to the news, he requested to join the war even though he had no experience as a soldier.
After this, in 2019, the Russian human rights media organization Gulagu.Net was leaked inside the prison. In it, it was revealed that Tulinov had misbehaved with another prisoner.
The BBC sought comment from the prison where Thulinev was released, but did not receive a response.
The BBC spoke to Tulino’s mother, who confirmed she knew her son had volunteered to join the war.
“Yes, he said that he was going to protect the motherland, and he himself decided to join this war,” he said.
‘World’s Most Experienced Army’
Yevgini Prigozhin said last September that he founded the Wagner Group in 2014. He said the group was created to protect the Russian people. He described his company as a ‘pillar of Russia’.
In early October, the Russian government called him a true citizen and a person whose heart beats for Russia.
A month later, the Wagner Center opened in Yevgeny’s hometown of St. Petersburg.
It is a lavish office complex where education and training programs for school children and youth are conducted through ‘Information Technology, Media and Basic Military Training to Increase Russia’s Combat Capability’.
Earlier, Russia’s official news agency did not talk much about Wagner Group. But now they openly conduct the recruitment report of prisoners several times a day.
Russia’s official channel NTV aired a story describing the Wagner Group as ‘the most experienced army in the world’.
Last week, Evgeny Prigozhin wrote a letter to Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian parliament, complaining that journalists “seek useless information about admitted prisoners and portray them as criminals.”
Prigogine recommended tightening the law and banning the media from writing about the criminal pasts of new recruits to Wagner.
Volodin accepted this suggestion and ordered the formation of a parliamentary committee for possible amendments to the Russian Penal Code.
“Everyone who defends our country is a hero,” said the speaker of the Russian parliament.
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