The Russian mercenary company Wagner Group, as a matter of corporate policy, executes soldiers caught retreating, and operates a two-tier system designed to extract maximum income from hapless felons that joined the organization in hopes of getting their prison sentence wiped off the books, first-hand accounts appearing in Russian opposition media outlets this week said.

 

An article in the Russian web magazine Poligon from Jan. 10 reported "(T)he commander of Wagner Evgeny Prigozhin 'betrays' felons recruited to fight for money, and execution of deserters is taking place'.

 

Citing interviews with three former Wagner fighters that surrendered to Ukrainian forces, the report said the group openly operates a double standard system among its members, separates employees into professional mercenaries issued excellent equipment and operating support weapons that fire at a distance, and "expendable" former criminals with next to no training, little more than an old Kalashnikov to fight with, and no option but to charge forward in attacks.

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Prigozhin, a former cook for Russian President Vladimir Putin, starting in the mid-2010s parlayed his access to the Russian leader into control over a privately-owned military services company that recruited men to fight as paid mercenaries, and Kremlin surrogates, in conflicts ranging from Donbas to Syria to Central Africa.

 

Heavy losses suffered by regular Russian troops over 2022, and recriminations between Putin and the Russian army leadership, opened a window of opportunity for Prigozhin to turn Wagner Group from a clandestine organization offering the Kremlin deniability, into a formal piece of Moscow’s ground assault on Ukraine.

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A former felon himself, in September Prigozhin kicked off a recruiting campaign in prisons across Russia, offering prisoners freedom and cancellation of guilty charges, in exchange for volunteering to fight for six months in Ukraine.

 

Most were deployed in the Bakhmut and Soledar sectors.

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The Poligon interviews with former Wagner members confirmed long-running reports from both front-line Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) soldiers, and AFU intelligence, of an attack-or-be-shot discipline within Wagner ranks, and a double standard separating mercenaries paid more and valued as skilled solders, and felons openly described, by Wagner leadership, as expendable.

 

The accounts, all from veterans of fighting in Donbas, also possibly help to explain clumsy attacks observed by AFU troops in recent weeks in Bakhmut and Soledar sectors, where Ukrainian artillery fire has repeatedly crushed attacks by Russian soldiers advancing towards Ukrainian positions, in the open, during daylight, with little attempt to take cover. 

 

"They (Wagner officers) told us 'One step backwards and we will f*ck you up, you guys only go forward'. So, I didn’t go backwards, because they would have (killed) me," double murderer Sergei Vereshchagin was quoted as saying.

 

Verseshchagin said he surrendered during an attack in the Soledar sector after he and two friends managed to separate themselves from their unit, avoid retaliation by Wagner Group leadership, and approach Ukrainian lines.

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Aleksandr Drozdov was serving a three-year attempted murder sentence at a penitentiary in Russia’s central Vologda Region.

 

He told interviewers Prigozhin came to the prison and recruited him personally. Once inside Wagner, he said, he found fighters rated mercenaries by the Group were receiving 200,000 rubles a month, and felons like himself were paid 100,000.  The mercenaries were well-equipped with modern weapons, portable computers and night vision devices, he said, while felons carried little more than a weapon and ammunition, he said.

 

Assaults against Ukrainian positions were horrific, Drozdov said.

 

Describing an attack, he observed in the Soledar sector, Drozdov said "The losses were absolutely giantic, because those (felons) attacked straight ahead. I saw guys completely torn up being carried back to hospital or into one of the salt mines."

 

Felon Evgeniy Novikov told Poligon that "Those who disobey are liquidated - this is done publicly. There are executioner detachments there, they are made up of (other) felons." In some cases, Novikov claimed, the Wagner leadership executes not only the man who ran away, but his commander as well.

 

Vladimir Osechkin, a Russian human rights activist, in Wednesday comments published on his Gulagu.net website said Wagner soldiers attempting to flee the battlefield or surrender are shot as a matter of course, at times with artillery, and that only 15 to 20 percent of felons sent to fight survive the first six hours of combat.

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The highest-profile Wagner Group execution of a former fighter went public on Nov. 13 last year, when the Russian Telegram channel Grey Zone published a video of felon Evgeniy Nuzhin admitting to joining the Wagner Group in September and then deserting.

He became a Ukrainian prisoner of war, was kidnapped by Wagner operatives several weeks later, and in the video footage declared himself guilty of betraying his comrades.

The video ends with images of an unidentified man killing Nuzhin with a sledgehammer blow to the skull.

Osechkin claimed the Wagner Group leadership takes advantage of poor personnel records within the Russian prison system and Russian Defense Ministry to carry men killed in combat on Wagner’s books for months, allowing Prigozhin and group leadership to pocket the salaries of dead soldiers.

Additional state funds are pilfered, Osechkin asserted, by filching bonus and incentive payments offered soldiers for battlefield successes like capturing a trench line or destroying a Ukrainian combat vehicle. 

Osechkin did not offer evidence to back up the claims.

However, former Wagner Group members speaking to the Russian news outlets Poligon and Insider accused agency management of using every possible means to maximize Wagner income at the expense of felons, to divide it among group leadership and mercenaries working with the organization long-term.

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The policy of Russian troops shooting other Russian troops, that are retreating, may be spreading.

According to a Jan. 5 situation estimate published by the Ukrainian Army’s General Staff, members of a Russian national police Rosgvardia unit shot dead six soldiers in the southern Zaporizhzhia sector that were planning to surrender to Ukrainian troops.

The enlisted soldiers were shot "to maintain military discipline and prevent the spread of panic," the statement said in part.

The UK Defence Ministry in a Nov. 4 situation estimate reported that the Russian army was likely organizing "blocking units" to hold positions behind attacking troops with the mission of killing any soldier who retreats.

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