In a series of interviews with KyivPost reporters, fighters from the mercenary company Wagner, who were recently captured by the Ukrainian military, justified their participation in a war of aggression, denied committing war crimes and confirmed crippling casualties suffered by Russian forces attacking Bakhmut.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) organized for seven captured Russian combatants to be interviewed one-on-one in a detention facility in the eastern city Dnipro. The prisoners, all of whom identified themselves by name to the reporting team, spoke on camera without guards in the room. Of the seven, one declined to be interviewed in detail. KyivPost has agreed to keep the interviewees’ identities confidential in accordance with the international conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
All of the fighters claimed to have been criminals serving prison sentences, before joining Wagner with promises they would return to civilian society with a clean slate after serving. A private military company (PMC) with close ties to the Kremlin, the Wagner Group began a recruiting drive in Russian state prisons in the Autumn of 2022. It offered to expunge the criminal record of any volunteer, who would be paid the rough equivalent of USD 1300 a month, for six months’ front-line service in the Russo-Ukraine war.
All said they had been captured in and around Bakhmut in January 2023. When questioned as to how they could justify invading another country with the specific goals of killing and enslaving its people, all but one of the interviewees told KyivPost they had volunteered to liberate Ukraine from “Fascist rule” and “genocidal anti-Russian policies.”
The one exception was a self-described 27 years old resident of Irkutsk, with eighteen months of a four-year narcotics sentence remaining, who told KyivPost that he had been “misled” by Russian state media into believing that Ukraine’s government had been intent on murdering Russian speakers. Now, as a prisoner of war, he “asked Ukraine’s women’s forgiveness” for coming to their country as an invading soldier “to kill their husbands and sons.”
He said he had seen a soldier executed in front of other men in his unit for drunkenness. Others said, that they had not seen executions but, within Wagner, had been warned that the offenses of looting, abusing civilians, intoxication, and disobeying orders were punishable by death.
The ages of the POWs interviewed ranged from early 20s to late 40s. Most said they had incomplete high school educations, came from broken homes or had served multiple prison sentences. Most fighters asserted that alcohol or narcotics, or both, figured in the reasons why they had been imprisoned. One was unable to speak in Russian clearly.
One combatant, who claimed to be a former Donetsk resident now domiciled in the western Siberian Oblast of Tiumen’, was an exception to the background of poverty and poor education. He stated that he had two degrees in engineering but claimed his promising career had ended when drug addiction landed him in prison. He said that patriotism and “the need to protect Russians who are under attack” was just as important in his decision to participate in the Ukrainian invasion, as his desire to return to civilian life. He claimed his family supported his decision to agree to fight in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian army’s systematic bombardment of residents in his hometown of Donetsk, he asserted, had gone on for years (2014-2021), killing hundreds of residents. Joining Wagner, he argued, was a way to protect them as part of Russia’s longstanding policy of helping and supporting ethnic Russians everywhere. The man came across as being well-educated with his use of language and differing distinctly from that of the other fighters. He denied he was a mercenary fighting for money.
One of the KyivPost reporting team had been a resident of Crimea during the 2014 Russian invasion, while the other who had been a member of an international monitoring group in Ukraine for five years had observed very limited fighting in and around Donetsk during that time. Their personal experiences directly contradicted the man’s claims. He said he had had access to Ukrainian news reporting (television) about the war while held in aLviv detention facility, but he did not believe it. The Ukraine-Russia war is the result of “third party forces” manipulating “Slavic peoples”, he argued.
Fully half of the fighters interviewed claimed they had not been actual combatants but, rather, members of casualty evacuation teams without any offensive duties. None mentioned actually firing weapons at Ukrainian soldiers. Most said they were taken prisoner after having been sent into forward positions and having been hit almost immediately by devastating Ukrainian mortar and artillery fire which, in a few hours, killed or wounded 70-90 percent of their unit. Two said they had been the sole survivors.
One fighter, a resident of Nizhny Novgorod released to Wagner after serving three years of a six-year murder sentence. He said he had been captured after a concerted Ukrainian assault near Bakhmut, using tanks, armored personnel carriers, machine guns, rocket-propelled projectiles and grenades dropped by drones, had overrun his position. He claimed to have hidden at the bottom of his foxhole throughout and did not resist.
Three of the Wagner members presented gunshot or shrapnel wounds they said they received at the hands of Ukrainian soldiers. One, a Rostov resident, claimed a forearm injury received on Jan. 17, following first aid and clearing station handling, had not been treated by Ukrainian medics for the next two months.
All, without exception, praised Ukrainian medical treatment of injuries as excellent, and told KyivPost that food and living conditions in Ukrainian detention were adequate and livable. They said that at the time of their capture, Ukrainian soldiers had been unfriendly and in spite of being punched at times, the Russian POWs said, in general, detention in Ukrainian facilities was reasonable and humane. The Wagner fighters mentioned that the location of prisoner holding sites included Lviv, Kharkiv, Kyiv and Dnipro.
Three of the Wagner soldiers said they were grateful to Ukrainian military pastors who, they said, had checked on living conditions and provided Bibles. Two said that they had decided to embrace Christianity. All but one interviewee, including both of the “Christian converts,” said that, if returned in exchange for Ukrainian prisoners, they would honor their Wagner contract and return to fight in Ukraine if so ordered.
One man said he hoped to return to his wife and teenage daughters in the town of Kyshtym, in the Cheliabinsk Oblast’, and resume his family’s furniture business. “I miss them…but I don’t know if that’s my fate (to return),” he said.
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter