A dashing voice over the phone starts the conversation by scolding the recent story aired on TV channel Rain about the Russian convicts that were recruited to private military companies (PMC) not receiving the promised payments: “You see, Olga Romanova (the leader of the Russia Behind Bars movement) is lying about hundreds having been killed. The ‘musicians’ (in professional jargon, the name of the fighters of the so-called Wagner Group) haven’t suffered such big losses.”
We have known this “soldier of fortune” for many years. In 2014-2015, he fought among the separatists in the “LPR”, then went on several “business trips” to Africa. When the war had broken out in Ukraine, he went to fight as a member of the Wagner Group. During his first mission, he stormed the Luhansk region town Popasna. During his second — took part in the fighting in the Sloviansk-Kramatorsk direction. He came back to Russia a week ago.
According to our interlocutor, he spent two months side by side with ex-convicts while trying to take the city Bakhmut in the “DPR”: “It’s the ex-convicts who are now becoming the principal manpower of our offensive. They serve together and on an equal basis with the other employees of the company.” It is interesting to note that, during our subsequent conversation, our source himself admitted that the majority of his fellow fighters would end up getting killed.
You say that Romanova significantly overestimated the number of losses in her story. But she claims to have based her figures on the letters of relatives and close ones. Including the photos she was sent.
There’s no way for there to be any photos or messages. The Wagner Group fighters’ phones get taken away. The only way to acquire a new phone with a working SIM-card is during urban warfare or while patrolling recently occupied territories. Currently, there are not a lot of them. Romanova is saying that the first to go to war are convicts from colonies that cooperate with the [government] administration. That’s not true. Often, the people who sign up to become volunteer fighters are thieves with connections or even authoritative thieves. In this situation, such behaviour is not considered to be cooperation with government officials. I have friends in prisons — the majority of them are athletes, masters of sports. Almost all of them went to war. Convicts are currently our principal manpower.
Is the recruitment happening only in certain colonies or has the Wagner Group been allowed to start recruiting men from all the colonies in the country?
I know for a fact that currently the recruitment has started or there are plans for it to start in around 2,000 prisons from all over Russia. Usually, there are about 200-300 volunteer fighters recruited per colony. About half of them pass the physical training and other tests. So, the Wagner Group will soon be able to recruit 250-300 thousand new employees. Employees that don’t care about such things as the law and other unimportant during war formalities.
What are the conditions for recruitment?
They don’t take drug users, sexual abusers, and terrorists. Everyone else — thieves, swindlers, criminals, outlaws, killers, etc. — they are all welcome. The conditions are brutal: in case you try to defect, surrender, or loot, you get killed at once. No one will send you back to prison. They get paid less than common Landsknechts — only 100,000 rubles (€1,665) a month.
For the majority, half a year of combat will lead to full amnesty. I’m not sure about the payouts to the relatives in case of death.
I don’t think that any of it is formalised officially, through the courts. But no one will ‘double-cross’ you here. Very responsible people are making these decisions. According to some information, even Yevgeny Prigozhin (close confidant of Vladimir Putin — translator’s note) personally participates in the recruitment of the most authoritative convicts. I think such actions are approved at the highest level.
A recruitment post on the Wagner Group Vkontakte page. Source: Vkontakte
The convicts don’t run away when they end up at the frontlines?
It’s not clear who’s worse: the ones who were went to prison or the ones that weren’t caught. Where will you run to, at the frontlines? It’s instant death. The Wagner Group fighters don’t get taken captive, if you try to defect, your own people will shoot you. These are not separate units like the penal military ones. The convicts are trained together with everyone else in Molkino (a polygon in the Krasnodar region that belongs to a military unit of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces). Usually, the training takes two weeks. Then, off to war. Furthermore, the fighters know that the new soldiers are criminals, so they watch them more closely. It has to be said that criminals usually show great results. These are the kind of people we are lacking right now — they are motivated and hungry.
What’s the training like?
First is the physical skills testing. That usually takes place in Molkino. Then, they are sent to other divisions, often in the ‘DPR’ or ‘LPR’; there, they receive the last of the training. Everything else, they learn during combat. All of this happens with the approval of the Defence Ministry.
What are the real losses?
Many guys die. Get injured. I’ll be honest: six months of constant offensives — not a lot of convicts will survive. But several hundred killed during one battle — it’s an emergency of the front scale, I haven’t heard of anything like that in my area.
The first time, you went to the front through Grozny. The second time, too?
No. The second time, I went deliberately through one of the Wagner Group divisions. The one for experienced fighters. We get paid differently. I was paid over 1.7 million rubles (€28,300) for one month: 250,000 rubles is the salary, everything else is additional bonuses. I received $53 for every day of combat, 50,000 rubles (€850) for every kilometre of the offensive, etc. For Popasna, I received one million rubles (€16,750). Professionals are being paid very well right now.
The Ukrainian side claims that successful shelling of ammunition depots led to ammunition hunger. That the troops don’t have enough ammo.
Nonsense. There’s an abundance of ammo on all the main military directions. Everything that gets transported [to the front] from the depots or factories are things that are physically difficult to shoot. Soldiers are given so much personal munition that they share with the forever under equipped mobilised civilians from ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’.
If you have all the equipment — why has the offensive stalled and the Russian side not achieved new victories?
No one wants to fight. There are a lot of people refusing to fight. And that’s happening in all kinds of troops. Even among the ‘wild geese’. One thing is to chase natives in the desert or to just sit calmly in the trenches. Another — constant weekly offensives. A lot of cowards wanted to just do nothing for the entirety of their service. When things got heated, they started trying to find a way out. An offensive is currently being prepared in the south — through Mykolaiv towards Odesa. Ex-convicts will be used in the most difficult parts of the attack — they’re today’s ‘musicians.’
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