- By Elizaveta Focht, Olga Ivshina, Ksenia Churmanova
- From BBC News Russia
6 hours ago
Vladimir Putin honors Aikom Gasparyan, member of the Wagner group
Founded by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian mercenary group Wagner stayed out of the limelight for years. The ruling elite denied their existence. But with the invasion of Ukraine, the group played an increasingly important role for Russia on the battlefield.
On the last day of 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to present the country’s most important medals to fighters who fought in Ukraine. One of them was a young bearded man in a different uniform from the rest of the group. It was the type used by Russian mercenaries.
One in 40,000 men
The young man has been identified as Aikom Gasparyan, a martial arts fan arrested in October 2019 for attempted robbery at a Moscow cafe. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
But last December, the young man featured in a video on Telegram, posted to an account linked to the Wagner Group. In the pictures, Gasparyan said he left prison in the city of Ryazan and is fighting in Ukraine.
He became one of 40,000 former Russian prisoners serving in Ukraine, according to US estimates. They fight alongside the group’s 10,000 regular contract workers.
According to the American newspaper Washington Post, these data were collected by the human rights group “Russia behind bars”, which follows the prisoners’ involvement in the war.
The Wagner Group office in St. Petersburg
The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been conducting recruitment rounds in Russia’s prison system for the past year. He promised a clean criminal record to convicts who joined his organization and were sent to the war in Ukraine. Later it turned out that these men were sent to the most dangerous points on the front, and many were killed.
The Ukrainian Army claimed that exconvicts linked to Wagner were being used as cannon fodder and that the vast majority of them died.
High salary and promise of adventure
The group has not always relied on prisoners to fill its ranks.
Founded in 2014 and increasingly active between 2015 and 2016, the mercenary organization was created to support Russianbacked separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin says goodbye to exconvicts who fought in Ukraine and returned to Russia. It is not known whether their convictions were actually pardoned.
His operations quickly extended beyond Eastern Europe: Wagner mercenaries were seen in Sudan, Syria, Libya and across the African continent.
To attract recruits, the group promised high salaries and adventures. As a former BBC combatant said: “Men who are romantics at heart have joined this organization to defend Russia’s interests beyond its borders.”
Most of the men who joined the group before the war in Ukraine came from small towns where prospects for a wellpaid job were limited.
An agent working for the Wagner group could make about $1,500 a month, or up to $2,000 when in combat. And it was often a battle: the organization’s mercenaries fought alongside President Assad’s troops in Syria and against the United Nationsbacked government in Libya, supporting General Haftar.
Although it is estimated that up to 15,000 men were hired by the group between 2014 and 2021, that number was still limited. In Russia, many people did not know about the mercenary organization. Its influence and status increased with the start of the fullscale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Before the war, Russian government officials denied Wagner’s existence. Reports that Moscow was using mercenaries to expand its influence in other parts of the world have been vehemently denied. Authorities said that mercenaries are banned in Russia and that joining organizations of this type could constitute a crime.
Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin sued many journalists for suggesting that he was connected to the group.
When asked about Russian fighters in Syria in 2019, President Putin said he was aware of some private security companies operating there, but that they were not affiliated with the Russian state. The president made similar statements when asked about Russian mercenaries in Libya in 2020.
Yevgeny Prigozhin was seen in a video talking to prisoners in Russia
After Russia attacked Ukraine, that changed. With the Russian army unable to quickly achieve its objectives in Ukraine, Yevgeny Prigozhin became critical of the military command and began to reveal more about his connections to the Wagner group. In September last year, he finally admitted to having founded the organization in 2014.
More recently, he has insisted that Wagner fighters were responsible for the capture of the hotly contested Ukrainian city of Soledar. Videos circulated on the internet of mercenaries attacking General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff and current commander of the operation in Ukraine.
For pundits, the image of a Wagner Group agent receiving an award and shaking hands with President Putin not only sparked waves of enthusiasm among supporters of the organization, but represented an attempt to normalize this shadowy group, who are charged with war crimes in the US Ukraine and previously in Ukraine was accused of Libya and the Central African Republic.
Last August, Russian state television broadcast a report about a man “who asked to go to the front” and was eventually killed in Ukraine. The article described a hero who blew himself up and killed three Ukrainian soldiers with him.
The report says the man killed was 26yearold Konstantin Tulinov, who had a record of “stealing a car, assault and drugs” and was in prison when the war broke out. According to state television, he asked to go to war despite having no military experience.
According to Russian state television, Konstantin Tulinov asked to go to war
In 2019, human rights website Gulagu.net published a leaked prison video showing Tulinov mistreating another prisoner.
The BBC asked to house the prison where Tulinov was being held, but received no response.
In this photo and some videos, Tulinov (right) does not hide his ties to the administration of his detention center
The BBC spoke to Tulinov’s mother, who confirmed that she knew her son had volunteered for the war.
“Yes, he told me that he would defend our homeland, that he had decided to join this war, this special operation.”
“The most experienced army in the world”
When Yevgeny Prigozhin, then a Russian businessman from President Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, admitted to founding the Wagner Group, he claimed he was doing it “to defend the Russians.” For him, the created organization was “a pillar of Russia.”
In early October, the Kremlin described Prigozhin as a true citizen and a man whose heart ached for Russia.
A month later, an office of the Wagner Group was opened in St. Petersburg. It is a topclass office complex in which courses and events for children and young people “in the fields of information technology, media and basic military training to increase Russia’s combat capability” are held.
Russian state news agencies did not previously refer to the Wagner Group, but now they do so several times a day. State media also openly discuss the recruitment of prisoners. State broadcaster NTV recently published a report claiming the group is “the most experienced army in the world”.
Last week, Yevgeny Prigozhin wrote a letter to the Speaker of the Russian Parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, complaining about journalists “looking for useless information about recruited prisoners and portraying them as criminals.”
Prigozhin suggested tightening the law even further and banning the media from writing about the criminal past of the new Wagner recruits.
Volodin accepted the proposal and asked parliamentary committees to consider possible changes to Russia’s criminal code.
“Everyone who defends our country military, volunteers, new recruits, members of the Wagner group are heroes,” said the head of the Russian parliament.
The report was originally published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional64434556