A road to nowhere Russian recruiters are mobilizing mercenaries for a ‘trip to the Donbas.’ What they’re expected to do there remains unclear.
Ukraine was the main topic of discussion during a video call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden in early December. According to American intelligence, Russia is preparing for a full-scale invasion of the Eastern European country. And by all appearances the virtual talks changed little: despite the threat of new sanctions. Moscow, according to the Pentagon, is continuing to mass troops near the border with Ukraine (open source analysts note that an “alarming quantity” of equipment is being brought in, as well). Nevertheless, many experts still believe that an all-out war is unlikely. Against the backdrop of these tensions, Meduza’s sources say that recruiters have started mobilizing mercenaries for a “combat trip to the Donbas.” Whether or not they’ll actually fight on the frontline remains unknown. Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova spoke with the mercenaries themselves and discovered that they, too, are skeptical.
Egor, a former soldier — who took part in the Russian campaign in Syria as a mercenary for the Wagner Group — got a call from a recruiter in the fall of 2021. “He said that a new project was underway,” Egor remembered.
The recruiter (a former serviceman who, according to Egor, once rose high in the ranks) didn’t represent a private military company (PMC) that Egor had heard of before — and he also didn’t yet know where the combatants would be deployed, though he vaguely mentioned Africa. This didn’t bother Egor — he was interested.
In early December, Egor finally met with the recruiter to hammer out the details. During the meeting, Egor found out the approximate salary (around 240,000 rubles, or $3,250, per month) and that the mercenaries would prepare for deployment at a training facility in Vesyoly, a rural town near Rostov-on-Don.
“[It’s] a Defense Ministry base,” Egor explained, telling Meduza that Russian mercenaries destined for eastern Ukraine were mobilized at this “tried and tested” training ground back in 2014. “There were only two [mercenary] training grounds — Vesyoly and Molkino,” he added.
Other Meduza sources who fought in eastern Ukraine also called the base in Vesyoly a training ground for mercenaries. “Seven years ago they prepared the first wave [of military specialists sent to the Donbas] there,” confirmed another Meduza source knowledgeable of these events.
Media reports have also described Vesyoly as “the first training base for the [Russian] PMC” that later became known as the Wagner Group. Wagner’s training camp was later moved to Molkino, a rural settlement in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai.
The recruiter mentioning Vesyoly was a red flag for Egor. “I asked a specific question: I’m a little worried about the location of your training facility; where [are you] deploying? He says: well, there,” Egor recalled. “I told him: No way, that’s it. This is the end [of the discussion]. I’m not going there.”
According to Egor, there hasn’t been such wide recruitment for a “Ukrainian deployment” for several years now. “I think right now is the most active [recruitment campaign] since 2014,” he told Meduza (citing his own experience and conversations with other mercenaries). At the same time, he expressed doubts that a detachment would actually be sent to fight in Ukraine: “At the top they also understand that this is wild. A road to nowhere.”
According to Meduza’s sources, recruiters have been making offers to both professional mercenaries and “rank-and-file veterans” of the war in eastern Ukraine since late November 2021. There’s also ongoing recruitment targeting residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (the territories in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists; also known as the “DNR” and “LNR”) who have combat experience.
Meduza heard about the search from a recruiter; combatants who took part in the hostilities in 2014–2014; military specialists from previous campaigns in Syria and African countries; members of the Union of Donbas Volunteers (SDD); and people from the army, intelligence services, and the Russian Interior Ministry’s special forces (eight sources in total).
One recruiter told Meduza that “the story began to come together” three months ago. However, most of the specialists Meduza interviewed received offers in the last few weeks. Recruitment of DNR and LNR residents began a little early — “about a month ago,” one source said.
Of the dozen recruiters with whom Meduza’s interviewees negotiated, only two are believed to be “Defense Ministry representatives,” according to the mercenaries. The rest are veterans from private military companies and volunteer groups, and SDD representatives. Other recruiters are allegedly offering “contracts with the Defense Ministry,” but don’t have the authority to do so, the mercenaries maintain.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment prior to publication.
‘Go and liberate Novorossiya’
According to Meduza’s sources, mercenaries are being recruited into several groups, each with its own organizers, candidate requirements, and terms.
Recruiters in Moscow are trying to mobilize around 120 “Russian citizens with combat experience,” who are prepared to spend three months in Donetsk, a mercenary familiar with the recruitment process told Meduza (his claims were confirmed by two other sources who turned down similar offers).
According to these sources, the recruitment campaign was organized by people from the Russian Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, who served together in a particular brigade (Meduza knows the unit number; after the reforms in 2016, it became part of the Russian National Guard). “People are being gathered through the brigade’s former leadership,” explained a source from the Interior Ministry, familiar with the mobilization process. “They once served [in the Internal Troops]. But when they offer up contracts, they quietly say that [they’re coming] from the Defense Ministry.”
Yet another Meduza source, who fought in eastern Ukraine in 2014–2015, rejected an offer from Moscow recruiters — he couldn’t find out who exactly they represented. “These people have nothing to do with the army, but the contract is offered by a defense ministry — only they won’t specify which one. In the end they could simply say: let’s sign a contract with the defense ministry of the Donetsk republic!”
“The requested information is outside of the purview of the agency,” the Russian National Guard said in response to Meduza’s questions about the alleged actions of its former officers. (As previously mentioned, the Russian Defense Ministry didn’t not immediately respond to Meduza’s inquiries).
Two of Meduza’s sources called the terms recruiters in Moscow were offering “practically fraudulent.” “There were no [advances] — and in winter, you need 75,000 rubles [about $1,000] per person for equipment and everything,” complained one of the mercenaries. The other source confirmed that advanced payments weren’t on the table, and that the mercenaries were expected to “find all [their] gear locally.” “Those in the know understand that at this point you can start poking fun and laughing,” he said. “[The location] is in Donetsk — moveover, in barracks. And living in barracks…Donetsk is full of places where you can station yourself properly: with a warm bathroom and a shower.”
Meduza’s sources also found the salaries Moscow recruiters were offering implausibly high (the organizers recruiting for other “detachments” told Meduza’s interviewees different amounts). “They pay 160 [thousand rubles, or $2,170] at the barracks and 320 [thousand rubles, or $4,340] at the front — this is a lie, simply a lie,” said a mercenary who refused the contract. “They’re looking for idiots. The main requirement is that you come and plug a hole in the corps [the Russian-backed separatist forces].”
Candidates from Moscow weren’t told the real aims of the “trip to Ukraine.” “[The recruiter] said: go and liberate Novorossiya,” remembered one Meduza source, who declined the offer. “I grinned and said: ‘Are you nuts?’ Then he said: ‘We’ll be told what the objectives are at X time’.” Another Meduza source tried to find out the group’s mission through his own channels — and he’s now convinced that the mercenaries will be sent to protect industrial facilities in the Donbas in the event of a military escalation.
In addition to the mobilization campaign in Moscow, there are two other detachments being formed on the ground in the LNR and DNR, four sources told Meduza.
“For each [mercenary] they’ve allotted $2,000 [as prepayment] — and they give it out directly in dollars,” said a Meduza source familiar with the recruitment campaign there.
The People’s Militia of the LNR (the unrecognized republic’s defense ministry) didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment prior to publication.
Two Meduza sources referred to the formations taking shape in the “people’s republics” as “Dirlewanger brigades,” because they actively enlist former inmates. “Those [joining up] in Luhansk were in prison,” said an individual personally acquainted with members of the new unit. “And then suddenly they turned up in this detachment. They’re real criminals, and besides that they’re no spring chickens [aged 45 and up].”
For several weeks, the Luhansk detachment has already been stationed in barracks near the former Lugansk Higher Military Aviation School of Navigators, according to a Meduza source who knows the mercenaries. “After two weeks of being at the unit’s location they were given a grand in green [U.S. dollars],” the source said, adding that now the mercenaries are just waiting around. “They really think that soon [there will be] ‘tanks from the West’ and ‘we’ll meet at the English Channel’.”
As was the case in Moscow, the Luhansk detachment’s real objectives were left unsaid. “Of course, they’re telling me ‘come visit us in Odessa in the spring’,” the Meduza source acquainted with the mercenaries recalled ironically. “But it’s all fairy tales. Nobody knows anything.”
‘The frontline is a nightmare’
According to Meduza’s sources, the Union of Donbas Volunteers (SDD) is also involved in the recruitment campaign. Three people told Meduza that allegedly, the SDD has notified its members about the recruitment campaign and asked them “to draw up a list of reservists.”
“This call for reservists is in connection with the exacerbation [of the situation at the front] and the advance of Ukrainian troops into the territory of the Donbas,” explained a source close to the SDD leadership. “In other words, the frontline is a nightmare and people will go there to protect the DNR and LNR themselves. And not to seize Ukraine.”
Grigory, a veteran of the Donbas conflict and a member of the union, came to Moscow on December 13, having learned about the recruitment campaign “through the SDD.” He spent the next few days meeting with his former colleagues to discuss the possible “trip.”
“I didn’t just get behind the wheel for no reason and drive 2,000 kilometers [from home]: there was a direct command issued from the SDD,” Grigory told Meduza on December 13. “There’s really a [deployment] to the L/DNR like in 2014, we all came [to Moscow] for this matter. We’re all here and we already met with guys [from the union] today. [We’ll find out] what the salaries are, who the commanders will be. There will be a few meetings — with top officials, without any intermediaries.”
Grigory wouldn’t say who these “top officials” were or which government agencies they represent — or if they even have anything to do with official structures. But after the second day of talks and meetings — not only with SDD representatives, but also with other recruiters — the veteran was desperate to know what was going on and what assignments awaited him in the Donbas. This time, Grigory doesn’t want to fight; he reckons he’ll get a job training other combatants. “It’s not clear why all this is being done. It’s not even clear who will command this entire parade over there,” he admitted to Meduza on December 14.
“We aren’t involved in recruitment. We help those who have returned from there,” said SDD spokeswoman Maria Koleda.
Dozens of advertisements have been posted online offering jobs with “private security companies” protecting “facilities abroad.” The salaries range from 150,000 to 240,000 rubles ($2,000–$3,250) per month.
These ads are often posted on Avito.ru, a Russian classified website (the same site where Ukrainian military counterintelligence posted jobs as part of a sting operation aimed at capturing suspected Wagner Group mercenaries). Meduza sources said that Avito is being used to recruit mercenaries to fight not only in Ukraine, but also in Syria and countries in Africa.
One such ad, promising “roving work” in the “security” field, sought “physically fit” candidates with international passports and “experience working in the security structures.” (This wording is typical of job listings for mercenaries.)
Meduza called the phone number listed in the advertisement and spoke to a recruiter, who said that the job was posted by “Orchestra” — a name sometimes used among mercenaries to refer to the Wagner PMC (“Wagner” is believed to be the call sign of the mercenary group’s chief commander, Dmitry Utkin — presumably in honor of German composer Richard Wagner. Hence the nickname “Orchestra”). The recruiter claimed they were hiring for a trip to Africa. “We aren’t interested [in working] in Luhandonia,” he said, referring to the LNR.
A Meduza source familiar with the “Ukrainian” recruitment campaign drew attention to another Avito ad, posted by a “private security organization” called Zvezda (“Star”).
Zvezda posted 50 identical ads tagged across 50 Russian regions, seeking candidates with “no restrictions on travel abroad” and “experience working in hotspots.” According to the services NumBuster! and GetContact, the phone number Zvezda listed in its ads was saved under a variety of names, including “Possibly PMC Wagner” and “Army.”
When Meduza called the phone number, a recruiter explained that the company is involved in escorting cargo, as well as guarding both facilities abroad and “VIPs, including top government officials.” The recruiter said the job would involve travel to “third world countries” and asked the person on the phone to come “to the Krasnodar Krai, Molkino settlement” (the location of the Wagner PMC’s main base) to fill out paperwork.
‘Nobody’s raring to go’
None of Meduza’s sources were sure why mercenaries are being recruited for a “combat trip to the Donbas.”
Some sources believe that the would-be fighters in talks with Moscow recruiters and the SDD won’t actually be sent into combat. “All of this will come to nothing,” asserted a mercenary who declined the offer. “If there were a real escalation, they’d have called specialists with [armored vehicles] and stuff,” agreed another source.
Three other Meduza sources speculated that the newly formed detachments might be sent to guard industrial facilities that are of interest to Russia — and be tasked with putting Donbas coal mines in order. One recruiter said that the formations would be engaged in eradicating “local banditry.”
Moreover, almost all of Meduza’s interviewees admitted that in 2021, there are hardly any mercenaries in Russia who are prepared to go fight against Ukraine’s Armed Forces in the Donbas. Of the eight people Meduza spoke to, only two are currently considering the possibility of repeating their 2014–2015 tours.
Indeed, Meduza’s sources believe that those who accepted the recruiters’ offers likely have a rather low level of training. “All the rest are [on combat trips] in Africa or in the sands [Syria],” explained a Russian security agency veteran familiar with the recruitment campaign. “Nobody’s raring to go to the ‘field of spoil tips’ [the Donbas].”
“They just don’t want to go there, because there’s a regular army [the Ukrainian Armed Forces]: it’s difficult to fight against it,” said a former Wagner Group mercenary. “If there’s a regular army, there will be big losses.”
Meduza’s sources didn’t want to speculate on whether or not the newly recruited detachments would be sent on real combat missions. At the same time, none of the mercenaries Meduza spoke said they believe that the Russian authorities are ready to engage in an all out war with Ukraine.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart