A mercenaries’ war How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a ‘secret mobilization’ that allowed oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin to win back Putin’s favor
Political squabbles and personal conflicts nearly cost Evgeny Prigozhin his prized position in Vladimir Putin’s circle of trust. Over the course of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s Defense Ministry has gradually erased the boundaries between mercenaries and the military. The armed forces essentially commandeered the recruiting network built by the Wagner Group (the private military company that Prigozhin finances) and largely excluded the organization itself from the initial invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Russian army and other mercenary groups performed so poorly on the battlefield, however, that Moscow eventually called on Wagner’s regulars, restoring Prigozhin to the president’s good graces.
Russian military leaders reportedly got the idea in 2010 to create a mercenary group they could control. The Joint Staff tapped catering oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin to manage the operation using money earned from lucrative government contracts to supply the armed forces with food. The new private company would be based in Krasnodar near the Main Intelligence Directorate’s 10th brigade.
The Wagner Group remains completely dependent on the military’s infrastructure and equipment, but it has established an independent network of recruiters, sources close to the company told Meduza.
Ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, as part of its wider effort to manage mercenary groups more directly, the Defense Ministry seized control of the online network that Wagner used to advertise vacancies. “They basically said, ‘We need your brand because it’s well known, but we’re going to do the recruiting ourselves, using your brand,’” a person close to the company’s management told Meduza, saying that the military has damaged Wagner’s reputation by lowering standards. “They’re hiring without even testing for drugs,” he said.
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Relationships and rivalries
Even recruited this way, Wagner Group mercenaries didn’t arrive on the frontlines in Ukraine until late March 2022. Months earlier, when Russia was still preparing for the invasion, Evgeny Prigozhin’s political clout was suffering. In fact, multiple sources told Meduza that he was at risk of falling out of favor with the presidential administration and Russia’s Defense Ministry.
On the eve of February 24, Prigozhin “was unsuccessfully trying to reach his contacts at the [General Staff’s Main Directorate],” says Bellingcat executive director Christo Grozev, “but he only succeeded once the invasion had begun.” Another source familiar with the matter told Meduza that Prigozhin had refused before the war started in February to mobilize his mercenaries for Ukraine without direct orders from President Putin.
According to two sources close to the Kremlin and another two with ties to the oligarch, Prigozhin disapproves of Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s domestic policy czar, particularly for supporting St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. The feud between Prigozhin and Beglov became a public controversy last winter when the oligarch started criticizing St. Petersburg’s regional government for failing to remove snow and trash. (Prigozhin even allegedly hired Leningrad band leader Sergey Shnurov to write and perform a song mocking the governor.)
The clash has involved both money and politics, including lucrative state contracts to renovate Konyushennaya Square’s historic stable building, as well as ballot access in 2021 for Prigozhin’s preferred local legislative assembly candidates.
Despite the war in Ukraine, the oligarch hasn’t backed down. On July 5, 2022, in an interview with a media outlet that he controls, Prigozhin called Beglov a “tyrant-governor” who “doesn’t want to get anything done.” These days, Prigozhin’s main gripe concerns state contracts to develop the Gorskaya tourist zone on the Gulf of Finland. Last year, a business affiliated with Prigozhin signed an agreement with the St. Petersburg authorities to complete this project, but officials ultimately hired a company with ties to Gazprom, rejecting Prigozhin’s plans to build manufacturing plants inside the tourist zone.
Evgeny Prigozhin has also quarreled with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, accusing his office of using ineffective, “outdated methods” in Syria. Meanwhile, Shoigu is reportedly unhappy with Prigozhin’s catering services, which is apparently why the oligarch has lost many of his military contracts in recent years. (Representatives for Evgeny Prigozhin and Russia’s Defense Ministry declined to comment on these allegations.)
Prigozhin also enraged Russia’s military high command in February 2018 when the Wagner Group attacked a gas processing plant in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, provoking a large U.S. response that killed dozens of Russian mercenaries. Journalists at The Bell later learned that the Wagner Group acted without informing the Defense Ministry, executing a private deal with the Assad regime that entitled the company to a quarter of all proceeds from oil and gas produced at “liberated” facilities in the area.
The first wave
In the first weeks of the invasion, most of the Russian mercenaries fighting in Ukraine were from a private military company called “Redoubt.” Hundreds of combatants from this group deployed in different units with names like “the Hooligans,” “the Wolves,” and “the Axes,” five sources confirmed to Meduza.
These units were formed and sent to Ukraine at breakneck speed. To fill these positions, Redoubt recruited former soldiers and officers blacklisted over the years for assorted reasons— men who were rejected in past interviews or hired and then fired.
One of these recruits was Ivan Mikheev, a disgraced former squadron leader given a new command with Redoubt. In the first days of the invasion, Mikheev’s small group crossed into Ukraine through Belarus and headed for Kyiv. Almost immediately, however, the mercenaries came under friendly fire. Mikheev was wounded and transferred back to Russia, where he died on the operating table “from a blood clot,” three weeks later, according to fellow mercenaries. The Donbas Volunteers’ Union and a handful of friends shared obituaries on social media. He was buried on March 28.
Redoubt, which still has a substantial number of combatants in Ukraine, is under the Russian Defense Ministry’s complete control, say four sources, including one of Redoubt’s own former commanders. The group’s headquarters is located in the town of Kubinka, outside Moscow, on land abutting the base of the 45th Airborne Brigade. Veterans who served on the base and multiple active mercenaries told Meduza that soldiers from the brigade are responsible for managing the private military company.
‘Just another dumbass with stars on his shoulders’
When heavy losses on the battlefield effectively incapacitated Redoubt, Russia’s Defense Ministry reassembled the group at the base in Kubinka. This time, the military invited the combatants to sign short-term contracts to serve officially in the armed forces. Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov organized this transition, one mercenary told Meduza. (Yevkurov did not respond to Meduza’s calls.)
But absorbing Redoubt’s men into the military did not help.
Though many of the combatants willingly signed contracts, working directly for the Defense Ministry has not ensured greater efficiency. Several recruited mercenaries complained to Meduza that the Defense Ministry has even failed to pay salaries and bonuses as promised (or sometimes at all). “I want what’s owed to me, but now I’m just a poor bastard with no rights! All I’ve got left to believe in is myself and my AK-47,” said one man.
A veteran mercenary with Redoubt told Meduza that the shabby state of Russia’s regular troops and the heavy losses they suffered in battle shocked him when he was in Ukraine. “I feel sorry for these 18-year-old kids who signed a contract believing in the state and their commanders, only to learn that the commander is just another dumbass with stars on his shoulders,” he said, describing how young soldiers were shocked to see professional mercenaries advance in battle without crippling losses. “They’re sending people to their deaths for nothing. As a branch of the military, the Airborne Forces no longer exists. There is just a dozen or so people left in whole companies. There should be 100 people in a company, you realize.”
On May 11, Redoubt mercenaries also witnessed Ukrainian artillery decimate a tactical group from Russia’s 35th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade when the latter tried to cross the Seversky Donets River in the Luhansk region. Reports of what unfolded describe absolute chaos: rows of infantry fighting vehicles ablaze, their operators burning alive, and tanks abandoned at a damaged pontoon bridge, soldiers escaping into the water. In the end, the fiasco at the river cost Russia a chance to encircle almost 15,000 Ukrainian troops in Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk. (Invading forces eventually captured these cities, but not before Ukraine’s military managed to retreat.)
Redoubt’s units in Ukraine suffered losses, too. One mercenary with the company told Meduza that his group managed without much trouble to seize and hold a town outside Kyiv early in the war but came up against fierce resistance in the Donetsk region when trying to cut Ukrainian supply lines. “They turned us back there,” he said. “The losses we had, it’s just insane. What they show on TV… If that were the reality, we’d have taken Poland already, let alone Kyiv!”
Mercenaries recruited by Redoubt have also joined other soldiers of fortune in squads deployed to Ukraine. There are currently at least two of these detachments (each with 200 men) operating in the Donbas region, and former Wagner Group commanders are in charge of both.
Wagner rides again
On April 16, 2022, State Duma deputy and outspoken conservative Vitaly Milonov published a photograph together with Evgeny Prigozhin. Dressed in camouflage and smiling, the two men posed in front of a school in Pervomaisk, in Ukraine’s Luhansk region. Just a few miles to the east, Prigozhin’s mercenaries were fighting tooth and nail to capture Popasna. (Two months later, in what became the group’s greatest breakthrough so far in the invasion, it seized the small town.)
In the spring, perhaps to address the miserable combat performance of Russia’s regular troops and “blacklist-recruited” fighters, the Defense Ministry ordered the Wagner Group to redeploy to Ukraine some of its “core team” who were then operating in Africa, Syria, and Libya.
But some “Wagner professionals” went to Ukraine for purely ideological reasons, said one source who knows several of these men. Many of the mercenaries in the company have Ukrainian roots. “They’re from Lysychansk, Popasna, Sloviansk,” he explained. “They came to crush the Ukes with the idea of settling the score for their own [who were killed in 2014 and 2015].”
Today, the Russian military uses Wagner Group combatants as its main strike force in Ukraine, “renting out” the mercenaries to forward army units. As a result, many of the PMC’s troops in Ukraine have been killed or injured. In at least one case, a Wagner squad leader ordered his men into battle without artillery or air cover. Three sources confirmed to Meduza that this squad commander soon turned up dead (though there’s disagreement about whether he perished mysteriously after returning to Russia or was executed by his own soldiers “under the laws of war” in the field).
The military’s failure to equip Wagner mercenaries with proper provisions has also aggravated losses on the battlefield. For example, one acquaintance told Meduza that the combatants sent to occupy Popasna were armed with minimal ammunition. “Four rounds to a man! If I hadn’t been in the exact same shit myself, I’d never believe it,” he said.
Despite these struggles, capturing Popasna clearly elevated the Wagner Group in the Russian authorities’ eyes. Two weeks later, in a rare public acknowledgement, a state television correspondent alluded to the PMC in a national broadcast, saying, “You can always find them where it’s very hot, but there’s never a word about them.”
The correspondent neglected to mention that officials in Ukraine and Africa have accused Wagner Group mercenaries of committing war crimes against civilians.
Though the Russian military has again turned to Evgeny Prigozhin’s elite mercenaries, the oligarch’s true feelings about his role in the invasion remain unclear. An acquaintance in St. Petersburg told Meduza that Prigozhin actually fancies himself a warlord, but a different associate insists that he is more concerned with maintaining contracts and Defense Ministry commitments in Syria and Africa.
Whatever his motivations, Prigozhin apparently received a Gold Star medal and the Hero of Russia honorary title for getting his men to Ukraine’s frontlines. Two sources close to the presidential administration told Meduza that the award was issued after the Wagner Group proved itself by securing settlements in the Luhansk region.
Thanks to these feats on the ground, Prigozhin’s stock with Vladimir Putin is now soaring, two sources familiar with the administration told Meduza, claiming that the catering magnate now belongs to the president’s wartime “inner circle.”
Postscript: Sobyanin’s Regiment
Everyone who spoke to Meduza for this story agreed that the Defense Ministry’s recruitment through private military companies has served as a form of “secret mobilization,” allowing the Kremlin to assemble more soldiers without upsetting the country’s domestic situation. The process has completely erased the boundary between mercenary groups, regular troops, and “volunteers.”
Beginning in the spring, regions across Russia started enlisting contract soldiers (not always locals) to form “volunteer battalions” to fight in Ukraine. Battalions have emerged in Chechnya, Tatarstan, Bashkiria, Perm, Kirov, and Nizhny Novgorod. Meduza found another one in Russia’s capital that is known informally to recruiters and mercenaries as “Sobyanin’s Regiment” (a curious name given Mayor Sobyanin’s efforts to distance himself from the war).
Meduza obtained the phone number of a Sobyanin Regiment recruiter from an army veteran contacted by the recruiter. The number is registered with the NumBuster and GetContact caller-identification services under the name Roman Vladimirovich Vysotsky.
A man with this exact name is also the former executive officer of the 9th Separate Assault Motorized Rifle Regiment of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. Also known by the callsign “The Bulgarian,” Vysotsky introduces himself as a “battalion commander” in “Sobyanin’s Regiment.” Recruitment for his unit got underway quite recently, beginning on July 1.
When a journalist from Meduza called the number, posing as an interested mercenary, the recruiter said there would be a month-long training period before deployment. He also promised a standard military salary from the Defense Ministry plus additional compensation of at least 200,000 rubles (more than $3,400), to be transferred in four payments from Moscow’s city budget. The money would arrive on special VTB debit cards. Applicants needed to register with the military enlistment office in Moscow’s Chertanovo district by July 15.
Meduza needs your support. A message from the author of this report, Lilya Yapparova:
In order to create this article, my colleagues and I spoke to more than 15 sources, including friends of Evgeny Prigozhin, mercenaries in multiple Russian private military companies, Kremlin insiders, and people currently on the frontlines in Ukraine. We even got ourselves “recruited” by what they’re calling Sobyanin’s Regiment, a special unit formed with money allocated by the mayor of Moscow! In order to continue investigative work like this, we need your help. Become a Meduza supporter today.
A document shared between regiment candidates and seen by Meduza also mentions “the mayor’s bonus payment” and directs potential combatants to an enlistment office in the Yuzhnoye Tushino district. The properties of this text file indicate that it was created by a certain Nikita Mikhailovich Gremyatsky. A man with this exact name is listed in several places online as a chief specialist in the Yuzhnoye Tushino district’s Public Affairs Office.
According to the guidelines shared with Meduza, Sobyanin’s Regiment accepts men under the age of 60 from anywhere in the country. While these recruitment efforts continue, Russia’s Defense Ministry has acknowledged only 1,351 combat deaths, last updating this figure in late March.
“I already have so many friends [in Ukraine] who have been maimed or killed,” a veteran mercenary who hasn’t joined the invasion told Meduza. “I’m already sick of hearing about this war. I just don’t pick up the phone anymore. All that happens is you find out that this one’s been killed and that one’s been killed. Soon there won’t be anyone left.”
In response to this story and Meduza’s unanswered questions sent before publication, Evgeny Prigozhin filed a request with Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee to press felony charges against the Meduza journalists responsible for this article.
Photos: Mikhail Metzel / TASS; Maxim Levin / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA; Vadim Ghirda / AP / Scanpix / LETA; Andrew Marienko / AP / Scanpix / LETA; Anatolii Stepanov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA