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The ‘W’ orchestra awaits you Russian journalists identify mercenary recruiters thanks to Wagner Group billboards in the regions
In mid-July, Meduza published an in-depth report about Russia mobilizing mercenaries to fight in Ukraine. Not long after, billboards began popping up in a number of Russian cities featuring thinly veiled recruitment ads for the Wagner Group — the notorious private military company financed by Kremlin-linked catering tycoon Evgeny Prigozhin. Following the clues contained in the billboard ads, journalists from the independent Russian media project Verstka managed to identify a number of recruiters apparently involved in the Wagner Group’s latest mobilization campaign. Meduza summarizes the investigation’s findings here.
Please note. With permission, Meduza published a lightly edited version of Verstka’s investigation in Russian, available here. The following English translation has been further edited and abridged for length and clarity.
In July, a new billboard ad went up in Ekaterinburg that read, “The ‘W’ orchestra awaits you.” The advertisement was actually a recruitment announcement inviting locals to join the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company sometimes referred to as the “orchestra” (a tongue-in-cheek reference to German composer Richard Wagner, who is said to be the PMC’s namesake). The ad included a phone number and a web link — wagner2022.org — that led to an application form. According to the news site RBC, the website, which is no longer available, was registered in the Netherlands in the spring of 2022.
Before it was taken down, the website featured a promotional video shot in Syria, as well as the phone numbers of regional recruiters for the Wagner Group. Verstka journalists traced these phone numbers back to their owners and discovered that at least three of them have criminal records, and at least two of them appear to be former or current employees of Russian law enforcement agencies. What’s more, several of the recruiters didn’t bother to hide their line of work, listing the Wagner PMC as their employer on social media and using the mercenary group’s symbols as their profile pictures.
Verstka journalists tried contacting the Wagner Group’s recruiters using the phone numbers from the website. Most of the people they spoke to denied having any links to the PMC, claiming they didn’t know what the journalists were talking about. Some even changed their Wagner-themed profile pictures after receiving Verstka’s inquiries. Three of the recruiters who did not deny their association with the PMC refused to provide additional details, citing the sheer amount of publicly available information.
In mid-July, Meduza uncovered that the Russian Defense Ministry had seized control of the Wagner Group’s recruiters and online recruitment network ahead of the February invasion of Ukraine. Here’s what we now know about some of the recruiters apparently involved in this mobilization campaign.
The phone number listed on the Wagner Group’s website for its recruiter in the Altai Krai was the same as the contact number on the VKontakte page “PMC ‘Wagner’ Altai Krai.” This number belongs to 63-year-old Sergey Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov’s VKontakte profile picture is the pro-war letter “Z” in the colors of the St. George Ribbon, accompanied by a hashtag that reads “Svoikh Ne Brosaem” (a Russian propaganda slogan that translates to “No man left behind”). There’s also an older profile page under Kuznetsov’s name, which he claims to have abandoned after it was “hacked” in 2014. According to the older profile page, Kuznetsov attended Kazakh Ablai Khan University in Kazakhstan, as well as the Altai branch of RANEPA.
According to the SPARK-Interfax database, Kuznetsov was once the co-owner of at least three different private security companies registered in the Altai Krai. Kuznetsov was also listed as the founder of a public organization in the region called the National Association of Bodyguards of Barnaul and as the chairman of the Barnaul Practical Shooting Federation.
Kuznetsov’s current VK profile says that he’s now the head of the Sergey Kuznetsov Special Training Center. According to its VKontakte page, the center teaches clients how to spar, handle weapons, and provide first aid. The page’s information section promises potential clients that “You will become a warrior” and cites the company slogan: “Either we are strong or we are dead.”
The page also has a pinned post announcing that the “LEGENDARY [sic] Russian private military company Wagner” is seeking new recruits for “highly-paid work abroad.” Wagner Group mercenaries, it says, “are fighting shoulder to shoulder against European Nazism on the territory of former Soviet Ukraine.”
Verstka sent a message to the phone number listed for the Wagner Group’s recruiter in the Belgorod region, asking him to comment on his work for the PMC. “What I know about Wagner is that he’s a good composer,” the recipient replied. Asked why his contact information was on the mercenary group’s website, he said there had been “a mistake.”
Verstka journalists traced this phone number to a 25-year-old named Valentin Chernyak, but were unable to find any of his social media accounts. Judging by information available on Russian court websites, however, there’s a man with a colorful criminal record who shares his full name and date of birth.
According to the Belgorod region’s Rovensky District Court, one Valentin Chernyak was found guilty of attempted theft in 2016 and sentenced to 300 hours of compulsory labor. Although he pleaded guilty to the felony charges, Chernyak evaded his community service and was then re-sentenced to 28 days in jail.
Later that year, Chernyak pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge, battery, and was sentenced to 60 hours of compulsory labor. Six months later, in 2017, Chernyak was charged with four counts of theft and one count of theft of documents, and was sentenced to four years in a prison colony.
In 2020 — after Chernyak was released from prison — a man who shares his full name and date of birth took a job as an auto mechanic at a company called Stroitelnaya Dorozhnaya Organizatisia LLC. The phone number traced to 25-year-old Valentin Chernyak, the recruiter, first appeared on the Wagner Group’s website in the summer of 2022.
Chernyak’s personal information also appears on the website of Russia’s Federal Bailiffs Service, where it says that he has received three tickets for traffic violations and owes 11,278 rubles ($205) in fines.
Verstka traced the phone number of one Moscow-based recruiter to 53-year-old Nikolay Tkach. On WhatsApp, there’s a business account registered to this number — and its profile includes links to the Wagner PMC’s website and its Moscow VKontakte group.
According to the SPARK-Interfax database, Nikolay Tkach was born in Kalynivka — a town in Ukraine’s Vinnytsia region that came under fire in the early days of the February invasion. According to his VK profile, Tkach studied at Drahomanov National Pedagogical University in Kyiv.
In 2010, a man who shares Tkach’s full name and date of birth registered a business in Petrovsk (Saratov region); the business closed in 2012. The next year, Tkach appeared before a court in Voskresensk (Moscow region) to face felony arbitrariness charges (according to the court documents, he got in an argument with his common-law partner and then sold off a bunch of her things, including household appliances and furniture). Tkach was found guilty and fined 7,000 rubles (the equivalent of $123 today).
In 2019, a man whose personal information matches Tkach’s worked for a private security company in Moscow called Neomax-SB. In 2021, he worked for JSC United Engine Corporation, a subsidiary of the state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec specializing in the production and maintenance of engines for military and civil aircraft.
The phone number listed for the Wagner Group’s recruiter in the Vladimir region belongs to Anton Godun, a 26-year-old military man originally from the Penza region. At one time, Godun was the commander of military unit based in the city of Murom. Whether or not he still serving in the Russian army is uknown. However, his VKontakte profile lists his place of work as “PMC ‘Wagner’ Murom.”
Godun’s VK avatar is an image of a man in military uniform playing a violin (pictured below) and he has posted a number of calls to join the ranks of the Wagner Group.
According to the website of the Federal Bailiffs service, one Anton Godun (who has the same date of birth as the recruiter) was sued in 2019 for failing to pay his utility bills. At the time, Godun’s place of residence was listed as Okhtyrka, a city in Ukraine’s Sumy region. The enforcement proceedings against him were dropped in 2020, because Russian bailiffs were unable to determine his whereabouts.
Before Anton Godun joined the military and became a Wagner Group recruiter, a man by this same name was listed as the CEO of Agropromtorg LLC, a company that traded in fruits and vegetables, as well as timber and building materials.
The recruiters name also came up in the databases of so-called “anti-creditors” (companies that help debtors deal with collection agencies) in the Vladimir region. According to these records, a person named Anton Godun has stood trial for one misdemeanor (drinking alcohol in public) and two felony offenses (theft and insulting a government official). However, Verstka journalists couldn’t find records of these cases on Russian court websites.
When Verstka journalists messaged the phone number listed on the Wagner Group’s website, the respondent confirmed that his name is Anton and that he has ties to the PMC. However, he refused to comment further, saying only that “all the information is in the public domain.”
The Wagner Group’s recruiter in the Novosibirsk region is 60-year-old Andrey Bulgakov, who was born in the village of Chernovka (Samara region). According to his VKontakte profile, Bulgakov studied at the Novosibirsk Military Institute of the National Guard Troops.
Bulgakov makes no secret of his line of work. His avatar on both Telegram and WhatsApp is a photo of a patch with an image of a soldier and the phrase “Musicians known to the whole world” (an apparent reference to the Wagner Group’s musical namesake). And his phone number is listed on the PMC’s Novosibirsk VKontakte group.
In previous years, according to the Spark-Interfax database, Bulgakov served as the co-owner and CEO of at least four private security companies.
Bulgakov was placed on a federal wanted list in March 2001, but was removed from the missing persons registry that December.
At present, a man whose personal information matches Bulgakov’s is listed as the head of Dorogi Sibiri LLC, a company registered in March 2019. In 2021, the company’s total revenue amounted to more than 34 million rubles (nearly $600,000). So far this year, Dorogi Sibiri has signed at least six government contracts — mainly for the supply of asphalt concrete mixture — totaling more than 5.8 million rubles ($102,000).
When Verstka journalists messaged Bulgakov with a request for comment on his work for the Wagner Group, he immediately changed his WhatsApp avatar. His profile picture on Telegram remains unchanged.
Nizhny Novgorod region
The Wagner Group’s HR rep in the Nizhny Novgorod region is 50-year-old Alexey Khlebnikov. Someone by this name used to work for a food, beverage, and tobacco retailer called CSJC Tander and for LLC Bystrov Trend — a food production company.
Alexey Khlebnikov had his VKontakte profile set to private (it has since been deleted). His profile picture was an image of the “The Son of Man” by Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte.
Khlebnikov’s full name and date of birth also came up in a traffic police database: apparently, he has racked up five speeding tickets.
The phone number listed for the Wagner Group’s Krasnodar Krai recruiter belongs to a man by the name of Andrey Lazarev. This same number is also listed as the contact information for the VKontakte group “Wagner Krasnodar.”
According to the caller-identification service GetContact, this number has been saved under a variety of names, including “Rozysk MVD” (shorthand for the Interior Ministry’s investigations department), “Oper” (as in “operative”) and “Investigator Andrey”, among others.
The PMC’s recruiter in Crimea used a phone number registered to Alexander Peretyatko, a 42-year-old originally from the town of Krasnoperekopsk. For more than 10 years, including during Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Peretyatko worked as a junior security inspector at Correctional Colony No. 16 in Murmashi, a village in the Murmansk region. He flew to Simferopol, Crimea’s second largest city, in June and August 2014.
The number listed for Wagner Group’s recruiter in the Rostov region belongs to 51-year-old Stanislav Potiy. From 2012 to 2018, Potiy was the head of a local radio station called Rekord. According to his profile on the website Radioportal, Potiy attended a Communications College in Rostov-on-Don, as well as the North Caucasus Branch of Moscow Technical University of Communications and Informatics. His Radioportal profile describes his professional experience as “sound engineer.”
When Verstka journalists sent a message to the Rostov recruiter’s phone number, the person who responded said his name was Stanislav and that he’s associated with the Wagner PMC. He also said that he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists about “the company’s internal affairs” and recommended they get information from open sources.
“Nowadays, books have been written about the company’s activities and feature films have been made. Not to mention [YouTube videos],” he wrote in his last message. “Good luck with your journalistic activities.”
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart
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