Oct 31, 2023

Yevgeny Prigozhin's Meat Grinder: A Moment of Truth for Russia's Wagner Group in Bakhmut

[M]: Mikhail Metzel / SNA / IMAGO; AP / dpa; RIA Novosti / SNA / IMAGO; REUTERS; Valentin Sprinchak / ITAR-TASS / IMAGO

The clip that Yevgeny Prigozhin recently posted to his Telegram channel could easily have been mistaken for a poorly made horror film. It shows a field at night, bloodied dead bodies lying in the light of Prigozhin's flashlight. Also in the video is Prigozhin himself, a brawny, bald man wearing a pistol in a holster. "These are boys from Wagner who died today. Their blood is still fresh!" he growls. The camera pans further, and only now can viewers see that there are four grisly rows of bodies. Dozens of corpses in uniform, many of them with no boots.

Then Prigozhin steps directly in front of the camera and explodes. His face contorted in anger, he hurls insults at Russian military leaders who, he says, are failing to provide him with the munitions he needs. "You will eat their entrails in hell," he yells. "Shoigu, Gerasimov, where is the fucking ammunition?" It is an outburst of rage against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, but staged for better effect and loaded with profanity and contempt. Prigozhin sounds like a bandit challenging his rivals on the outskirts of town at night. Like he would like to turn both Shoigu and Gerasimov into corpses that he could then lay next to his boys.

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 20/2023 (May 13th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

Russia last week celebrated its World War II victory over Nazi Germany with the usual military parade on Red Square, a speech by the president and marching music. But whatever uplifting images the Kremlin wanted to create in Moscow, they were overwhelmed by Prigozhin's nighttime parade of corpses and his abuse, recorded in a field somewhere near Bakhmut in the Donbas, where he had sent the Wagner Group fighters to their deaths.

Prigozhin, a businessman from St. Petersburg, has good contacts within Putin's closest circle and is the leader of a notorious mercenary unit that is active from Syria to Mali. Prior to Putin's invasion of Ukraine, he was very rarely in the public eye. Now, though, the war has given him a new role and a new stage.

His is the story of one man's rise to unimaginable power. Within Putin's dictatorship, it appears that Prigozhin can do whatever he likes. He can promise people their freedom or send them to their deaths, he can humiliate powerful men and openly threaten his enemies. And his story is also that of an outfit that fights without mercy – and, in this war's longest battle in Bakhmut, is sacrificed without mercy.

Prigozhin poses as Putin's loyal bloodhound, but also threatens the very system the president has built up. He has turned the sledgehammer into a symbol of his politics, to the horror of the Russian elite and the pleasure of some Russians. He takes care of the dirty work for Putin – but he has decided to highlight that filth instead of doing his work in the shadows. He has given a face to the brutalization of the Putin regime. Many, though, have been left to wonder: Is this man powerful? Is he a megalomaniac? Desperate? All of the above?

A photo of a Wagner mercenary fighting in house-to-house combat in Bakhmut, published in a state-run Russian media outlet

Hardly a day has passed in recent months without Prigozhin posting audio files, videos or photos to his Telegram channel. He has had himself filmed in an embattled salt mine and in the cockpit of a Su-24 bomber. He presented mandarin oranges to Ukrainian prisoners of war at New Year's, only to then threaten that he would be taking no more prisoners. He has offered his services as a mediator in Sudan, insulted the family of the Russian defense minister, complained about competition from Gazprom mercenaries and said he should be given 200,000 troops so he could take care of Ukraine once and for all. He has talked and talked and talked.

One week before his video of the dead bodies in the field, Prigozhin sat down for the most in-depth interview he has given in quite some time. In it, he presented a different version of himself: that of a jovial, even cheerful older man in reading glasses who is fond of talking about his own merits. Wearing an olive-green, Beretta-brand fleece, he was sitting in a windowless room, apparently his headquarters in the Donbas.

"In this room," Prigozhin claimed in the interview, he and his people developed the battleplan for Bakhmut, the "Bakhmut Meat Grinder." The idea, he said, was to wear down a large part of the Ukrainian army during the fighting. Then, Prigozhin continued, they had invited Army General Sergei Surovikin – who was commander of the invasion force at the time – to join them. "Surovikin sat down, listened to our plan, and went 'Holy Shit!' and said, 'Boys, fuck it all, I graduated from the Military Academy for no reason at all!'"

Wagner Group head Yevgeny Priogozhin

Prigozhin in a video message to the Russian army leadership

It was the kind of story one frequently hears from Prigozhin – and it is totally unclear where fact and fiction intersect. It was meant to show that the businessman, who never advanced beyond the rank of private, is on a level with Russia's senior-most generals. That the battle plan came directly from him. And that the months of slamming into enemy positions, far from being a mistake, was actually part of a clever plan.

It's just that the meat grinder is no longer working, because his troops are also being butchered – and because he is no longer receiving the munitions he needs. It is a complaint that Prigozhin has been making for quite some time.

The fact is, Prigozhin has made the conquering of Bakhmut his personal mission. It was apparently his idea to attack the city before Ukrainian supply lines were cut, thus turning it into a battle of attrition – from the standpoint of both personnel and materiel. For weeks, this small town in the Donbas has been on the verge of being completely overrun. In recent days, however, the Ukrainians have begun to claw back territory from the Russians.

The most surprising thing is not, however, that a businessman and head of a private mercenary army (which shouldn't exist according to Russian law) claims to have developed this suicidal battle plan together with army commanders. It's the fact that this man was also allowed to recruit his fighters from the prisons of Russia.

Rustam, a captured Wagner Group fighter, in prison in Ukraine. The red bracelet stands for HIV and the white for hepatitis – markings used in the Wagner Group to identify the illnesses inflicting the prisoners they recruit.

One of his fighters was Rustam, 42, a man with a gray, haggard face and a weak, high-pitched voice. He spent a few days in the meat grinder of Bakhmut as a disposable soldier, a tiny figure on Prigozhin's vast chessboard. Currently, he is waiting in a prison in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, waiting to be included in a prisoner exchange. It is there that he told DER SPIEGEL his story.

Rustam, whose name has been changed for this story, wears two bracelets on his left wrist. The red one stands for HIV and the white for hepatitis – symbols used in the Wagner Group to identify the infections that the prisoners in its ranks suffer from. Rustam is now in the advanced stages of AIDS, and he estimates that he has just three or four years left to live. His prison sentence was far longer than that: 11.5 years for the possession and consumption of methadone. When Wagner representatives showed up in his camp in the Ural region, he still had a decade left to serve, and his calculation was a simple one: Serve six months in Ukraine and be released; or die behind bars.

Of the 30 men who reported for duty from Rustam's colony, he was apparently one of the most able-bodied. Only nine of them managed to complete the required fitness test, the sit-ups and the pull-ups. He says they were told they wouldn't be used as fighters anyway and would instead be responsible for pulling the injured and dead from the battlefield.

Ukrainian soldier from the 113th Brigade in Bakhmut about the Wagner fighters.

Rustam received three weeks of training from the Wagner Group in a camp in Ukraine, apparently close to the front. Rustam says that he could sometimes hear artillery fire. "You can ignore the rules you learned in prison," they were told. "We are now all one family."

He went into battle for his first and last time on the night of February 9. Suddenly, there was no longer any mention of just recovering the wounded. Instead, they were ordered to take a bit of high ground near Bakhmut, and they immediately came under fire from grenade launchers and snipers. Rustam crawled back and forth, playing dead when drones flew overhead. He was a living bull's-eye in the snow, which he ate to still his thirst. On the second day, he was shot in the arm and lost consciousness. When he woke up, he was a war prisoner.

Rustam now says he never again wants to go into battle. Though that is a pledge he also made to himself two decades ago, back when he returned from the Chechen war.

There are up to 10,000 Wagner fighters currently in Ukraine, according to a senior official in the Ukrainian military intelligence agency HUR, and most of them have been deployed in and around Bakhmut. The meat grinder has been in operation for months now. Housing block by housing block, destroyed home by destroyed home, the Ukrainians have pulled back.

Wagner fighters in Bakhmut

They observed Prigozhin's battle tactics with horror. "They were like the White Walkers from 'Game of Thrones,'" says a Ukrainian soldier from the 113th Brigade in Bakhmut – referring to the creatures on the HBO series who rode out of the ice and into battle on undead horses, immune to fear and pain. "They would advance directly into our fire. Once the first wave was dead, the next one appeared. And the next. It sometimes went on like that for half a day or an entire night." The Russians continued launching such attacks, the Ukrainian soldier says, for two months, until the Wagner prisoners were replaced by soldiers from the regular Russian army.

A Ukrainian junior officer shows a video taken by an infrared camera of men armed with assault rifles who, rather than running, apparently walked into battle unconcerned about cover. They simply strode onward, straight ahead.

The HUR official estimates that up to 70 percent of the attackers died in such assaults.

But in the battle for Bakhmut, it's not just the many thousand Russian prisoners who have been crippled and killed. It is quite possible that the entire Wagner Group in its present form is currently experiencing its demise on the Ukrainian battlefield. Because Prigozhin's attempt to blackmail the military leadership has failed. He vocally threatened to withdraw his troops from Bakhmut due to a lack of munitions. The supplies never showed up, but Prigozhin remained. He apparently overplayed his hand.

That does not change the fact, however, that this man has permanently altered Putin's regime, just as the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov before him.

Indeed, Prigozhin is frequently compared to Kadyrov: Both men have made blatant brutality a trademark. Both take care of Putin's dirty work. Both are outsiders among the Russian elite. Both have contributed a fighting force to the attack on Ukraine – and have formed situational alliances.

But Kadyrov has an official post and a clearly defined region under his control. Prigozhin is formally a businessman, nothing more. On the other hand, though, he has a nose for politics. In a system where open debate and political wrangling no longer exist, he has brought them back with his vulgar slogans and macabre videos. He has linked the issue of munitions with attacks on the bureaucracy, on the elites in their villas (as though he weren't one of them) and on an alleged "deep state" of pro-Western liberals in Moscow. It is a message that many in Russia are eager to hear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin together with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov

Nothing illustrates that development more clearly than the sledgehammer story. In November 2022, Wagner mercenaries murdered a deserter in horrific fashion. As a prisoner of war in Ukraine, Yevgeniy Nushin had claimed to be a defector. He was handed back to his old unit after a prisoner exchange. To make an example of him, they bashed in his head in front of the camera. Prigozhin praised the clip for its "fantastic directing." The instrument of violence was not chosen at random: Back in 2017, Wagner mercenaries also used a sledgehammer to murder a Syrian, filming that scene as well.

Two months after the public murder of Nushin, Sergei Mironov, a prominent member of the Duma, Russia's parliament, posed for photographs with an autographed sledgehammer presented to him by Prigozhin. "For S.M. Mironov from the PMC Wagner. Bakhmut – Soledar," read the inscription on the shaft, along with a smiley. "A useful instrument," joked Mironov.

Mironov is a typical product of the Putin system, a man who goes with the political winds. The parliamentary party he leads, A Just Russia – For Truth, has made sharp changes of course. It says a lot about the mood in the country when such a figure poses with a Wagner sledgehammer and there is hardly a peep from the public at large.

Some have begun comparing Prigozhin's role with that of the Oprichniki, the bloodthirsty special core deployed by Ivan the Terrible to keep his elite in line. Their emblem was a dog's head and a broom, which they used to cleanse the empire of traitors. Prigozhin has replaced the broom with a sledgehammer.

For now, Moscow's elite is more fascinated by Prigozhin than afraid of him. "It's not like he walks the streets with a sledgehammer," says a former senior Kremlin official. "Prigozhin's success has gone to his head, which is dangerous for him personally. He is still needed today, but tomorrow, they’ll tear his head off."

"We all lived through the 1990s, a time when there were also a number of nasty bandits," says one businessman. "If people are afraid, they are less fearful of Prigozhin than they are of the secret service and of Putin."

"Prigozhin has the role of a dog who barks at everybody and keeps the elite on their toes," says secret service expert Irina Borogan. "It's clear that Putin quite likes it." She believes that Prigozhin is seeking a seat on the Security Council, side-by-side with Putin's intelligence service partners – if for no other reason than for protection.

Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya

After all, Prigozhin's only powerbase thus far as been Putin's goodwill. He hardly has any powerful allies, but no shortage of enemies. The fact that he still enjoyed Putin's support until recently is clear: Nobody except Putin could have authorized the recruitment of mercenary fighters from the nation's prison camps. But for how much longer will that support last? And might Putin ultimately see Prigozhin as a threat?

"I don't think that Putin feels threatened by him. But it's a similar situation to Kadyrov: The two present no danger to the regime only as long as Putin is still in power," says political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya. "It is clear that Prigozhin is thinking to a time beyond Putin."

But Prigozhin might already represent a danger to Putin's system, even in his weakest moments. It is evident that the videos he produced in Bakhmut were made out of desperation, calls for help addressed to a president to whom he has no direct access. Prigozhin attacks publicly because he is unable to get what he wants behind the scenes. But that, too, is a danger to the system.

"Prigozhin isn't dangerous to the elite because of his sledgehammer. It's because he's the only big-name politician who says openly what people otherwise only whisper about among themselves," says the Moscow-based political expert Marina Litvinovich.

It's not easy to tell the story of Prigozhin's mercenary army in retrospect because it is set in so many different places at the same time: in eastern Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, Mali, the penal colonies of the Urals and the cafe's of St. Petersburg.

Generally speaking, it is the story of an experiment that spun out of control. It began with the idea of establishing a mercenary operation to use force abroad but from which the Kremlin could distance itself. To delegate violence to an outsourcing specialist who had, as a caterer and service provider, already taken on a handful of other tasks on behalf of the Russian army. That was the first, successful phase of the experiment. Prigozhin's mercenaries allowed the Kremlin to operate undercover in the Donbas, put boots on the ground in Syria and build a kind of low-cost empire in Africa.

But with Putin's 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the original idea was suddenly transformed into its opposite. That is the second phase of the experiment: The small group of professional fighters turned into an army of untrained prisoners. Casualties that the Kremlin wanted to hide suddenly became grisly videos of dead bodies on Telegram. The army's erstwhile helper became its most vocal critic. The experiment spun out of control.

The story begins in St. Petersburg. Prigozhin's headquarters can be found in a small, 18th century palace right on the banks of the Neva River at Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment 7. There is no company sign on the building and most city residents have no idea who has their offices here – even if the area hit the headlines not long ago. Just a couple of buildings down the road, the military blogger Maxim Fomin, aka Vladlen Tatarsky, was killed by an explosion. In a certain sense, the bomb also targeted Prigozhin: The café where Tatarsky died was once operated by Prigozhin before he gave it to the Cyber Front Z, a trolling group sponsored by the businessman and to which Tatarsky spoke that evening. Indeed, Tatarsky also received money through Prigozhin's network.

St. Petersburg is Prigozhin's hometown, just as it is Vladimir Putin's, even if their lives took dramatically different paths. Putin once worked for the Soviet secret service agency KGB, and the fall of the Soviet Union was traumatic for him. Prigozhin, by contrast, who is nine years younger, focused his attentions on robbing apartments and spent several years in a penal colony. For him, the Soviet collapse was a liberation. He was released from prison in 1990 and dove headfirst into the new world, initially selling hotdogs before then opening the city's first fine dining establishment called the Old Customs House. He got to know Putin's bodyguard Viktor Zolotov and benefited from Putin's rise. The media began referring to him as "Putin's chef," even though Putin rarely visited his restaurants and Prigozhin wasn't a cook.

"Shoigu's caterer" would have been the more fitting moniker. Prigozhin's wealth came from huge state contracts, including supplying the vast Russian army with food starting in 2012. He even built and operated entire garrisons.

In parallel, he also constructed a gigantic media empire, including his own newswire. He also produced cheap movies and had plenty of money to influence public opinion on social media.

Because Prigozhin already provided services to the army, the founding of a mercenary company was, from a business standpoint, simply an expansion of his portfolio. With the small difference that mercenary companies were, and still are, illegal in Russia. For that reason, Prigozhin consistently denied being behind the Wagner Group prior to the invasion of Ukraine, even disclaiming its very existence. That is no longer necessary: In November, he celebrated the opening of a Wagner Center in eastern St. Petersburg, a high-rise office building where he offers space to patriotic bloggers and drone builders. The façade of the building reads "PMC Wagner Center" in large letters in Russian. PMC is the abbreviation for "private military company."

"I conceived PMC Wagner. I lead PMC Wagner. I have always financed PMC Wagner," Prigozhin announced in January. It was only in 2022, he has said, that he "naturally had to find new funding sources."

Among those who were around during the early days of the Wagner Group and who are familiar with Prigozhin's headquarters on the Neva from the inside is Marat Gabidullin, a former mercenary with a sun-tanned, thoughtful face.

A building belonging to the Wagner Group in St. Petersburg, the city where Prigozhin was born

"Prigozhin believes that God himself gave him the right to lead people, earn vast quantities of money and be an important person. And he is 100 percent convinced that all of his decisions are correct. He knows no limits," Gabidullin says in a video call from his apartment in the South of France. He has left Russia and written a book about the time he spent as a member of the Wagner Group.

Gabidullin's story is one of gradual disillusionment.

His nom-de-guerre was "Grandpa." He was already in his late 40s when he joined the mercenary army in 2015 – a former airborne officer with a penchant for drink and a conviction for murder. The demand for irregular troops was significant at the time: Following the Euromaidan Revolution in Kyiv, Russia had annexed the Crimea and launched a war in eastern Ukraine, but the Kremlin was interested in covering up its involvement. When possible, Russia's leaders preferred sending in volunteers, Cossacks, mercenaries and militias.

On April 1, 2015, Gabidullin got a job with Evro Polis, a company belonging to Prigozhin. The unit's training camp was located in Molkino, right next to a base belonging to GRU, the military intelligence service. That made it abundantly clear that Prigozhin was operating with permission from on high. Gabidullin was ultimately sent to the Donbas.

Prigozhin's troops have been in the eastern Ukrainian industrial region since 2014, not just fighting against the Ukrainian army, but also against pro-Russian rebels when they showed signs of getting out of control. There are rumors circulating that the Wagner Group has eliminated several separatist leaders over the years. According to Gabidullin, the mercenaries surrounded and disarmed the Odessa Battalion, among others. The relationship with local militia units was tense. Initially, though, all that took place in secret.

Former Wagner Group mercenary Marat Gabidullin

It was Putin's military intervention in Syria that launched the Wagner Group into the public spotlight. The fighting force was unofficially called "Wagner," after the nom de guerre of its commander Dmitry Utkin, a former Spetsnaz officer with a penchant for Nazi symbols and SS tattoos on his chest.

In contrast to the Donbas, Russia's leadership didn't want to cover up its involvement in Syria, but it did want to minimize official casualties. Russia sent in its air force to help the country's dictator, Bashar Assad, cling to power, but Moscow didn't want to get involved on the ground. Prigozhin's mercenaries were intended to provide a bit of assistance.

It put Gabidullin and his comrades somewhere between Russia and Syria. They were fighting on the ground with Russian equipment, but they were under contract to Syrian business leaders. When they found success, such as in 2016 with the first storming of Palmyra, others would take credit. But when they died, even that could be disclaimed. In early February 2018, during an attack on a natural gas field east of the Euphrates, Gabidullin and his comrades came under fire from American troops. According to leaked Wagner Group documents, 80 Russian mercenaries died in the incident. Gabidullin believes the number was closer to 100. They were essentially victims of the distance that Moscow wanted to maintain from Wagner. The regular Russian army did nothing to try to prevent the disaster, even though they had been warned by the U.S. After all, the troops didn't formally belong to the Russian military.

Gabidullin left the group in 2019. "When I joined Wagner, it was still a mercenary force. But then, Wagner became a slave army," he says bitterly. He estimates that it had grown by then to between 2,500 and 3,000 fighters.

The Wagner Group became so well-known due to its activities in Syria that denying its existence became increasingly untenable and absurd. When the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar met in February 2018 with Defense Minister Shoigu in Moscow, Prigozhin could also be seen in the background. Officially, he was just in charge of serving lunch that day.

But the press photos from Haftar's delegation make it clear that Prigozhin was at the table for the negotiations – that "Putin's chef" was nowhere near the kitchen. The Kremlin, after all, needed him, especially in Africa. Almost three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin wanted to demonstrate Russia's return to the African continent, but with cheaper means. Prigozhin helped him do so.

The country where Wagner's expansion to the African continent began was Sudan, of all places. From here, they spread to more than a dozen other countries on the continent, frequently following the same script: Weakened autocrat needs help and is willing to pay with access to raw materials.

It is therefore no coincidence that on April 20, 2023, Prigozhin published an open letter to the two conflict parties in Sudan who have been openly waging war against each other for the past couple of weeks – the regular army on one side and the Rapid Support Forces on the other. In the letter, Prigozhin offered his services as a mediator. He has, he wrote, "long had ties" with the country and has "spoken with all decision-makers in the Republic of the Sudan." And that likely wasn't an exaggeration.

Back in 2017, Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir presented his country to the Russians as the "key to Africa" in a meeting with Putin at the Russian president's Black Sea residence in Sochi. The Kremlin was interested in returning to the continent following decades of inactivity there, and also wanted a naval base on the Red Sea. The internationally isolated al-Bashir, meanwhile, was looking for help free of onerous conditions.

Following al-Bashir's meeting with Putin, the Sudanese signed a contract with M Invest, a company from Prigozhin's empire, giving it a concession for gold prospecting. Prigozhin sent in geologists, minerologists, trainers and weapons, and launched a disinformation campaign.

The deal – gold in exchange for holding onto power – soon failed. Following a wave of protests in the country, al-Bashir was overthrown by his own military on April 11, 2019. A week prior to the putsch, Prigozhin would later say, he had personally warned al-Bashir in Khartoum of "an apocalyptic scenario" if he didn't "take consequences." What he meant by "consequences" became clear through a leak: Prigozhin's advisers had provided a few ideas for how the dictator could bring the protests to an end, with the suggestions ranging from denouncing the opposition as "enemies of Islam and traditional values" to public executions.

The cooperation between Prigozhin and the rulers in Khartoum survived the fall of dictator al-Bashir and a further putsch in 2021. New military deals were signed with Russia. Moscow officials have close ties to both generals in senior leadership: General Burhan and General Daglo, known as Hemeti.

The cooperation with RSF leader Hemeti was of particular interest for Prigozhin. The general controls the vast goldmines in Darfur and South Kordofan and is involved in smuggling gold abroad. Prigozhin's company delivered weapons to Hemeti's RSF troops and received access to the gold trade in return, with the gold being smuggled out of the country onboard Russian aircraft. The U.S. broadcaster CNN was able to identify at least 16 such flights from early 2021 to mid-2022. Wagner is also thought to be involved in uranium mining in the country.

In the most recent power struggle between Burhan and Hemeti, Moscow has officially declined to take sides. Prigozhin, for his part, has offered his services as a mediator, but has also reportedly delivered shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles to Hemeti's RSF troops. Whether Prigozhin's mercenaries are also involved in the fighting is unclear. Prigozhin claims that Wagner forces haven't been in the country for the last two years.

If Sudan was the "key to Africa" for Prigozhin, then the neighboring Central African Republic has become his primary base. Nowhere else can Wagner Group forces feel as at home as here. They have managed to accomplish what experts refer to as "state capture," the almost complete infiltration of all state functions.

Russian soft and hard power found ideal conditions in the country. A civil war has been raging since 2012 and the power vacuum grew even larger in 2016, when the former colonial power of France brought its military intervention to an end. A UN mission failed to provide much help. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra ultimately turned to Moscow, with the Russians officially sending trainers in 2018, in addition to light weapons for the army.

The trainers were Wagner mercenaries who got involved in the fighting themselves. In December 2020, they stopped a rebel advance on the capital, a success that Prigozhin's people quickly turned into an action film that had its premiere in May 2021 in the stadium of Bangui, the country's capital. They managed to keep President Touadéra in office and were able to take back large towns and main traffic arterials. Before long, they provided the presidential guard and Touadéra's senior security advisers.

Wagner mercenaries playing the role of security guards for the president of the Central African Republic in Bangui 2019

Prigozhin's people have a say in passing laws and installing or deposing politicians. Sometimes, Wagner mercenaries even directly collect customs payments at the country's borders. Prigozhin's people organize cultural events in the country and operate a radio station. Since 2019, Russian has been taught in the country's schools.

And just as in Sudan, Prigozhin's companies have gained access to natural resources in the Central African Republic, including diamond and gold mines, but also to tropical hardwoods. As DER SPIEGEL recently reported together with its partners from the investigative network European Investigative Collaborations and the non-governmental organization All Eyes on Wagner, the mercenary group relies on a convoluted maze of companies to do so, with names like Lobaye Invest, Diamville and Bois Rouge.

French President Emmanuel Macron has referred to Touadéra as a "hostage of the Wagner Group," and France suspended military and financial aid to the country in 2021. Russia – with Prigozhin's help – succeeded in driving the former colonial power of France out of the country. This pattern would be frequently repeated, most obviously in Mali.

Wagner Group mercenaries have been active in that country since 2021 at the invitation of the governing putschists, with their number estimated at between 1,000 and 1,600. They have far less influence on the government here than in the Central African Republic, but they have introduced a new severity and ruthlessness into the conflict, in which both Germany and France have been unsuccessfully engaged for years. In March 2022, Wagner mercenaries fighting alongside the Malian army killed more than 300 people in Moura, many of them civilians.

The Russians are allegedly helping the government fight Islamist terrorism. "The Russians have an extremely broad definition of what a jihadi is. Sometimes, pants ending above the ankle is enough," a high-ranking European military officer told DER SPIEGEL. The security situation in the country, meanwhile, hasn't improved. But the Wagner Group has been able to celebrate a different victory: In August 2022, the last French soldier left the country, marking the end of an almost decade-long military intervention by the former colonial power.

The future of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA is also in question. Britain, Egypt and Germany have all announced their intention to pull out their troops.

The Wagner Group's real success in Africa, says Samuel Ramani of the British think tank Rusi, has not been of a military nature, but in the manner in which they have been able to push through their own interests and in the effect it has had on Russia's image. A PR victory. "They’ve been very good at 'state capture,' autocracy promotion and advertising Russia's brand continent-wide," Ramani says. "But they haven't done very well at fighting terrorism and extremism, which is what they claimed they’re seeking to do."

When Russian troops marched into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Prigozhin's mercenaries were not part of the invading army. On social media channels, Wagner Group recruiters turned away those seeking to fight in Ukraine. "Boys, it's business as usual, no changes. Africa hasn't vanished from the face of the earth."

All that Prigozhin could do was to write enthusiastic commentaries for his news agency Ria Fan. "Our military columns are driving through the streets of the almost liberated city of Kharkiv, the Nazis in Kyiv are completely surrounded," he enthused on February 27, comparing the "jeweler-like" tactics of the Russian military to "micro-surgery." It wasn't just Vladimir Putin and the Russian Defense Ministry who suffered in early 2022 under the delusion of a rapid victory. Prigozhin, who today is so heavily critical of the army leadership, did as well.

It would take almost an entire month before his troops also entered the war in Ukraine, fighting their first battle on March 3 near Popasna in the Donbas region. The mercenaries were able to take the town in time for May 9, the day Russia celebrates its World War II victory over the Nazis. And it proved to be a triumph for the Wagner Group – not just over the Ukrainians but also over the Russian competition. The regular army, after all, had been forced to break off its advance on Kyiv and was only making slow progress in the Donbas. A short time later, Prigozhin was awarded the country's highest honor "Hero of the Russian Federation." It was apparently his reward for his victory in Popasna. The order from Putin granting the award remains confidential, but the medal itself is not. In August, if not before, Prigozhin appeared in public wearing the golden star on his chest.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the May 9 military parade in Moscow

But the real reward from Putin is more valuable than the golden star – it is one that has lifted Prigozhin far above his competitors and far above the Russian legal system: It is his license to recruit fighters from Russian penal colonies. Starting in summer 2022, Prigozhin began touring the country's prisons to personally recruit convicts. After all, he was familiar with the camps. His recruitment trips began in June at the latest, but it was only in September that a video of him in a colony in the European-Russian republic of Mordovia appeared. It shows Prigozhin standing in front of men dressed in black prisoner garb introducing himself as a representative of the "private military company Wagner."

"I will take you along alive. But I won't bring you all back alive," he says in the video. His promise: No matter what happened, nobody would return to a prison camp. Those who survived would be pardoned. And those who deserted would be shot.

Even for Russia, it was a bizarre turn, one which made Prigozhin the master of life and death, freedom and bondage. It violates the logic upon which any state – even a dictatorship of the kind created by Putin – is based. It devalues the judiciary. "Why continue to investigate and pass judgment when someone like Prigozhin can come along and simply take the convicts with him?" wonders activist Vladimir Ossetchkin, who promotes prisoner rights. It also devalues military service: Fighting for one's land suddenly becomes a penalty rather than an honor. And, in the eyes of more experienced Wagner mercenaries, it harms their own fighting machine. "When I heard about it, it was immediately clear to me: That’ll be a fuck up," Andrei Medvedev, a Wagner mercenary who fled to Norway, recalled in a conversation with DER SPIEGEL. He was fighting near Bakhmut when the first of the prisoners arrived and says that their missions immediately became more reckless. "Human life no longer mattered."

For Prigozhin, though, the recruitment of prisoners solved a problem: Mercenary troops aren't made for wars between large, modern armies. Prigozhin needed the few thousand professionals on his rolls in Africa. He didn't want to sacrifice them in Bakhmut.

Putin, on the other hand, wanted to rapidly fill the gaps in the Russian lines without asking the Russian populace to make even greater sacrifices. He had promised in March that he wouldn't send conscripts or reserve soldiers into battle. The war was still supposed to be a mere "special military operation." Addressing Russian society, Prigozhin said: "It's either prisoners or your children. You decide."

It's not entirely clear how many prisoners he ultimately recruited. Vladimir Ossetchkin estimates the 2022 total to be several tens of thousands. The highest estimates hold that 50,000 men were recruited from prison camps throughout the year.

Vladislav, 26, is one of the men who was recruited in a penal camp by Prigozhin himself. He tells his story as a Russian prisoner of war, sitting in a basement room of the Ukrainian military secret service agency HUR in Kyiv. His face is concealed by a mask.

Vladislav was doing time for aggravated assault in Colony IK-6 in Samara when, as he describes it, the camp began preparing for a prominent visitor. The mobile phones that the prisoners could use in secret suddenly stopped working. Guards had to turn in their radios. Surveillance cameras were dismantled.

On September 27, 2022, Vladislav says, Prigozhin's helicopter landed directly on the camp premises before he then held a speech before the roughly 1,000 prisoners on the mustering ground, with senior officials from the Russian penitentiary authority at his side. "He said: 'I can get every one of you out of here, no matter what your sentence is. You’ll be free after half a year. You will be fighting on the second line against Nazis.'" Prigozhin, says Vladislav, then explicitly said that he preferred murderers for the task, especially those who had killed more than once. Pay was to be 200,000 to 240,000 rubles, the equivalent of between 2,400 and 2,900 euros.

Vladislav had never before heard of Prigozhin or his Wagner Group. He only had another year to serve, but he was attracted by the promise that his criminal record would be wiped clean. "I could start over again from the beginning, find work, travel out of the country," he says. He immediately volunteered, without even asking his wife – the telephones didn't work anyway. Just over three weeks later, Vladislav was already at the front, not far from Lysychansk.

It was pure hell. He was ordered on five separate occasions to storm enemy positions, he says, and had to defend freshly conquered positions in the meantime. Suddenly, nobody was talking any longer about fighting on the second line.

In the first attack he took part in, he says, one-third of the 60 fighters who headed out before him were badly wounded. "The rest were 200s," he says, using Russian jargon for fatalities. Two men had refused to advance any further, he says, and were "reset to zero" by the commander himself upon their return. That meant: shot to death.

Vladislav was surrounded and wounded, but he managed to make it back. After two days in the hospital, he had to go into battle once again. The fifth advance, again with heavy losses, would be his last.

Other Wagner prisoners of war with whom DER SPIEGEL spoke have similar stories to tell: Recruitment in penal colonies, transfer to the Rostov region near the Ukrainian border, training near the frontlines in the Donbas. Each fighter received a six-digit metal tag with the letter K (for "Project K") and a combat name, which was automatically generated by a computer. Discipline was tight, with desertion, stealing, drinking and drug use all punishable by death. The penalties were carried out by the Wagner Group's own security service, feared for its brutality. "I saw with my own eyes what they are capable of," says Vladislav, though he didn't want to say what it was. Even in Ukrainian captivity, his fear remained.

The longer the war lasted and the more prominent Prigozhin became, the louder his critique grew of Russia's military leaders. In September, the Russian army made a hasty withdrawal from the Kharkiv region; and in November, a more orderly one from Kherson. For a time, it seemed as though Prigozhin was the only one capable of delivering battlefield successes. In early January, his men managed to take control of Soledar, a town neighboring Bakhmut.

But in the detailed victory announcement released by the Russian Defense Ministry, the Wagner Group wasn't mentioned even once. Only several hours later, a "clarification" was reluctantly added, noting that the "immediate assault" on the city came thanks to "the volunteers from PMC Wagner." Another three months would pass before the army spokesman would again utter the word Wagner.

Already in December, Wagner men had released a video in which they called Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov a "faggot" because they hadn't received the munitions they needed. In Russian prison parlance, that was a deadly insult, and an apology was apparently demanded of Prigozhin before the munitions question would be resolved. That, at least, is what he said in February, asking indignantly: "Apologize to whom? Confess to whom? One-hundred-forty million Russians, please tell me who should I apologize to so that my guys die half as many times?"

It isn't clear where exactly Putin stands in the conflict. Last summer, he backed Prigozhin and allowed him to tour the country's prison camps recruiting fighters. And as recently as October, he created a new command structure for the invading army and placed a Prigozhin ally, General Sergei Surovikin, at the top.

But in January, Putin reversed his decision and swapped out Surovikin with Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov. U.S. military expert Dara Massicot described the move on Twitter as "demoting their most competent senior commander and replacing him with an incompetent one."

"Putin decided at the time that Prigozhin had to integrate himself into the plans of the General Staff," says political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya. But the Wagner Group was not disbanded. It even became known that the son of Dmitry Peskov, Putin's press spokesman, had joined the Wagner Group – though not as a bit of cannon fodder like the prisoners, but as an artilleryman.

In mid-February, a video found its way onto the internet showing Wagner fighters using a picture of Gerasimov as a target. On February 22, Prigozhin even published an internal document, including a list of munitions, on the internet. The infighting within the Russian army could suddenly be followed on Telegram.

That same day, a meeting was apparently held between Putin, Defense Minister Shoigu and Prigozhin – at least according to a U.S. intelligence memo leaked by a U.S. soldier on the platform Discord.

But the dispute has continued. Prigozhin may be louder, but the army has far more leverage. They can cut off his munitions supplies at any time, and they have also apparently taken away his ability to recruit prisoners. Prigozhin has said that he hasn't been able to recruit in Russia's prison camps since February. The Defense Ministry now reserves that privilege for itself.

For the prisoners, that has meant that they are no longer subject to the brutal discipline imposed by the Wagner Group and its security service. But the inhumane system has remained. It's just operated by someone else now.

On the search for what will one day remain of Prigozhin in Russia, the village of Bakinskaya is a good place to start. On a recent Sunday morning, the fresh graves of Wagner Group members can be seen from afar, row upon row upon row. On each grave is a plastic floral arrangement in black, yellow and red in the shape of the Wagner emblem, complete with golden stars glittering in the morning sunlight.

The graveyard is located less than 10 kilometers from the neighboring village of Molkino, where the Wagner Group operates a training center. A chapel belonging to the group is also nearby, which is the reason why the tiny village of Bakinskaya is home to a vast cemetery of fighters: DER SPIEGEL counted 45 rows during a visit in early April, more than 600 graves bedecked with Wagner wreaths – 12 times as many as just three months earlier. And they keep coming: A filthy truck with Rostov license plates is standing on the gravel path that runs through the middle of the cemetery, four zinc coffins lined up on its bed, each covered in red cloth. A small digger is excavating in the damp earth, with the workers then carrying the first casket to the new grave. No priest is present.

The graves are bedecked with a simple Orthodox cross or a wooden marker meant to recall an Islamic headstone, each with a name, birthdate and date of death. There is the convicted murderer Roman Tokarev, 30, from the Belgorod region. Alexandr Gavrilov, 23, from Rostov-on-Don, who had been sentenced to seven years for dealing drugs. Their paths led them from Russia's penal colonies via Ukraine to a village where nobody knows them and where some would rather not have them.

Wagner Group cemetery in Bakinskaya, the mercenaries flag flying. Each grave is marked by a plastic wreath depicting the group's emblem.

DER SPIEGEL contacted more than 40 family members of Wagner fighters buried in Bakinskaya, but very few were interested in speaking. One of those who did agree to an interview was Larissa, the aunt of Andrei Kargin, 22, who was imprisoned in a penal camp in Volgograd for repeated theft. "He called me and said: I’m going to war on September 30," Larissa says. Six weeks later, he was dead – she received the news over the phone from a Wagner commander. But she was left to find out herself where her nephew's body was buried. She searched for months, until someone finally sent her a photo of his grave in faraway Bakinskaya. A death certificate still hasn't been issued, and she doesn't know why. "They sent Andrushka and all the other prisoners into the meat grinder and turned them into hash."

It isn't clear how many Wagner fighters have already died in the conflict. The BBC and the Russian outlet Mediazona have reliably established the identities of 3,621 dead prisoners, but that is just a fraction of the real number. Across Russia and in the occupied regions of Ukraine, there are seven devoted Wagner cemeteries, in addition to the uncounted Wagner graves in other cemeteries. In the Krasnodar region alone, DER SPIEGEL found four other cemeteries with fresh graves bearing Wagner wreaths.

Yevgeny Prigozhin visited the cemetery in Bakinskaya in early April, and that is also documented by video. In it, he is wearing his usual military jacket, one of his favorite sayings on the sleeve, a macabre rhyme in Russian: "Cargo 200 – we stay together." Cargo 200 are the fallen. Prigozhin scans the fresh graves he has left behind, a satisfied look on his face. "Yes, the cemetery is growing," he says. "Those who fight sometimes die. That's how life is." He then continues on his way. The war is calling.

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 20/2023 (May 13th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL. Bakhmut: A Mission of Choice Prigozhin and Kadyrov: Putin's Enforcers Wagner: The Forging of the Sledgehammer Africa: Where Wagner Achieved Power and Wealth Ukraine: How Prigozhin Recruited His Army of Prisoners The Dead: What Remains of Prigozhin