Prisoners recruited by Russia’s Wagner Group to fight in Ukraine seem to be increasingly realizing they’ve been duped, and that no one ever counted on bringing them back alive.
One inmate recruited by the group back in November has absconded from his team in Ukraine’s Luhansk region and fled to Russia by bus and ride-sharing app, where he says he is now hiding out in fear of revenge.
“We thought we’d be equal with the hired fighters, that we wouldn’t be any different, but in reality they just make assault teams out of the inmates, and that’s the meat [in the meat grinder]. But there’s already no going back there, if you refuse to do something they will immediately off you,” Nikolai Troshkin told the independent outlet MediaZona on Wednesday.
Troshkin said he had a couple years left to serve at a penal colony in Siberia when Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin visited in the fall and “colorfully” told prisoners about their chance for a pardon.
He bought into Prigozhin’s promises, he said, and was soon transported out along with nearly 200 other inmates from his colony.
“We signed a paper about who to notify in case of our death, and [stating] that I agree to take part in the military operation and fulfill the tasks of the Defense Ministry, despite the fact that I may die,” he said.
After being sent to the occupied Luhansk region for training, Troshkin said, he learned of demonstrative executions at a children’s camp.
“Two guys who were standing at a checkpoint stole something and they were immediately offed. The instructor said that one got down on his knees and asked for forgiveness, but died with dignity, saying, ‘Don’t repeat my mistakes,’” he said, adding that “they shoot their own there.”
The way Troshkin tells it, Wagner leaders also sent freed prison inmates on suicide missions knowing full well they’d never come back alive.
“It’s just deep shit, to put it rudely,” he said. “They take thousands from [the penal colonies], tell them everything is good and you’ll return home, and 90 percent die.”
Troshkin told the outlet he had fled from the group after their training camp came under fire by Ukrainian forces. After ditching his military gear and donning civilian clothes, he said, he took a bus from Donetsk to Moscow and eventually used a ride-sharing service to get all the way back to Siberia.
He said he initially planned to return to prison—“There’s no point messing with Wagner”—but then learned he wasn’t even being sought by authorities.
“What’s the point in returning to prison? I’m already freed, I’m pardoned. But because of Wagner I’ll have to hide and change my phone,” he said.
Troshkin’s account comes as a former Wagner commander has begun to testify to Norwegian war crimes investigators as he seeks political asylum in that country.
Andrei Medvedev, 26, spent four months with the group before deserting and making a run for it across Russia’s border with Norway last month.
He has echoed Troshkin’s claims and said Wagner fighters are “treated like cattle” sent to be slaughtered.
“There was a time when they brought in two prisoners who refused to fight and shot them in front of others for refusing to follow orders,” Medvedev told The Moscow Times. “There were many such incidents.”
While former fighters express disillusionment with the group, Wagner has also reportedly been snubbed by Russia’s own Defense Ministry when it comes to bringing the war dead home.
“They’re not friends with the Defense Ministry, they don’t help them [Wagner] with coffins. They officially aren’t considered military, so they can’t use the ministry’s infrastructure, they have to run around themselves with corpses on the market,” a source in Russia’s funeral industry told the independent outlet Verstka on Wednesday.
In several cases, another source said, families of dead Wagner fighters were given empty coffins to bury.