On paper, the Wagner Group, a Russian network providing fighters for hire, does not exist.
It does not file tax returns, its alleged backers deny any connection to it and officially, private military companies (PMCs) are illegal in Russia.
“Mercenaries have no official status, so they don’t have the same rights or guarantees as an official representative of the armed forces, and payment is only after completing a mission,” Marat Gabidullin told Al Jazeera. “You finish the mission, get paid and you can go on vacation.”
Gabidullin, whose identity has been confirmed by Russian and Ukrainian media, is the only former mercenary of the Wagner Group to publicly come forward about his experiences.
He now lives in southern France, where he says he is in the process of seeking asylum, and has written a memoir, In the Same River Twice, about his experiences.
Founded by intelligence officer Dmitry Utkin in 2014 to back Ukrainian separatists, Wagner has since represented the interests of Russia and its allies across Africa and the Middle East, taking part in Syria’s civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad – and its fighters are accused of several atrocities.
Previously a shadowy force, it is now embracing an ever-public image as the Ukraine war grinds on.
“It’s always been a part of either military intelligence or the special operation forces,” Russian military expert Pavel Luzin told Al Jazeera. “It’s never been private or somehow autonomous.”
According to Luzin, Wagner serves two purposes.
The first is to make use of hot-headed individuals who might otherwise pose a security risk at home. The second is to redistribute the balance of power away from the official armed forces.
“We deal with the fragmentation of military power that is typical for authoritarian regimes,” explained Luzin.
“Wagner are neither elite forces nor well-trained commandos, they are just another sort of cannon fodder with the purpose of counterbalancing any political threat from the generals. The Kremlin just does not trust the armed forces.”
The mercenary outfit is allegedly bankrolled and controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” for his many catering contracts, through a network of front companies.
For instance, a business named Europolis LLC reportedly agreed with Damascus to conduct military operations in Syria in exchange for 25 percent of the oil and gas it finds. Its founder is known to be close to Prigozhin and has been seen in the company of Utkin. In 2017, Uktin and Wagner were sanctioned by the administration of former United States President Donald Trump for dispatching fighters to Ukraine.
Prigozhin denies connections to Wagner, to the point of filing complaints to the authorities after being asked about the matter by journalists.
But as Wagner’s participation in Ukraine has grown, it has proudly stepped into the spotlight.
A Telegram user recently posted an image purporting to show billboards in Russia promoting and recruiting for Wagner, while job adverts reportedly offer wages of 240,000 Russian roubles (just under $4,000) per month, far higher than the pay of a typical soldier.
“Essentially, Wagner has now become so public precisely because of the change in its status,” Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security matters, told Al Jazeera.
“Whereas it was once an arm’s length, deniable instrument of the Russian state, as well as a fairly autonomous commercial venture, now it is indeed little more than an extension of the military. It is an alternative source of combat manpower, necessary precisely because this is just a ‘special military operation’ and thus the Kremlin can’t simply mobilise the men it needs.”
Motivated by money
“Any idealistic reasons [for becoming a mercenary] is just for cover; practically everyone’s motivation is money,” Gabidullin, who served in Wagner from 2015 to 2019, told Al Jazeera by phone.
“At that point, I was in a state of depression, unsure what to do with myself, what to do and where to go. I’d been unemployed for quite some time. Then I heard of this opportunity to return to my previous occupation – I’d been a professional soldier and served 10 years in the airborne forces.
“When I joined the fold, most of the people there had combat experience from more than one war – Chechnya, Georgia – and the bulk had come from those who’d been fighting in Ukraine since 2014.”
Gabidullin took part in the Syria campaign, where he was wounded by a grenade blast during the battle of Palmyra.
“The [Russian] high command was selling this as a bloodless overseas war but quickly came to terms with the fact this concept doesn’t work in Syria,” he recalled. “Airpower and artillery is one thing but victory is achieved by taking territory, and the Syrian army were simply no match for ISIL (ISIS).”
Gabidullin described the Syrian army as unprofessional and unmotivated, with rampant corruption flourishing in every rank.
“But the Russian high command needed to save face so they deployed mercenaries, because the losses suffered by mercenaries were not counted among the official figures,” he said. “So the illusion of a bloodless war was achieved, but in reality there was a lot of bloodshed.
“We carried that war. No one else could do what we did.”
In 2018, dozens of Russian mercenaries are thought to have died in US air raids on pro-government forces in Syria after attacking an oil facility which the Americans were defending.
But little is known about the mercenaries who die, in part because their families are under pressure to keep quiet.
Allegations of torture, executions not investigated
Aside from Syria, Wagner has been active in Africa since 2017.
In Sudan, it reportedly oversees gold mining operations, working closely with Sudan’s military government. Activists and bloggers accuse Russia of supporting the military coup in Sudan and stealing the country’s gold.
In the Central African Republic (CAR), Wagner repelled a rebel advance on Bangui in January last year. A statue of a Russian soldier defending a local family was built in the capital, and an action movie, The Tourist, has been released, glorifying the group’s exploits in CAR.
In 2018, three Russian journalists who were investigating the group were killed in an ambush while reporting on Wagner in CAR.
Human Rights Watch has accused the mercenaries of torturing, executing and kidnapping civilians in the country.
In Syria, Wagner employees have been accused of torturing, shooting and beheading a deserting soldier. So far, these claims have not been investigated by Russian authorities.
Gabidullin said that his group was not involved in such atrocities.
“As for Syria, that was a savage killing; four sadistic morons were let loose,” he said of the alleged beheading. “But this was a rare, practically singular incident. The majority of Wagner have a normal mentality without any observable inclination to such cruelty.”
After February, many of these mercenaries were redeployed to Ukraine.
While Wagner was previously dependent on the Russian military, analysts believe it has been consolidated into the armed forces almost entirely over the past few months.
Wagner mercenaries are understood to have taken part in strategic battles for the Ukrainian towns of Popasna and Lysychansk, as well as the Vuhlehirsk power plant.
Prigozhin himself was photographed in the occupied Luhansk region in April.
So far, Moscow, which has not officially declared war on Ukraine, has avoided declaring mass mobilisation.
At the same time, the recruitment drive for contract soldiers, volunteers and mercenaries has gathered pace.
Other Russian mercenary outfits fighting in Ukraine include Redoubt, which rapidly mobilised disgraced or blacklisted ex-soldiers, and then suffered heavy casualties.
In July, the independent news outlet Meduza, which covers Russian affairs and is considered a “foreign agent” by Moscow, reported that Redoubt “still has a substantial number of combatants in Ukraine” and “is under the Russian defence ministry’s complete control”.
Looking ahead, as Russian losses in Ukraine mount, recruiters are expanding their options.
Journalists in Kyrgyzstan have reported that Wagner is seeking Uzbek and Kyrgyz recruits for “the special operation zone in Ukraine”, offering the 240,000 rubles per month salary and a quick route to Russian citizenship.
And while the Kremlin remains tight-lipped about casualties in Ukraine, Wagner mercenaries deployed as front-line forces are ill-equipped and reportedly suffering heavy losses.
“This is a war taking place on made-up pretexts to interfere in a neighbouring country,” said Gabidullin. “It’s a tragedy, a criminal mistake that should never have been allowed.”