“I am a representative of a private military company that you may have heard of, SMP [société miliaire privée, ndlr] Wagner.” The sentence was launched at the beginning of a video, which made the rounds of observers of the Ukrainian conflict before making the rounds of the media. We see a man, a brown tactical jacket on his back, addressing an audience of dozens of people, prisoners, in what turns out to be the grounds of a Russian penal colony. The speech is a call for candidates to join the invasion of Ukraine as a mercenary, against the remission of sentence and financial compensation. The man in the jacket is probably Evgueni Prigojine, the creator and leader of the sprawling Wagner mercenary network, auxiliary to Moscow.
Yevgeny Prigozhin does not appear by name, but the physical resemblance and the fact that he claims to be the author of the mercenary organization seem to confirm his identity. Different verifications are also done by some open source investigators.
A journalist asked one of Prigojine’s companies, Concorde, about the subject. His response, publicly, did not deny anything or even mock the journalist: “Thank you very much for your request and the video received. We can confirm that the man in the video bears an uncanny resemblance to Yevgeny Viktorovich [le prénom complet de Prigojine]. Judging by his rhetoric, he somehow talked about the implementation of special operations tasks [expression consacrée par la propagande russe pour parler de la guerre en Ukraine], and he seems to have succeeded in doing so. Also, you are rightly appointed, dear Dmitry [le prénom du journaliste], that the person in the video has very well-formed speech, like Yevgeny Viktorovich. And a person like Yevgeny Viktorovich very cleverly explains simple and understandable things to ordinary people. Thanks for the information provided and in the future we will be grateful if you share the same facts with us. “
Abandonment is punishable by death
The rest of his speech, CheckNews When it is translated, it is very clear. Prigojine came to recruit prisoners to send them to fight in Ukraine: “Who do we need? We only need assault infantry, 60% of my men are Stormtroopers [référence aux soldats de l’empire de Star Wars, accessoirement les méchants, moqués pour ne pas savoir viser] and you will be a part of it.” The warlord did not try to downplay what awaits the volunteers in Ukraine: “[Cette] The war is difficult, it is not similar to others, like the wars in Chechnya, even a little. house [à Wagner]the ammunition consumption was about two and a half times greater than at Stalingrad.”
He goes on to detail a battle that took place earlier in the summer, in which several mercenary prisoners were killed: “The first prisoners who fought with me were on June 1, during the attack on the Ugledar thermal power plant, 40 people from St. Petersburg, strict regime [de privation de liberté], [qui écopaient leurs peines pour] recidivism. [Elles] entered the enemy’s trenches, eliminated him with knives, [de notre côté] three dead, seven wounded. Of the three who died, one was 52 years old, he was sentenced to thirty years in prison. He died a hero.”
Some conditions are mentioned: be between 22 years old, without written parental consent, and 50 years old, “good physical shape”. The profile and type of conviction are also discussed for two specific cases. First drug-related convictions: “We are closely monitoring those sentenced to 2-2-8 [article 228 du code pénal russe qui incrimine la fabrication, possession et vente des substances psychotropes], [nous prenons la décision en se basant] only if there is trust [à la drogue] or not.” Then those convicted of sexual violence: “We keep a close eye on those in prison [des infractions sexuelles]but we understand that there are mistakes.”
A few rules were given to future recruits: desertion was punishable by death, surrender was forbidden – “Make it clear to you that when you go to surrender, there are two grenades you must carry” – drugs and abuse against civilians (according to him) are prohibited. The latter even determined that he forbade it “sexual contact with local women, with plants, with animals, with men – in short, with anyone”.
The offer was very clear: a full pardon, a pardon, against six months of service in Ukraine. “Do you have someone who can get you out of prison? There are two of them, it is Allah and God, and it is in a wooden box. I got you out of here alive. But I am not always brought back alive. Hey guys, do you have any questions? Or did I explain everything too clearly? You have five minutes to think […]. want[partir avec nous]?”
This mobilization of prisoners has a clear purpose, to compensate for the large losses caused by the Ukrainian counter-offensive by avoiding the general mobilization of Russia (which is not yet officially at war). The pictures were widely presented in the media as a leak but could be a publicity stunt from the man nicknamed “Putin’s cook”, who further shows his commitment to Ukraine.
Quick geolocated view
If the video is shared by many journalists, Bellingcat investigators or even members of the Russian opposition, they are not the first to publish it. The first event we found was on September 14, at 5:01 pm, on a channel that explained that the video was not his. The sequence, which lasts five minutes and thirty-two seconds, is longer than most quotes posted on Twitter. However, cuts appear many times. The scene was quickly geolocated in the Mari El penal colony, more than 600 kilometers east of Moscow.
The reporter from New York Times Christiaan Triebert, who investigates open source, published information in the main video source. It was supposed to be published the previous day, September 13, in a local group on the social network VKontakte before being deleted. In his article, however, he maintains that the details of the recording and broadcasting context remain unclear.
These images are not an isolated fact, which favors the theory of a communication strategy. Pro-Kremlin military bloggers in Russia have mentioned the prison recruitment several times in recent days. It was even sources associated with Wagner who raised the topic in early September on their Telegram channels.
Therefore, the Gray Zone channel, whose administrators are very close to the Russian paramilitary milieu, reported on September 6 the story of an ex-convict member of Wagner. They bluntly said: “Repeatedly written on this channel is one of the differences [par rapport à l’armée] and the advantages of the “Wagner group” is that it is a pirate ship, where you can find not only fighters spetsnaz who are tired of army life and even retired airmen, but also those who, for one reason or another, are no longer destined for official military service. Now, for objective reasons, there are many opportunities to distract a soldier and try to heal. Especially since our prison establishments have never changed themselves, but there are also [les prisonniers] people who want to pay for their mistakes by doing their duty, like the soldier in the report below.” Soldier who, according to the post, enlisted on July 28 and was killed on August 28 during a reconnaissance mission after fighting. “with courage”.
Also on September 6, the Gulagu.da website went online. This is a direct reference to the Gulagu.net site, which documents abuses occurring in the Russian prison system. Gulagu.da consists of one page, a flag indicates the color: “Stories of heroes who made the right choice”. Below, you can watch ten short videos in which about twenty soldiers are featured.
Above each row is the name of a Russian prison. “Hello everyone, IK-9 [soit colonie correctionnelle – 9]we greet you, says a man in the first video, smiling, sitting on a hospital bed. Well, we had a little fight, they touched us a bit, now it’s on the mend. We entered the woods, there were a lot of Nazis [familier pour “nazis”], but we still kick their ass.” In another scene, filmed in a makeshift shelter, men in uniform talk to potential recruits: “Don’t be afraid guys!” Another man continued “take this opportunity and go [c’est-à-dire acceptez la proposition d’enrôlement]. This is a real opportunity guys to improve your life, to change, to take a different path.
What is the connection with Prigojine? Neither the site nor the Telegram channel mentions his name. But it was Wagner’s boss who gave the site an echo, on September 10, in a strange escapade. Still through a press release from Concorde, in response to journalists who asked him about a legal dispute between him and the whistleblowers from Gulagu.net, the latter began by insulting them with different- other ways, before adding: “By the way, I recently found an interesting website called Gulagu.da. There are funny videos on it. Maybe you should consider them. “
The assumption of a publicity stunt by Prigojine, who broadcast a video in which he appeared, recognizable, presenting himself as a man who conducted Wagner, seems confusing: the man sued Bellingcat in the United Kingdom and in Russia so that he is aptly described as Wagner’s boss. But this period can also be read as his rise to power and the increasingly important role he would play in the conflict.
In its daily assessment of the offensive published on September 14, the night of the video broadcast, the Institute for the Study of War continued to think that “Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin emerges as face of Russia’s ‘special military operations’ in Ukraine.” In particular due to the fact that “Military bloggers often praise Mr. Prigozhin’s success in Ukraine and some say he should replace Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is trusted by military bloggers and Kremlin experts of Russia’s defeat in the Kharkiv region”.