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Lies, mutiny and Bakhmut: Ex-Wagner fighter shares his chilling story

Euronews
Euronews Copyright ROMAN ROMOKHOV/AFP or licensors
Copyright ROMAN ROMOKHOV/AFP or licensors
By Joshua AskewSophia Khatsenkova
Published on Updated
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"I always carried three grenades, two for the enemy and one in case I had to commit suicide," he told Euronews. "I refused to become a prisoner of war".

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A former Wagner mercenary has spoken exclusively to Euronews, revealing what it was like to serve on the frontline in Ukraine. 

Sasha, not his real name, fought in the gritty months-long battle for Bakhmut, likened to a “meat grinder” by Western analysts.

Due to their sheer lack of discipline and will to fight, he said Wagner acted as a second line behind regular Russian troops on the front, which Sasha described as “conscripts barely 21-years-old” to ensure they would not retreat.

“They [Russian conscripts] are not motivated, they’re weak, they were taken from the streets and told: Go to war,” he said. “If their commander falls, they tend to surrender fast.”

The mercenary would not say if violence was used to keep unruly troops in line. However, a Euronews report found Moscow has deployed Chechen loyalists to discipline and even execute dissenting soldiers.

Sasha, who recently completed a six-month contract with the Wagner Group, says he will not return to Ukraine - unless forced.

“Honestly, I have no desire to go back,” he told Euronews. “I just don't want to fight anymore.”

Wagner Group military company guard an area standing in front of a tank in a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023.
Wagner Group military company guard an area standing in front of a tank in a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2023.Mindaugas Kulbis/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Claiming he has Ukrainian roots in Kharkiv and Popasna, Sasha says he grew “disillusioned” by the bloodshed.

“This is a fraternal war. This is the nastiest war that could be. We [Russians and Ukranians] speak the same language. We think the same way, we act the same way,” he told Euronews. “We’re killing like-minded people.”

His unit would sometimes accidentally end up in Ukrainian trenches and often not even realise they were in the “enemy camp”, Sasha claimed.

“The only difference is they see us as aggressors because we’re in their territory. Maybe it's true, but I don't want to go into that nuance.”

“I really don't know.”

Russia and Ukraine share an intertwined history, forming part of successive historical empires. But Ukrainians have their own distinct identity, language and culture, with many claiming Moscow's failure to recognise this lies behind the invasion.

‘Thanks to Wagner, Russia is winning’

Adding to his sense of disillusionment were "lies" about the conflict, with Sasha revealing this was one reason why he wanted to speak to Euronews - “even if something happens to me in the next month.”

“After being on the front line, I can tell that everyone is lying to us,” the mercenary said, adding he had stopped watching the news as a result.

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Sasha pointed to the massive deception surrounding Russia’s near-defeat during the early stages of the invasion, claiming Wagner brought things back from the brink.

Another lie was that the promised outcomes of the war had simply not materialised, with Finland joining NATO and - despite claims it would weaken the US dollar - foreign currencies becoming more expensive, he added.

The Russian ruble hit its lowest value in July since fighting broke out last year. But the currency - along with Russia's economy - has defied economists' expectations and remained resilient, in spite of Western sanctions.

Dodging the draft for several months, Sasha said he “very randomly [...] happened to come across Wagner''.

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He seemed reluctant to answer why he joined the mercenary group.

“Before the war, I had more loyal and patriotic views,” he told Euronews, alluding to this love of country as what motivated him to sign up, though the “decent” salary certainly helped.

“I thought everything we [Russia] was doing was right. Now, my opinions have changed.”

Decorated for his “bravery” in Bakhmut, Sasha served as an “assault trooper”, with the particular skill of spotting for the artillery, thanks to his knack for maths.

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The young man has “no idea” how many people he killed in battle, armed with an AK 74,  grenade launchers and landmines.

“What’s the point of trying to count?,” he recalled.

Saying it had “no ranks like the [Russian] army”, he likened Wagner to a well-ordered fraternity of elite troops - in stark contrast to regular soldiers.

“We call each other brothers, [it] doesn’t matter how long we've been in the group. One day I’ll save his life, the other he will save mine.”

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“I can tell you that the [Russian] Ministry of Defence is very scared of us,” he continued. “Most Wagner fighters went to war to die, not fight. I was 70% sure I wasn't going to come back.”

“I always carried three grenades, two for the enemy, and one in case I had to commit suicide because I refused to become a POW.”

A mix of battle-hardened veterans and criminals, he said his fellow fighters had helped crush past “coups” in Syria and US-agitated uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan. Sasha believed that meddling by Washington was why Moscow needed to invade its western neighbour.

‘There are no rapists in Wagner’

During his stint in Bakhmut, Sasha said he felt “very sorry” for civilians.

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“When we would arrive dirty, all dressed in uniform, they [Ukranians] would be too afraid of us to come out [of their homes] even.”

“They're told by the other side [Kyiv] that if you go to… Russia, we will shoot you,” he explained. 

Bakhmut saw months of vicious fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces, grinding the city to dust. The small salt mining town's pre-war population of 71,000 now stands at less than 500, as all but a few have fled the onslaught.

Wagner forces have been accused of raping and killing civilians by their ex-commanders, including children as young as five. 

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Yet Sasha pushed back against this allegation, noting all fighters were contractually bound by strict rules, which forbid looting (except trophies from dead combatants), rape, drugs, and even alcohol.

“We didn't pose any threat,” he told Euronews, claiming civilians told him they preferred Wagner to the Ukrainian Armed Forces because they “could rely on us.”

“We even helped people with their gardens” and one colleague saved a "wounded 6-year-old girl, carrying her several kilometres to a hospital” he said, though recognised innocent people could get killed by the odd “stray bullet”.

Euronews cannot independently verify these claims.

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Yevgeny Prigozhin, June 24 2023.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, June 24 2023.Mindaugas Kulbis/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Sasha – himself a great admirer of Vladimir Putin – painted a picture of confusion around Wagner’s abortive mutiny in June, although he had already returned home when it happened.

He said colleagues told him many commanders, wishing to remain loyal to the Russian president, refused orders to march on Rostov-on-Don, a Russian stronghold near the Ukrainian border, where Wagner seized a military base.

Analysing the clash between Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Putin-backed Russian military - with regular troops reportedly attacking mercenary bases - Sasha was curt.

“I’ll put it simply: I don’t like Shoigu [the Russian defence minister].”

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Before the Wagner rebellion on 23 June, which saw its march on Moscow, tensions had been escalating between Prigozhin and the Russian defence establishment, with the mercenary boss openly slamming their military campaign in Ukraine.

Having faced down “really good” Ukrainian artillery, Sasha felt gratitude to be home in one piece.

“I sleep very well at night. Don't have any nightmares. I got back with all my limbs. I was never wounded. I was quite lucky compared to others."

“After what I’ve been through, things change and you have different priorities in life such as family,” he continued. “I have brothers… parents [and] a woman I love”.

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“That’s also why I don't want to fight anymore. I don't want to risk it all a second time,” he added.

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