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'The Kremlin doesn't care': Ex-Wagner fighters cause havoc in Russia and the Caucasus

A fighter of the Wagner private military force in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.
A fighter of the Wagner private military force in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. Copyright Dmitri Lovetsky/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Dmitri Lovetsky/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Joshua Askew
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Letting convicts loose in a war zone and then releasing them back into society shows the state has "little regard for ordinary people", one expert told Euronews.


In October, Denis Stepanov was charged over the killing of two women, after allegedly burning down a house in Siberia.

Just days before another man - identified only as "Vladimir V" - was accused of murdering a 4-year-old child. Intoxicated and brawling with his wife, investigators say he struck her daughter, who later died of the injuries.

What these two grizzly cases have in common is both suspects are ex-Wagner fighters.

Yet, this is the tip of the iceberg. 

Increasingly since June’s failed mutiny, thousands of men from the Russian mercenary group have left Ukraine and come home to roost.

Even on the battlefield, they were accused of war crimes including murder, rape and robbery of Ukrainian civilians, as well as torturing and executing deserters. 

Now, it seems, some are bringing trouble back with them. 

Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
A mural depicting mercenaries of Russia's Wagner Group n Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

While there are no official statistics, several former Wagner troops have been detained or arrested in Russia in recent months over a string of crimes, ranging from extortion to assassination attempts. 

During Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the late Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin recruited tens of thousands of convicts to fight in some of the war's bloodiest battles. They were promised they would later be pardoned and have their criminal records wiped in exchange for their service. 

Many are thought to have died, with UK intelligence estimating in June that up to 20,000 former inmates were killed in just a few months in the Bakhmut "meat grinder". 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in September that Russian prisoners who died fighting in Ukraine had "redeemed themselves" in the eyes of society.

"Everyone can make some mistakes - they once did. But they gave their lives for the Motherland, and fully redeemed themselves," he said.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
FILE - Putin gestures as he speaks via video call during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved

Before experiencing the horrors of war, some of Wagner's convict army were likely damaged and disturbed individuals. Add into the mix the risk of trauma and it is a recipe for disaster. 

Recounting his combat experience in Bakhmut, where he said people were killed like mosquitos, one ex-mercenary told Euronews he was sure he would die, always carrying a grenade with himself to commit suicide in case of capture.  

Studies have linked combat exposure and PTSD to higher rates of aggression and violent behaviour among veterans as they can struggle to adapt to civilian life, though this is not always the case

"The potential for crime amongst returning soldiers is made higher because the likelihood these veterans will receive adequate psychological support seems extremely low, given the dysfunctionality of the Russian state," Charlie Walker, a Sociologist of Russia and Eurasia at Southampton University, told Euronews. 

"The Russian state has really little concern for the welfare of returning soldiers or wider Russian society."

And this phenomenon is not just affecting Russia. 


Earlier this year, a disabled man, Soslan Valiyev, was savagely killed by a returning Wagner mercenary in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, a Russian-backed breakaway region of Georgia.

A troubling video shared on Telegram shows the man chasing and kicking Valiyev before reportedly stabbing him to death. 

In another shocking case unsettling the Caucasus region, a former North Ossetian police officer recruited by the mercenary group from a penal colony, was sentenced to 16 years for brutally killing his ex-wife. 

CCTV footage shows him stabbing her more than 20 times. 

While strongly condemning those committing crimes, sociologist Walker said it was also vital to "apportion criminal responsibility onto the Russian government for freeing criminals into a war zone, and then back into society."


"Authorities have actively encouraged both war crimes and civil crimes," he added.  

Before he perished in a plane crash that Western analysts say was orchestrated by the Kremlin, Prigozhin defended his soldiers against legal scrutiny. 

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
A couple stand in front of an improvised memorial to Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023.Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

He claimed in June that the reoffending rate of those released from prison for a similar period without a contract from the Wagner Group was "80 times" higher, alleging convicts employed by his force had only committed a total of 83 crimes as of June 2023.

Channelling criminals into a savage war as no more than cannon fodder and then releasing them back into society reflects the Kremin's contempt for "ordinary members of the public", argues Walker. 

"It says very clearly they have little regard for the lives of the people they send to war, be they convicted criminals or ordinary young men, usually from poorer layers of society," he told Euronews. "And they don't care much for the well-being of society either". 


"All the regime cares about is its survival."

He continued: "Russia has enough social problems as it is, without creating yet more. The big problem is there are going to be 1000s of guys coming back maimed and psychologically scarred from this war. They're going to live in a country which will eventually have to come to terms with what's happened."

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