Human rights association

Russian army: predetermined cruelty. Chapter 5. PMC and fighting extremists groups

  1. Private Military Companies

In order to increase the fighting capacity of the invasion army, the Russian authorities are strengthening regular troops with paramilitary formations, whose fighters, unlike most contract soldiers, already have experience in combat clashes with the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Despite the legal ban on mercenaries, private military companies (PMCs) – “Wagner,” “Redut,” and “Patriot” – participate in hostilities on the side of Russia.

As early as March 2022, the first announcements about the recruitment of mercenaries for the most famous PMC “Vagner,” which is called the “Prygozhin Army” (in honor of the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, its founder and leader), appeared on the Russian social network “Vkontakte.” Later on, the activities of private military companies were widely advertised, and joining them was presented to Russians as a financially profitable way to participate in the war against Ukraine. Only in March-July 2022, at least 568 such ads were placed in “Vkontakte,” and they were viewed 13.7 million times in total. 13.5 million of those views were attributed to ads of PMC “Wagner.”

The company is a paramilitary community isolated from external influence, with its own code of honor, internal rules of conduct, and different from conventional ideas about the customs of war. Even before the war in Ukraine, PMC “Wagner” gained a sinister reputation worldwide – “Wagner” members demonstrated exceptional cruelty in Syria and the Central African Republic. One of the UN reports lists at least a hundred victims of international humanitarian law violations committed by mercenaries in the CAR in January-April 2021. These violations include 26 extrajudicial executions, five rapes, as well as 27 cases of arbitrary arrests and deprivation of liberty. “Many civilians were killed or wounded (…), although they were not legitimate military targets,” the report’s authors point out. Due to its involvement in mass executions, rapes, child abductions, and physical abuse of citizens in the Central African Republic and Mali, the United States recognized PMC “Wagner” as a transnational criminal organization and imposed sanctions against it.

Despite this, the political leadership of Russia approved the participation of mercenaries in the occupation of Ukraine and supported the activities of the PMC in every possible way. In the summer of 2022, Yevgeny Prigozhin began mass recruitment for the company directly in prisons, multiplying the number of “Wagner” members at the expense of criminals promised amnesty after six months of combat. Those who refused to go to the front were threatened with new criminal cases and repeated terms of imprisonment. The owner of the PMC “Wagner” announced his requirements for the “ideal candidate” for the war in Ukraine: “It is desirable that they served 15 years or more. Or they had 15 years or more ahead. It is desirable that they were imprisoned more than once for murder, grievous bodily harm, robbery, or burglary. We were and remain a paramilitary organized criminal group with tanks and planes.”

“I need your criminal talents to kill in the war,” Yevgeny Prigozhin declared, and his call was heard. Instead of isolation, criminals recognized by the court as being dangerous to society received weapons and were sent to kill in a foreign country. The most willing to become mercenaries are those sentenced to significant terms of imprisonment for committing violent crimes, including murder. Shocking information appeared in the media about persons sent to fight in Ukraine as part of the PMC “Wagner.”

Mykhail K. was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2016 for tying up an acquaintance and raping him with an object. The victim was injured in the abdomen and small pelvis, which resulted in death”.

Aleksandr T. was sentenced to 23 years in prison in 2021 for ordering the murder of a family of four, including two children.”

Roman L. was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2014 for killing his mother and sister and then burning their bodies.”

It is impossible to establish the exact number of criminals released from penitentiary institutions to participate in hostilities against Ukraine, as the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service kept this data confidential. The “Rus Sydiacha” foundation, which protects prisoners’ rights and has its own sources of information in places of detention and incarceration, believes that more than 40,000 convicts joined the “Prygozhin army.” The US National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, estimates approximately the same figure. According to British intelligence, by the end of 2022, the number of the PMC “Wagner” had increased to 50,000 people, which could be up to a quarter of all Russian soldiers who took part in the occupation of Ukraine at that time.

The free access of recruiters to prisons, the simplicity of the procedure for recruiting mercenaries, and the scale and speed of sending prisoners to the frontline indicate that the President of Russia sanctions the participation of Russian criminals in the war against Ukraine. In 2022, the official Kremlin continued to conceal the involvement of the PMC “Wagner” in the occupation of a neighboring country. Still, over time it became impossible to hide the mass death of mercenaries in the war. On January 13, 2023, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation officially admitted that the assault on the city of Soledar was carried out by “Wagner” members. “The prisoners fight better than the Guard units,” Yevgeny Prigozhin declares.

Discipline at the PMC “Wagner” is maintained by demonstrative extrajudicial executions of violators by its own security service. Former “Wagner” member Andrey Medvedev said that he is reliably aware of 10 cases of extrajudicial executions of deserters and prisoners; in two cases, he was personally present at the executions. According to human rights defenders, at least 40 people were executed for disobeying orders. In November 2022, the video published by the “Wagner” members dispelled all doubts about the company’s existing procedures. The video showed the execution by mercenaries with a sledgehammer blow to the head of Yevgeny Nuzhin, a former prisoner recruited by the PMC “Wagner,” for surrendering.

Despite the total illegality of such actions, the Russian law enforcement system did not react to them, and the press secretary of Russian President Dmytro Peskov refused to comment on the execution, saying, “It is not our business.” The Kremlin’s reaction once again proved that the law ends where Russia’s interests begin.

The activities of the “Wagner” members were widely popularized in society. “PMC Wagner Center” was opened in St. Petersburg, points for recruiting mercenaries operated in 42 cities of Russia, media space was filled with complimentary materials about “Prygozhin’s army,” TV companies released propaganda films “Wagner. Contract with the Motherland” and “The most experienced army in the world.” In the opinion of Russians, the participation of criminals in the enslavement of Ukraine becomes not only a norm but also a manifestation of patriotism.

In the PMC “Wagner,” where there was already an atmosphere of disdain for the rules of the law, with the infusion of criminals, brutality and the devaluation of human life became even more promoted. Armband chevrons became popular among mercenaries with the inscriptions “I believe in nothing, I’m just here for violence” and “Our business is death, and business is going well,” which proclaimed the foundations of the mercenaries’ ideology and demonstrated their attitude towards Ukrainians.

The Security Service of Ukraine has established the identities of three mercenaries of the PMC “Wagner,” who committed atrocities against civilians in the Kyiv region. They are accused of a total of 14 episodes: execution of civilians, torture and keeping people in basements without food and water, burning of residential buildings, and theft of property.

Two captured mercenaries from the PMC “Redut” were sentenced to 11 years for torturing civilians. After the occupation of the village Novoplatonivka in the Kharkiv region, they tortured and robbed local residents, who were kept without food for several days in a hole dug in the forest. “They took me for interrogation, beat me, and at night they shined a flashlight into the hole to check if I was alive. They beat me with a machine gun, their feet, and their hands. They also beat me to the knees, elbows, shoulders, and heels with a wooden hammer,” recalled one of the victims. 

Germany’s foreign intelligence service received information about atrocities committed by the Russian military – the telephone conversations of Russian soldiers in the region north of Kyiv were intercepted. Intelligence materials provide evidence that members of a Russian mercenary unit, “Wagner Group,” played a leading role in the atrocities. The materials also show that the military talked about the atrocities as if they were just discussing their daily lives. Some records indicate that incidents like those in Bucha happened in other places.

Even the leadership of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation was aware of the fear and aversion felt by residents of the occupied territories towards mercenaries and tried to blame them for the criminal actions of regular army servicemen. In the Memo for a soldier of the Russian Armed Forces who are in the area of a special military operation in Ukraine,” soldiers were instructed: “In case of emergency (traffic accidents involving civilians, alcohol/drug intoxication of servicemen, other cases that caused death or mutilation of civilians) shall introduce yourself as the member of the PMC “Wagner.” Issuing such instructions proves that the Russian command is aware of the catastrophic state of discipline in the occupying forces and is trying to avoid accusations of violating the laws and customs of war by shifting the blame to the mercenaries.

Despite this, the experience of the PMC “Wagner” in using criminals in the war was recognized as successful – since the fall of 2022, convicts in penitentiary institutions have been recruited directly by the Ministry of Defense of Russia. The assault unit of the Russian Armed Forces “Storm” has been formed from among the prisoners, and Russian courts massively granted deferments from the execution of criminal sentences for convicts who agreed to fight in Ukraine.

  1. Fighting extremists groups and neo-Nazis

In addition to private military companies, Russian extremist units were involved in the occupation of Ukraine, including the “Russian Imperial Legion” (a paramilitary unit of the “Russian Imperial Movement”) and the neo-Nazi sabotage group “Rusich.” Both groups have participated in the war since 2014; they profess chauvinism and neo-Nazism and spread hatred for the Ukrainian state and Ukrainians.

On the day of the start of the full-scale invasion, the leader of the “Russian Imperial Legion,” Denys Gariev, wrote in “Telegram”: “We are definitely in favor of the liquidation of the separatist entity called “Ukraine.” The leadership of the “Rusich” group described their vision of the future of Ukraine in a more straightforward way: “We generally believe that the entire non-white population of Ukraine (women from the age of 10 and men from the age of 5) should be physically eliminated (part of it through scientific experiments). The remaining boys should be brought up as janissaries in the military service of Russia, and the girls, after the course of normal wives and with passports of non-citizens of the Russian Federation, should be given to Russian soldiers, 2-3 girls per one soldier. Blacks can also be distributed to non-Russians, but who fought for Russia. This is the solution to the demographic issue. Former Ukraine’s property should also be divided between the soldiers. Soldiers should understand the benefits of their risks in the war, and a beggar’s 200,000 a month (for which you can’t buy anything in particular) is not very motivating.”

Since 2014, extremist units members have become widely known for their brutality, which they are proud of and actively promote.

“I am a Nazi. When you kill a person, you feel the excitement of hunting. If you haven’t been hunting, try it, it’s interesting. At the base, everyone was laughing, they were giving ears as gifts,” Aleksei Milchakov, the leader of the “Rusich” group, said in an interview.

“At the moment, I came here to kill Ukrainians. In principle, that’s all,” Yevheni Rasskazov, a “Rusich” group member, also known on social networks for his birthday greetings to Hitler, said in another interview.

“If you messed up, then try not to leave witnesses among locals,” the management of the “Rusich” group instructed its subordinates in its memo on how to treat the population of Ukraine.

In 2020, the United States and in 2021, Canada included the “Russian Imperial Movement” in the list of international terrorist organizations. The “Rusich” group was included in the sanctions lists of the USA, the European Union, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Japan in 2022. The group leader, Aleksei Milchakov, is on the sanctions lists of the USA, as well as Great Britain, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, due to his particular brutality.

Despite their relatively small number of fighters, the “Russian Imperial Legion” and “Rusich” group have become role models in the Russian army; their readiness for violence and brutality were presented by propaganda as determination and military courage. Popularity is not hindered by open neo-Nazi beliefs and statements of the leadership and members of the groups – participation in the war against Ukraine put them above the law and morality. “Those who do not like our views and symbols will not be able to harm us. Your written statements about us are thrown into the trash by the Investigative Committee, the Federal Security Service, and other structures because veterans are inviolable. We will continue to teach our views to young fighters,” said Yevheni Rasskazov.

The cooperation of the Russian Armed Forces with neo-Nazi groups once again vividly demonstrated the absurdity of the goal of the war declared by the Kremlin – the so-called “denazification” of Ukrainian society.

(to be continued)


The 1st chapter, “The Objectives of War” of the series “Russian Army: Predetermined Cruelty,” can be found here.

The 2nd chapter, “The Ideology of War” of the series “Russian Army: Predetermined Cruelty,” can be found here.

The 3rd chapter, “The Discipline” of the series “Russian Army: Predetermined Cruelty,” can be found here.

The 4th chapter, “People’s Militia” of Separate Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Region (ORDLO) and Volunteer Battalions” of the series “Russian Army: Predetermined Cruelty,” can be found here.


The material was prepared by experts of the Association UMDPL within the project “Documentation of war crimes committed by the Russian Federation” (The project is carried out with the financial support of NED).

We remind you that Association UMDPL is working on creating a “Black Register of Executions, Tortures and Cases of Inhumane Treatment of the Civilian Population in the Territories Temporarily Occupied since February 24, 2022.” More details here (in Ukrainian).


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