Nearly seven months into Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” against Ukraine, the war seems to have an unofficial new leader: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-linked businessman long accused of being the puppetmaster behind the shadowy Wagner Group.
Following myriad reports in recent months of Prigozhin touring Russian prisons in search of new cannon fodder, video leaked Wednesday that, for the first time, appeared to provide visual confirmation of the recruiting effort, as a man clearly resembling Prigozhin was caught on film telling inmates of a penal colony they could join Wagner and earn their freedom by fighting in Ukraine—or be shot if they try to retreat.
“In half a year, you’ll go home, having received a pardon.… Those who arrive and on the first day say ‘I’m in the wrong place’ will be marked as deserters, and execution by shooting will follow,” the inmates were told.
The video went viral on pro-Kremlin social-media channels, where Prigozhin, among other things, was praised for having “balls of steel” and the prison-recruiting was lauded as a ruthless new way to win the war after a series of military setbacks.
Prigozhin himself broke his silence late Thursday, when he was asked by Radio Komsomolskaya Pravda to give his “expert opinion” on Wagner’s role in the war. (Notably, the radio station did not ask him to confirm or deny reports about Wagner sending inmates to fight the war, or about his own role in the mercenary group.)
He called the Wagner group “patriots who cannot allow the disgrace of their homeland” and “professionals of the highest order,” Kommersant reported.
He went on to defend the use of prison inmates in the war.
“Without a doubt, if I were an inmate, I would dream of joining such a friendly collective in order to have the opportunity to not only pay off my debt to the Motherland, but to pay it back with interest,” he was quoted saying.
And to all those criticizing the prison-recruiting effort, he said, “send your own kids to the front.”
“It’s either a [private military group] and inmates, or your kids—decide for yourselves.”
Just hours earlier, Prigozhin’s company, Concord Management and Consulting, had stopped short of confirming it was indeed him in the viral recruiting video and offered a bit of trolling instead.
“We can confirm that the man in the video bears a monstrous resemblance to Yevgeny Viktorovich. Judging by his rhetoric, he is in some way engaged in issues fulfilling the tasks of the special operation, and it looks like that is working out successfully for him,” the company’s press service said, telling a Russian journalist that the man in the video’s speech is “very well-delivered, just like that of Yevgeny Viktorovich.”
“And the person resembling Yevgeny Viktorovich very intelligibly explains simply understandable things to ordinary people,” the company said.
The video, published online by allies of imprisoned Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny, appeared to serve as wonderful PR for the Wagner Group, the Kremlin-linked private military force with a long trail of war-crime allegations in Syria, Ukraine, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere.
Apparently unconcerned that Prigozhin’s heightened role in the war could be a sign of desperation by the Kremlin, Russian military bloggers largely celebrated it.
“Wagner is becoming an important phenomenon in this war, and Yevgeny Prigozhin is one of its key participants. That is especially important to understand considering the resounding failures and daunting personnel crisis in the Russian army,” wrote Alexander Zhuchkovsky, who has been deemed a terrorist by the U.S. government for his role recruiting fighters in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The video has even sparked calls for Prigozhin to take Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s place as the shot-caller for the war—a move some experts say could help the Kremlin appease Russians who’ve become frustrated after recent humiliating defeats on the battlefield.
“Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is being established as the face of the Russian ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine,” the Institute for the Study of War said in its Wednesday assessment, noting that Prigozhin’s popularity among military bloggers may bolster “support for the Kremlin’s war effort while scapegoating Shoigu and the Russian Defense Ministry for the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast.”
With hundreds of inmates recruited so far after reportedly being told by Prigozhin that they will be acting on the orders of Putin for the “organized crime syndicate” known as Wagner—and Wagner said to have a preference for the most “calculating” killers in Russian prisons—it seems many inmates are not fazed by Prigozhin’s allegedly brutal terms.
In the video leaked this week, inmates were told not only that they’d be executed if they try to retreat, but that they’d have to die before letting themselves be captured.
“When you undergo training, you will be told what to do with the two grenades you’ll have on yourself if you get captured,” the man resembling Prigozhin said.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, says he believes Russia was behind the leak of the recruiting video to try “to scare us and so that other inmates will see it and run to join.”
“This video will have an honorable place when we will discuss the death of Putin’s empire. It’s the culmination of the fall of a once great empire, because there’s no story more horrendous than a major nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, sending a friend of Putin to film such a video,” Arestovych said in an interview with Russian journalist Mark Feygin.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of human-rights group Gulagu.net, which has reported extensively on Wagner’s role recruiting inmates, said Thursday that Prigozhin is positioning himself as a “god” and “freeing killers so they can kill more.”
He said he had received information that “at least five inmates have been executed by Prigozhin’s gang” so far after they tried to back out of the war in Ukraine.
Olga Romanova, the head of human-rights group Rus Sidyashaya, which has worked with relatives of inmates who were recruited, said in an interview Wednesday that the group had learned of one case where Wagner recruited “a maniac who, so to speak, has cannibalism in his portfolio. He also went to the war.”