Although there are occasions when the audio is distorted, the emotions are clear.
“I am being transported for a shooting. There, I lost a lot of people. Do not send any more individuals here, keep that in mind. They intend to kill all of us, and that is enough.
This was Viktor Sevalnev’s final message. He was a prisoner who had served time for armed robbery and assault when he was released to fight for Russia in Ukraine. Sevalnev’s struggle to survive ultimately proved to be his undoing after the majority of his teammates perished in an attack on a plant outside of Soledar.
In a final communication to his wife, he expressed his worry that the Russian Ministry of Defense would soon execute him by removing him from his hospital bed, where he had recorded the audio message. His remains were brought back to his wife in Moscow a few days later in a locked casket.
Sevalnev’s cruel fate is the latest in a long line of mistreatment claims made by prisoners who have been interviewed by the Associated Press. Russia has been using the shady private mercenary firm Wagner for months to reinforce its frontline presence with detainees—a plot that was initially rejected and kept a secret but was later openly supported by Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of Wagner.
Wagner ceased recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine on Thursday, according to Prigozhin, who also noted that “those who work for us today are completing all their commitments.” The decision was made without a justification, and the Associated Press is unable to independently verify the assertions.
However, Sevalnev and several other detainees with whom the affiliated press has spoken appear to suggest a troubling new tactic. They claim that the Russian Ministry of Defense personally employed them.
Prisoners recently apprehended by Ukrainian forces claimed to be directly employed by the ministry, a Ukrainian intelligence officer confirmed to the Associated Press.
According to Andriy Usov, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s spokesman for defense intelligence, “They underline to us that they are not Wagner and that they were officially invited by the defense ministry.”
Usov claimed that the development had “echoes of internal squabbling among the Russian military leadership” and that the Russian defense establishment, including defense minister Sergei Shoigu and the new commander of the operation in Ukraine, Valery Gerasimov, we’re developing a resource of prisoners that they could directly control through the ministry’s own private companies. Fewer prisoners are currently in the ministry, according to Usov, but they “will be exploited in the same way… as cannon fodder,” as Wagner does.
As a check on the growing influence of Wagner’s owner, Prigozhin, who is increasingly seen as a rival to some branches of the armed forces, Vladimir Osechkin of the prisoner rights organization Gulagu.net claimed that the Ministry of Defense appeared to be luring recruits and prisoners from Wagner using “more favorable terms.”
The fear of Prigozhin is widespread in Moscow, according to Osechkin. They are aware that he is in charge of a sizable gang, an organized criminal group of assassins and mercenaries, who are capable of setting up God knows what in Moscow at any time.
The Russian Ministry of Defense was contacted for comment by the Associated Press, but no response was given.
The Russian Ministry of Defense, according to the inmates who worked for a unit with the unit code “08807,” were all interviewed by the Associated Press. Some of them had papers in their possession that appeared to show they were eventually assigned to a part of the separatist army from Luhansk that was integrated into the Russian defense ministry. Unit 08807, renowned as a “Shtrum” brigade for attacking Ukrainian lines, was sent to the frontlines near Soledar in October and suffered tragic losses.
Sevalnev and his unit are seen dancing before deployment in the hazy video that Gulagu.net was able to secure. The night before they launched an assault on a crucial factor in Soledar, which proved catastrophic for the bulk of Sevalnev’s regiment, it also depicts them dining and laughing close to the frontlines.
On and off the battlefield, the prisoners told of routine brutality, but Sevalnev’s fate stood out. His sudden demise was reportedly brought on by shrapnel wounds, according to a call from a Russian separatist leader who coordinated the body’s repatriation to his wife that was recorded.
Despite Sevalnev’s wife’s refusal to participate in an interview for this article, Gulagu.net provided affiliated media with audio messages and pictures of Sevalnev taken during the conflict. According to Russian court records obtained by the associated press, Sevalnev was found guilty of theft and was supposed to be serving his sentence when he passed away. His cemetery, west of Moscow, lists November 2022 as the month of his passing.
Three further unit survivors provided hospital-based interviews to the media. One, who was also a prisoner, claimed Sevalnev had previously suffered a wound before being taken back to the front lines, where he later sustained another.
No one is having surgery or having an operation here, he declared. He and the other surviving convicts’ names are being withheld by the Associated Press out of concern for their safety. People with bullet wounds and shrapnel lodged in their legs “wander around the hospital.”
Before being imprisoned, he was a soldier, and he also talked about terrible losses. He continued, “Our batch was 130, but we also have many amputees, and we probably have 40 individuals left.” He said that other diverse prisoner populations were gradually introduced to their section. Only 15 of his unit’s members were still alive, he claimed, and the 08807 was now known as the “Storm unit,” or 40321. In a nutshell, he continued, “the meat grinder. He claimed to the Associated Press that he had recently been taken back to the front lines with his wounds still open.
After serving ten years of a murder conviction, a second prisoner who had served in past Russian wars claimed that last year, after originally being passed over when Wagner was recruited from his jail, he had been hired by the Russian Ministry of Defense. In his self-described role as a “patriot,” he bemoaned the “greenness” of many of the inmates being sent to the front.
“War is war; I have no complaints. When they hear the machine gun, some visitors leave. This is bad. Nobody has my back, therefore they put everyone else up, he claimed. After 25 days on the front lines, this soldier was seriously wounded in the leg in October, but he claimed he felt no fear. “A shell lands in the trench two to six meters away from me, and dirt tumbles into the trench, but I’m not afraid at all. I’m not sure why this keeps happening to me.
A third said that the defense ministry directly recruited him while he was serving a manslaughter sentence. He lamented the fact that their prisoners did not receive the medical care or benefits that Wagner boasted they lavish on their recruits. [Wagner recruits have also alleged that they were mistreated and used as cannon fodder.] He explained how one battle had cost half of his regiment their lives. “We were placed right in front. I radioed our soldiers to tell them to aim slightly to the right since mortars were being fired at us. They continued to fire at us from both sides. Then I realized they were firing intentionally at us.
According to the relatives of three prisoners from the summer who were featured in an August article by the Associated Press, the destiny of prisoners working by Wagner does not appear to be any better.
According to his brother, one had been missing for four months without a trace. Another had also stopped speaking, but he was still delivering his brother his monthly salary in a sealed plastic bag, which he collected from a rented office. A third person, who was portrayed as a fortunate returnee, had joined Prigozhin in a video. His heavy drinking, “zombie-like” demeanor, and intense desire to get back to the front, according to a friend, were recounted.
The linked press was able to obtain statistics from Russia’s correctional system showing a 27,000 decrease in the jail population between March and November of last year when the initiative was only three months old. This suggests that the scheme to send prisoners to war has grown quickly.
The validity of the pardons Wagner has asserted are granted to criminals has also been discussed by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who told reporters last month that any presidential decrees pardoning prisoners were probably classified. There are open decrees and decrees with different levels of secrecy, he explained. “For this reason, I am unable to comment on these decrees. I can vouch for the fact that every step of the pardoning process is carried out strictly by Russian legislation.
Prisoners who are not Russian and may not have been found guilty of a crime were also captured as a result of Wagner’s recruitment. Nemes Tarimo, a student from Tanzania, was reportedly detained on remand after being caught in Moscow while on exchange. According to information from their Russian counterparts, the Tanzanian foreign ministry said that he was sentenced to seven years in prison in March of last year.
His relatives in Tanzania said to the Associated Press that they were unaware of his whereabouts until they were informed by authorities that he had passed away.
Wagner said Tarimo passed away in October close to Bakhmut in a horrifying video of a memorial service held in his honor at a cemetery in Molkino, western Russia. State TV said that his body was returned to Tanzania last month, and the foreign ministry later released a statement claiming that Tarimo had agreed to fight in exchange for cash and his freedom.
According to his cousin Rehema Makrene Kigoga, “Nemes was a very attentive guy from his early years on. He wasn’t a scamp, but he was exceedingly devout. She added that before his passing, they did not know about his recruitment. We were unaware of this report when he was living, but now that he has passed away, we have learned that he was detained for drug-related offenses. It causes a lot of family pain and grief. He never even dared to imagine himself as a soldier.