A war memoir written by a former Russian paratrooper who fought in Syria for the Kremlin-backed mercenary Wagner Group, owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a plutocrat nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” had been eagerly awaited.
The 54-year-old author, Marat Gabidullin, who rose to become a commander of one of Wagner’s reconnaissance units, trailed tantalizing snippets of what to expect in the memoir in an interview last week with Meduza, an independent news site.
In the interview he confirmed the group suffered heavy losses fighting in Libya and that Russian mercenaries in 2017 tortured to death a Syrian army deserter. Videos of the brutality, which included the man being burned in the groin, shot at with machine guns and beaten with a sledgehammer before being decapitated, surfaced months later on the Internet.
According to Gabidullin, the killing was ordered by the group’s top commander and founder Dmitry Utkin, previously a special forces lieutenant colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service. Gabidullin promised the book, “In the Same River Twice,” would throw light on the inner workings of Wagner. Gabidullin said he decided to write the memoir after being wounded in 2016 during fighting near Palmyra, in Homs province, battling Islamic State militants.
But the book has now been pulled from the printing presses at Gabidullin’s request, according to Siberia-based publisher Nayemnik, following accusations in pro-Kremlin newspapers that the memoir contains “inconsistencies and falsehoods,” a clear sign of official disapproval, say analysts.
The Russian government has long denied any connection with the Wagner Group. The mercenaries have been spotted in battlefields from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, fighting alongside pro-Moscow separatists, to Libya, where Western intelligence and military officials estimate several hundred have provided eastern Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar with support.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, dismissed during an interview with VOA last year any notion the mercenaries are Kremlin-linked or directed, saying there’s little Russia can legally do to prevent “private Russian citizens from acting as bodyguards overseas.”
Gabidullin told Meduza he wrote the book in part to push the Kremlin into acknowledging the group’s existence, as well as the deaths of its fighters, who receive neither military funerals nor posthumous medals. Around 300 Wagner fighters are believed to have been killed or wounded in a firefight with U.S.-led Kurdish forces in Syria in February 2018.
“There is a complete deception on the part of the military and politicians surrounding the topic of private military contractors,” he said. “The whole world knows but you are hiding the truth from your own people. Is this normal?”
In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Wagner Group for supporting pro-Moscow separatists in the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The Treasury Department said Prigozhin provided extensive support to the separatists, including constructing a military base near Ukraine for Russian troops to use for deployments. Some Russian opposition leaders and independent military analysts suspect the Wagner Group is in effect a disguised unit of Russia’s Defense Ministry, allowing the Kremlin to deny involvement and minimize official military death tolls.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because he holds lucrative Kremlin catering contracts, was indicted by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller for overseeing a troll factory that allegedly spearheaded Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. Prigozhin mocked the Mueller indictment, telling the Russian government news agency Ria Novosti, “The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
Gabidullin says he enlisted with the Wagner Group in 2015, after serving five years with Russia’s airborne forces. He was dispatched to Syria to help Assad’s army recapture oilfields from Islamic State militants. He and other recruits were warned as they set off: “You’re destined for war [in places] where our state has interests. Prepare yourselves for the fact that this could turn out badly for you. Fatally.”
Gabidullin says in the early days of Wagner, the recruits were Russian military veterans, but that latterly it has had difficulties in enlisting professional soldiers and instead is taking raw recruits with little or no battlefield experience. He said, “People who got to smell gunpowder in Chechnya or during the Georgia War are no longer striving [to join the Wagner PMC]. And it turns out that more than half of the personnel are [at war] for the first time.”
'An army of slaves'
He added, “In 2015-2017, Wagner’s [Dmitry Utkin] led a squad of gladiators — now he is leading an army of slaves…Most of the commanders absolutely are not up to the level of their positions. And the veterans who still remain in this formation have made up their minds: ‘The main task is to survive. Survive, you understand?’ They aren’t thinking about victory anymore.”
Gabidullin said many of the failings of the Wagner Group stemmed from Utkin swapping his role from being a field commander and becoming instead a businessman and stopped pushing back on misplaced orders and directives form the Russian military.
“He simply didn’t want to argue with his superiors,” Gabidullin said.
Gabidullin added, “And the guys just ended up turning into cannon fodder. In 2017, for example, you couldn’t go take oil fields with such weapons and amounts of ammunition — it’s simply impossible. But the military said to go. When the mortar operators just don’t have enough mines and you drive people ‘forward and forward,’ you aren’t a commander any longer. You’re a businessman: take the [oil] fields and you’ll receive a prize. In the end, the soldiers stopped trusting their commanders — and this isn’t even the only reason. Since 2018, some of the commanders have taken up half the bonus funds allocated to the unit, and the rest — crumbs — is distributed to the combatants.”
Asked how the other Wagner mercenaries felt about the memoir, Gabidullin said that some, especially those worried about the lack of experience of new recruits, were glad. He says Prigozhin had initially encouraged his writing and read it as it progressed in 2017. Gabidullin acknowledged he altered some of the text following suggestions but said at that time he felt that the Russian tycoon was “on his side.”
“In general, he’s not a stupid man and he can give an even more specific and harsher assessment of many of the participants in these events than me,” he said. Prigozhin, he added, conceded that there were “excesses on the ground” by Wagner mercenaries.
Last week, a report by the Pentagon’s inspector general suggested that the United Arab Emirates, which has also been backing Libya’s Gen. Haftar, may have contributed funding to Wagner. The report said the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessed that the UAE “may provide some financing for the group’s operations” in Libya.