November 18, 2022 - 3:00pm

In 2015, Marat Gabidullin, a Russian airborne forces veteran and former bodyguard, joined the Wagner Group. The private military company (PMC), infamous for their ruthless military tactics and elite soldiers, is funded by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. It first emerged in the Donbas region of Ukraine, stirring up separatist action after the Maidan Revolution of 2014.

Then it spread across the world, propping up military regimes in Africa and the Middle East. Marat was sent to fight in Syria alongside the Russian army supporting President Bashar al-Assad and soon rose to command one of Wagner’s five units there. After being seriously injured on the battlefield, Marat returned to Moscow where he worked for Prigozhin personally as a strategist and assistant. 

With the war in Ukraine, the Wagner Group began to adapt. It now recruits from high-security prisons, offering commuted life sentences to murderers and rapists in exchange for enlisting. After Marat witnessed what he calls a ‘lack of honour’ at the highest levels of the group, he absconded to Europe and spoke out, the first and only member of the group to do so. The silence of former fighters comes as no surprise. Just this week, a video emerged of a Russian Wagner soldier being sledgehammered to death for desertion. Wagner PMC wears its brutality on its sleeve, the motto of the group is chilling: ‘Death is our business – and business is good.’ 

Marat himself is the picture of a mercenary. He is an imposing figure, unflinching, with a manner of remorseless efficiency. On his hand is a heavy gold ring in the shape of a skull, a token from his days as a Wagner soldier. He joined me from Paris, where he has claimed asylum, to talk about the war in Ukraine and the future of Russia.

He tells me that torture and extrajudicial killings (like the mass graves found in the town of Bucha) are committed by new recruits, not trained soldiers. Rather than laying these atrocities at the feet of the army, he blames individuals’ “sick psyche, a torn psyche”. War wreaks havoc on the minds of young men, he says, “untrained minds would not be able to withstand it”. These green recruits are being used as cannon fodder by Russia. Marat says that no senior official would waste their best in Ukraine “because the fighting is very active and literally devours human resources. Prigozhin will take advantage of every opportunity and option presented to him in order to replenish the ranks.”

During his days working in Prighozin’s office, Marat was privy to an internal document that laid out the manifesto of the Wagner Group. He says it revealed cult-like, Neo-Nazi philosophy, full of paranoia about an invisible ‘enemy’ and the threat of the West to the soul of Russia. He believes that the ethos is based around Rodnovery, a pagan ideology native to Slavic countries like Poland and Ukraine.

Prighozin’s own aspirations are less philosophical, more power-hungry. He aspires to be the ‘King of the Donbas’, and these ambitions have led him to exaggerate his power over the Wagner Group. From the inside, Marat says, it is clear that the Russian government and Vladimir Putin ultimately control the group — all claims of its independence are simply to maintain his deniability. Wagner functions “at the expense of state resources,” he says, “it is obvious that it has never been a private military company
 the intermediary was always the Ministry of Defence.”

Prighozin’s hubris (or “rudeness” as Marat bluntly refers to it) will not be tolerated in the long term. He predicts that ‘Putin’s chef’ will either be assassinated by FSB or forcibly sidelined once the war ends. And the end might come sooner than expected. Marat hears from former colleagues on the frontline that Russian morale is very poor and their defences are getting weaker by the day. I am speaking to him in the aftermath of Russia’s retreat from Kherson, but he maintains that the Wagner Group, at least, will keep fighting to the bloody end: “They channel their despair into aggression, bitterness, and even more striving to move forward.”

Marat was working in Prighozin’s office in 2016 during the American election and Russiagate scandal. I asked him what he saw there. Prighozin did attempt to influence the US election in 2016, he says, and will try to influence 2024, but more for the sake of internal propaganda than political gain. Election interference is really about PR, to create an “exaggerated propaganda campaign aimed primarily at persuading the Russian population that we are so cool that we can even influence elections in the USA.” Prighozin’s troll farms, he asserts, won’t move the needle: “There will be an attempt, but it will not produce any useful results.”

is UnHerd’s Senior Producer and Presenter for UnHerd TV.