by Flo Read
Friday, 18
November 2022
Video
15:00

Former Russian mercenary: the truth about the Wagner Group

Marat Gabidullin speaks out about the dark inner workings of the military company
by Flo Read

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.”

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall
9 days ago

An absolutely brilliant and fascinating interview. Could you please do a follow up to get his perspectives on the broader conflict, the possibility of Russia’s ejection from Ukraine, the ways the war could end and the consequences for Russia and the governing regime.

linda drew
linda drew
6 days ago
Reply to  Peter Hall

the consequences of russia losing would mean the entire world lost to torture programmers of america – they offered MERCHANT OF DEATH TO RUSSIA TWO DAYS AGO – THEY HAVE GOT TONS OF THEM – WMD MACHINES ARE MERCHANTS OF DEATH

martin logan
martin logan
5 days ago
Reply to  linda drew

So, you’re saying the West is winning?

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
9 days ago

This is a genuine scoop – well done Unherd.

J Bryant
J Bryant
8 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

I agree it’s a most interesting interview, but this guy has been doing the media rounds since the summer to promote his new book.

J Bryant
J Bryant
8 days ago

Great interview. I think it has to be recognized, though, that Gabidullin is not a fan of the Wagner Group’s current leadership, and perhaps not of the Russian military leadership. Although I don’t doubt that, overall, he provided a fairly realistic picture of Wagner, he is not unbiased.

linda drew
linda drew
6 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

NOBODY MENTIONS WAR ON THE WORLD BY AMERICA DO THEY IT IS ALL AGAINST RUSSIA FROZEN INTO OFFICIAL NARRATIVE ALL AGAINST THEM AND WHOLE WORLD LOSES IF AMERICA WINS. ATROCITIES GALORE FROM WMD MACHINES

M. Gatt
M. Gatt
8 days ago

Former mercenary and cynical book promoter gets free publicity…

martin logan
martin logan
5 days ago

What’s fascinating about Russia is that it is really an alternate universe, providing insights into what happens when there is no Rule of Law, and everything depends on a chain of bosses leasing up to a (usually very mediocre) ruler.
Since even the regimes of Greece, Rome, medieval England were bound by laws, it shows the limits of when a single individual is responsible for all decisions.
It hasn’t really worked very well for the last 800 years. Russia has burned through vast resources and 100s of millions of lives for zero return.
So naturally, they will just keep doing the same thing…until it works.

Iris C
Iris C
7 days ago

It would seem that this Neo-Nazi group is Ukrainian based and yet the thrust of the article is to associate it with Russia’s actions at the present time.
The International Criminal Court will investigate crimes committed by Russian soldiers when peace is achieved and also by the Ukrainian army. As far as the latter is concerned, the explosion at the supermarket the last time Western leaders met and a missile killing two people on a Polish farm this time round, no doubt both to engender additional military support.
Have you been taken over by the Americans? I ask this because at one time your articles were relevant, fact-based and enlightening with a large proportion of responses from the experienced and professional. I ask this because both have changed (for the worse, to my mind) and my British spelling is underlined as incorrect, i.e. sceptical, being replaced with skeptical. Needless to say, I have added the correct spelling to my Unherd dictionary..

Bengt Dhover
Bengt Dhover
6 days ago
Reply to  Iris C

Don’t worry about your spelling comrade, Unherd reader can tell who signs your paychecks.

Iris C
Iris C
6 days ago
Reply to  Bengt Dhover

The uneducated always respond with abuse rather than argument

martin logan
martin logan
5 days ago
Reply to  Iris C

The Ukrainians respond with HIMARs, partisan ambushes, and drone boats.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
6 days ago
Reply to  Bengt Dhover

So I guess everyone that disagrees with you is a paid propagandist. Could it be that perhaps you are the one that’s being paid?

martin logan
martin logan
6 days ago
Reply to  Iris C

The real problem is that Russia as a whole never became part of the Western Intellectual Tradition. So, it’s very difficult for most Russians to make a logical argument. (Naturally, I except the millions of Russians who actually can think quite well in Western terms–but they aren’t in charge)
As in the time of “Grozny,” the best they can come up with is a recap of “sacred doctrine,” handed down from time immemorial. It’s part Russian, part Bolshevik, and part from the “Thieves’ Code.”
Thus, terms like “Neo-Nazi” and “CIA plot” are magical spells used to explain otherwise inexplicable (or embarrassing) phenomena:
–Ukrainians just couldn’t desire to join with the rich EU, and instead naturally desire to become impoverished members of the Eurasian Economic Union.
–Civilians are randomly killed because Russian soldiers have no idea how they are being targeted, and think anyone with a cell phone is a spy.
–The failures in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson are not actual failures, but part of an ingenious strategy that will bring “Apocalypsis” to the West, and all who oppose Russia.
Whether Tsarist, Bolshevik of Putinist, Russia’s triumph is certain–until the country falls apart again.
As Woland well knew, they haven’t changed over centuries and millennia. Their inability to think logically condemns them to an Eternal Groundhog Day.
And now, even if they did change, it is far too late.

Joe Cowan
Joe Cowan
3 days ago
Reply to  Iris C

What utter jibberish. And so poorly written that you’re clearly uneducated.