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An Ex-Wagner Group Mercenary Throws Open the Door on the Russian Operation

Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner Group operative, in Syria, where he fought with the Russian militia at the height of the war there. He has written a memoir of his experience in Wagner, going on record to reveal information about the quasi-private army. He is now seeking exile in France.

Marat Gabidullin is throwing open the door on the notorious Wagner Group, the Russian quasi-private army that operates in the shadows and doesn’t exist on paper. When he released his memoir in April in French, describing his time as a Wagner fighter and a commander, Gabidullin, 55, became the first operative to go on the record about his experiences in the militia. His book, “I Marat, Ex-Commander in the Wagner Army,” was published in France by the firm Michel Lafon.

Gabidullin is now a public critic of the Wagner Group and wants his story to serve as a warning to the rest of the world — especially the West — about the dangers of using militia groups like Wagner to fight in armed conflicts. His story, including a short mission in 2015 to the Donbas region in Ukraine and numerous trips to Syria, reveals in graphic detail what it’s like to fight for Russia as a mercenary. At the same time, he now questions how fighters like him have been used by the Wagner Group and, by extension, the Kremlin.

He spoke to PassBlue in September by Zoom from France, where is seeking asylum.

Gabidullin, whose identity was confirmed by Russian media, worked for the militia group from 2015 until 2019. He was deployed to Syria, where Wagner fought on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s continuing civil war. A veteran of the Russian Airborne Forces, Gabidullin started in Wagner as an operative and soon climbed the ranks to command an intelligence troop. Later, he became a senior strategy adviser for the so-called “ISIS hunters,” a coterie of mercenaries working under Wagner leadership. Gabidullin claims to have briefly worked as an assistant to the founder of Wagner himself, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has recently gone public about his role in establishing the militia in May 2014. Known as “Putin’s chef,” he is sanctioned by the United States for interfering in the country’s elections.

As President Vladimir Putin intensifies his threats to use nuclear weapons in his war on Ukraine, he has attempted to annex four Ukrainian regions that Russia more or less occupies in the country. The Kremlin has also declared partial military mobilization in Russia, prompting hundreds of thousands possible draftees to flee the country.

The Wagner Group, a bloc of mercenary contingents working under common leadership, reportedly participated in some fighting in eastern Ukraine as long ago as 2014, after the Euromaidan revolution, which led to the overthrow of the Russian-leaning presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. Later, the mercenaries’ presence was reported in Syria, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Libya, where they expanded Russian influence in those regions. Most recently, they have been fighting alongside Malian troops to oust jihadists in parts of the country, but not without controversy.

The group often aligns itself with troubled political and/or military leaders in exchange for cash or access to natural resources such as gold, diamonds or uranium. In Mali, however, the mercenaries’ presence may be more of a political gambit rather than being financially enriching, as the Wagner Group has supplanted the French military — which left Mali this year, in anger — as a counterterrorism operation. This new alliance brings Russia closer to the West African government, which is ostracizing the French publicly to win domestic support for Mali’s junta leadership. Yet the relationship between Wagner and Mali’s military-led government may be problematic. Two Malian soldiers were reportedly killed by members of Wagner in late September in a military camp in the northeast, where ISIS is gaining strength.

The arrangement in the Central African Republic with Wagner mercenaries appears to be more financially transactional than in Mali, with their helping President Faustin-Archange Touadéra hold on to power and fight off the rebel groups.

A documented trail of human-rights violations by the Wagner Group in the countries where they operate has been recorded by human-rights experts, journalists and United Nations investigators, who have reported such abuses as mass executions, torture and looting. Germany’s foreign intelligence service has established that the mercenaries provided a leading role in the massacre in Bucha, Ukraine, earlier this year. In Mali, the media have also connected Wagner to mass executions.

Russia’s status as a permanent member in the UN Security Council has made it difficult for the body and the UN at large to take action against Wagner for its alleged atrocities. Last year, Russia blocked the reappointment of UN independent experts monitoring UN sanctions in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and South Sudan, after a release of a report by the experts documented violations by the Russian contractors.

Since the start of the full-fledged war in Ukraine in late February, the existence of the Wagner Group has become more open as Russian media have glorified the mercenaries fighting in Ukraine. When Prigozhin acknowledged for the first time that he founded the group, it happened after a video of him recruiting prisoners in Mari El republic in Russia appeared online. The timing of the announcement raised questions from observers around the world, with one possible explanation that Prigozhin wanted to emphasize the rogue status of the group to shift accountability for its alleged war crimes from Putin and the Russian army toward the Wagner contingents.

In the interview with Gabidullin, he discussed his experience working for Wagner and his thoughts on the organization’s problems and activities around the world. Some of his views might be uncomfortable to readers, but they provide valuable insight into the mind-set of a Russian Wagner Group mercenary, albeit one who has left its ranks. — ANASTASIIA CARRIER

The conversation was translated from Russian and edited and condensed for clarity.

PassBlue: How did you end up joining the Wagner Group?

Gabidullin: I have a military background; I went to a military academy. I served as a paratrooper, but I couldn’t stay in the military. I shot and killed a man and served three years in prison, only three years because of extenuating circumstances, but the criminal record prevented me from going back to the armed forces. I tried to establish myself in the private sector and worked as the head of security at a firm and as a bodyguard. . . . but I didn’t have any interest in business. By 2015, I reached the point of a personal crisis. I was depressed, I felt like I wasted myself. A friend then told me that there was this new organization for military combat and that I had a good chance of getting hired. For me, it was a way to get back to my old profession. I went to the meeting spot he told me about, passed all the physical tests and was accepted as an operative. I didn’t have active combat experience, just a few special operations from my time in the Russian air force. Most people in Wagner then had fighting experience — from Armenia, the Chechen Republic and Donbas [eastern  Ukraine]. The “brigade of mercenaries” — that’s what we were called then — was finalized at the end of 2015.

PassBlue: Please tell us about your time serving with the Wagner Group.

Gabidullin: The training took about two months, and it was individual training as well as group training, based on your division. In July 2015, we arrived at the Luhansk People’s Republic [referred as LPR by Russia, it is a quasi-state in Ukraine’s contested Donbas region], and spent two months in the city of Luhansk. It was my first mission with the group. Russia wasn’t ready for the full-scale effort to capture Ukrainian territory then, and by the time we arrived most of the fighting between LPR and Ukraine had stopped. During my two months there, I started to become disillusioned with Russian propaganda. I came to Luhansk zombified by Russian propaganda the way an average Russian was zombified. On the Russian state-controlled TV, they said that Luhansk was a territory fighting to protect its Russian population from genocide by the Ukrainian government. But when I arrived I saw that the LPR was being run by a junta. It was obvious that a bunch of losers took over the power there, and I had many doubts about their moral compass and intelligence. The civilians seemed to have Stockholm syndrome. Most of the people around me didn’t question what they saw. They didn’t compare the news with reality. The news said that the armed forces of Ukraine regularly attacked LPR, but my impression was that they were trying to survive under the persistent fire from the LPR side. Our mercenaries constantly crossed the [front] lines and competed among themselves on how much they could mess up the Ukrainians. All of this was happening after the Minsk Agreements were signed [in 2014, to end the fighting in Donbas] and all the sides were supposed to cease fire. Still, I thought we were trying to provoke the Ukrainians to restart the war. Luckily for me, I didn’t participate in these events firsthand. After seeing all of this, I considered quitting. Then an option to go to Syria came up.

I was in Syria six times, from 2015 to 2019. The first time I went for two months, in September 2015, just as Russia was starting to deploy its armed forces there. I came back again at the end of the year,  as a commander of the intelligence team. I was badly injured by shrapnel in March 2016 and evacuated to Russia. I returned to Syria in early 2017. Our task was to capture oil fields. We also helped Syrian forces to win back Palmyra, which they lost in 2016, and helped to fight ISIS. By then, I was captivated by the process. I like this kind of activity —  I have a military background. Plus, we were fighting ISIS and I had no moral issues fighting ISIS.

PassBlue: What was it like working as an assistant to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group and referred to as “Putin’s chef”?

Gabidullin: I was evacuated from Syria again in 2017, after a few months because of the earlier injury complications. The same year, I was invited to work as an assistant to Prigozhin in his office in St. Petersburg, and I stayed for four months. My duties included information processing, preparing Wagner Cross awards and mapping of the tactical situation in Syria. I kept a database of war prisoners — about 250 ISIS fighters at the time. While I was working there, I showed Prigozhin a draft of some chapters of the memoir I was writing. “Bring everything you have,” he told me. We put my book draft together and edited it a bit. He liked the idea but said that the publication was “a future business.” Eventually, I asked to return to Syria and went back three more times as a senior strategy adviser for the group called “ISIS hunters.” It was technically a different organization of mercenaries but under Wagner orders.

PassBlue: What led you to writing your memoir? You published the book first in Russia under the title,  translated into English, “In The Same River Twice,” in January; later, it was published in French. In interviews about the process of writing it, you said that you received some pushback. Could you tell us about it?

Gabidullin: At first, I started writing things down to make sure I wouldn’t forget them. Later, I started to realize I wanted to communicate to Russians that they have the wrong idea about their government and their country. People don’t want to believe that Russia has mercenaries, but there is no way to ignore that. Russia also uses them in a way that Western countries haven’t thought of yet — Russia sends them alongside their military or even instead of it. By writing this book, I wanted to let Russians know that this isn’t normal. I wanted them to know that what they’d heard about the Syrian war wasn’t true. When I tried to get the book published in Russia, a few Wagner representatives had a talk with me. They persuaded me that the book would harm my friends that were still at Wagner. Unfortunately, I believed them and backed off from an agreement with a publisher. Later, I realized the orders came from Wagner’s leadership and that they were acting out of their own interests. I realized that the book wouldn’t actually harm my friends. I found a brave publisher who published the book in Russia. Then a firm in France, Michel Lafon Publishing, got in touch with me and expressed interest in the book. I agreed. I wanted to publish the uncensored version and share the story with as many people as possible. Michel Lafon is also publishing my second book, which talks about why I left Wagner and paints a picture that goes against Russian propaganda glorifying the group. I can be sent to prison for this in Russia. My publishers decided it wasn’t safe for me to stay in Russia and moved me to France. I also wrote a third book but haven’t found a publisher yet. It talks about Russian PMCs [private military contractors]  and why they don’t have a right to exist. My story is a warning to the West — don’t let this happen to you. PMCs have the right to develop as a business, but not how they have in Russia. Wagner Group is an anti-example of what civilized countries should aspire to. It is not really private; it belongs to the government, even though it’s managed by a private individual. It’s a tool to generate profit for Prigozhin, Putin and Putin’s allies.

A Wagner medal to Gabidullin for his participation in the war in Syria. It reads, in Russian, “For the victory over ISIS, Syria.”

PassBlue: On paper, the Wagner Group doesn’t exist. Please explain its infrastructure, including how you were paid. Was there official employment?

Gabidullin: The private military contractors, or PMC Wagner, is just a part of Prigozhin’s enterprise; PMC Wagner was on the floor of the building near his office. At the time, there were just a few people, but since I left the staff has grown. When I was originally recruited in 2015, I signed a contract with LLC Europolis (ООО Европолис), an obscure commercial organization. I was hired as an employee for a company that was collecting information in a conflict zone. According to the contract, I wasn’t allowed to participate in combat. They paid well, in cash. The salary was much higher than in the military. In my time, fighters sent to a mission but not fighting were paid 180,000 roubles a month, and fighters who participated in combat got 240,000 roubles. [Respectively, about $3,100 and $4,100 a month, per average, based on 2017 exchange rates] Great money, if you consider the kind of people Wagner recruited, people lacking qualifications that would allow them to make somewhat similar money in civilian life.

PassBlue: What do you think the global public doesn’t generally know about Wagner?

Gabidullin: I think many people don’t understand how and why Wagner was created. It’s incorporated into the government structure; it was created by the government. It’s financed from the budget of the government.

PassBlue: Wagner Group is used as a tool to promote Russian interests in African countries: the Central African Republic, Libya and Mali, to name a few. According to media reports, there is often an arrangement made between Wagner and national leaders of the countries for Wagner to provide mercenaries in exchange for access to natural resources. What do you think about that?

Gabidullin: When I was working in the St. Petersburg office, Wagner fighters were sent to Sudan and the Central African Republic, or CAR. I think it’s normal for a government to promote its interests abroad. Especially considering that the valuable minerals [gold, diamonds] in CAR are basically on the surface, while it’s very expensive to mine them in Russia. But Russia approached these territories by hiring mercenaries. This approach doesn’t create a good ally state but another sponge.

PassBlue: How have things changed for the Wagner Group since the start of the full-fledged war in Ukraine, in February 2022? For a while, the group was becoming more public with open recruitment calls and, recently, Prigozhin acknowledging for the first time his founding of Wagner.

Gabidullin: Russian propaganda is trying to persuade people that the group is a great thing and that Russia needs it. Why didn’t they glorify them during the Syrian war? In Syria, we did a good job, but a war in Ukraine shouldn’t be something where Wagner fighters are used as assault troops. Why do they need the army then? I get Wagner’s presence in CAR, but in Ukraine. . . . This war is outrageous, stupid and selfish. The people in power have lost their minds. This war is a crime and participation in this crime is being glorified. It’s also important to remember that Wagner is fighting two wars now, in Ukraine and in Africa. Prigozhin doesn’t want to use his best mercenaries in Ukraine, he keeps them for Africa, where he has financial interests. For Ukraine, he recruits cannon fodder. He is recruiting in prisons now. Legally in Russia, there is no permission for early release from prison in exchange for going to the war, but Prigozhin still gets prisoners out. He goes in and out as if he owns the place. Prigozhin operates above the law because he has Putin’s support.

PassBlue: What are your thoughts on what’s happening in Mali? According to reports, the Wagner Group mercenaries were deployed there in 2021 to train national forces in exchange for access to natural resources, which fits in the larger pattern of the Russian campaign to expand its influence in Africa. But now the relationship seems a way to influence the Malian junta government’s battle of wills against France. Since Wagner’s arrival in Mali, reports of massacres and extortions have been covered by international media. What are your insights on the nature of Wagner’s role in Mali?

Gabidullin: When it comes to grotesque stories about violence by mercenaries, I’m skeptical. You shouldn’t judge all mercenaries based on these stories. For example, the 2017 torture and beheading of two Syrian prisoners by four Wagner mercenaries were unquestionably committed by immoral dirtbags. [Gabidullin said they killed two prisoners, but reporting on the action and a video of the beheading features one killing] Before, there was some screening for morality. People got fired for alcohol abuse and the use of drugs. I think people who were fired for such transgressions came back later, once the standards loosened up.

PassBlue: What can the UN and governments worldwide do to stop the violence inflicted by the Wagner contractors?

Gabidullin: UN [peacekeeping] forces are present in CAR, but they aren’t active. And they needed to be actively involved because there was a civil war. Wagner accomplished its goal there — it put down the spark of the war. Yes, they acted in a way that went against the international rules of war. Yes, they committed war crimes, like beheadings and shot-in-the head executions. I don’t support any of the sides, but I think this was the way they had to operate in CAR; rebels were killing civilians. This was the only way to suppress the start of the war while the UN forces just watched from afar and didn’t want to risk their own people. Wagner doesn’t care. They don’t count casualties when they are solving problems.


We welcome your comments on this article..  What are your thoughts on the Wagner Group?

Anastasiia Carrier is a Detroit-based freelance reporter. She earned an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and her work has appeared in Politico Magazine, The Wire China and The Radcliffe Magazine.

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An Ex-Wagner Group Mercenary Throws Open the Door on the Russian Operation
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John Bacher
John Bacher
1 month ago

Good to read such a credible expose of the crimes of the Wagner group. Should help change the minds of many who see the current war in Ukraine as driven by opposition to NATO expansion. It is simply another episode of a profit driven third world war for global domination of Putin and his buddies, against Russian law.

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