When the Russian army began bleeding during its attack on Ukraine last summer, the Wagner mercenaries bled too. In order to recoup the losses, the mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was given a unique tool by Vladimir Putin: he was allowed to fill the ranks of his troop with inmates from Russian prisons. So Prigozhin traveled through the country's toughest prisons and recruited the most brutal criminals. Prigozhin preferred multiple murderers who were sentenced to life imprisonment – as he loudly proclaimed himself.
Amnesty and freedom against war: That was the deal. Among the men who accepted Prigozhin's offer were Azamat Uldarov and Alexei Savichev. They signed contracts with Wagner that contradicted both Russian law and the Russian constitution. Uldarov served his sentence in the IK-13 penitentiary in the Saratov region, Savichev in IK-1 in the Voronezh region.
Both men were pardoned by decree of Vladimir Putin. The official documents are dated August 23, 2022 and September 2, 2022. Both of them went to the front almost immediately from prison. Now both are back in Russia - and making shocking confessions about their war crimes.
According to his own statements, the founder of the legal protection organization Gulagu.net, Vladimir Ossechkin, spent a week in intensive exchanges with Uldarov and Savichev. In numerous conversations, the two Wagner mercenaries made detailed and consistent statements.
Ossechkin's organization Gulagu.net primarily campaigns for the rights of Russian prisoners and recently uncovered mass torture in Russia's prisons. The organization also looks after former soldiers and mercenaries who managed to escape from Russia abroad or who want to help uncover war crimes. Ossechkin is connected and informed like no other in the world of Wagner mercenaries. He is on Prigozhin's list of personal arch-enemies.
So it was no coincidence that Uldarov and Savichev chose Ossetchkin as their confessor for their confession of sins. And what they have to confess can hardly be grasped in its horror.
Ossetchkin collected more than an hour of material from the video calls he made with the two former prisoners. "They were looking for people who could kill. And I can kill," says the convicted murderer Savichev about his recruitment by the Wagner mercenaries. After 30 years behind bars, he felt like a "change of scenery" - even if the other prisoners treated those who put themselves in the service of Prigozhin with absolute contempt.
In the Wagner troupe, on the other hand, he would have had authority; the recruits from the prisons would have listened to him. And anyone who refused the order was tied up in a humiliating position and handed over to the FSB. "I didn't see her after that."
However, he had witnessed at least 70 executions in which those who disobeyed orders were shot. All former prisoners like himself. For the Wagner leadership, they were not human or Russian citizens. "We were all just Project K," says Savichev. The Wagner troop recruited prisoners under the title "Project K".
According to the 49-year-old, not only those who refused to obey orders were shot, but also those who, from the point of view of the Wagner leadership, made a mistake. Savichev tells of a man who, while drunk, captured fighters of Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov. He had to pay for it with his life. Other drunks were also executed "to demonstrate to others what happens to drunkards."
The Wagner troupe would also face the death penalty for passing on information to the press. "Annulment" is the term used by the Wagner troupe.
According to his own statements, Savichev also carried out terrible orders. With incredible calm, he told Ossetchkin how he threw grenades into a pit where about 60 human bodies were found. "The corpse was breathing. But no one was screaming," he recalled. How many of the people were still alive did not interest him. He had his orders.
"I blew everything up." With 30 grenades, one at a time. "Like apples" he threw them into the pit from a hill, then doused everything with petrol and set it on fire. He only needed one canister. "If there's a pile of meat there, you don't need much."
The crime happened on January 19 or 20 this year near Bakhmut. The Wagner mercenaries have been trying to take over the Ukrainian city for months. He could not say how many of the dead were Ukrainians and how many were members of the Russian troops. "Maybe 50 to 50. Or 70 to 30. I don't know. I don't want to lie about that," the convicted murderer explains and then tells how he shot unarmed prisoners and civilians.
If the order was given to "cancel a house," then in the end there wasn't a single living person left there. "You can judge me. But I wanted to live just like you."
While Savichev shows no guilt in his talks with Ossetchkin, former mercenary Uldarov appears to be wracked with guilt. "I want everyone to be punished. I want Russia and everyone to know the truth," he says of his former Wagner comrades.
"See the hand I'm holding the cigarette with?" he asks the camera during a video call with the activist. "With this hand I carried out the order to kill children."
The video that surfaced a few weeks ago and is said to show the execution of a Ukrainian prisoner is "void" compared to what he saw. (The star reported on the alleged execution video.) "Yes, that's brutal. But what we did when we entered Soledar and Bachmut were scenes! We had orders to destroy everything (...) and to take our positions at all costs. On our way we killed everyone: women, men, old people and children. Do you understand what is sticking to my hands?" asks Uldarow, who is clearly drunk.
The memory of a terrible act seems to particularly torment the former prisoner. "She's screaming, she's a little kid, maybe five or six years old. I fired a control shot at her. Do you understand that?" he asks, as if he can't believe what he's done himself.
The order to kill everyone came directly from Wagner boss Prigozchin. "We shouldn't let anyone live that day."
On another day, March 18, he and his unit carried out another horrific order: Between 300 and 400 people, including around 40 children, were discovered in the basement of a nine-story apartment building in Bakhmut.
"I had orders not to let anyone out again. And nobody came out again," he says, while his hand with the cigarette is shaking. "I gave the order to cancel all. I checked: all were zero." In the idiom of the Wagner mercenaries, it means nothing other than when they were all dead.
"Prigozhin himself gave the order: everyone will be killed, no prisoners will be taken." He gave the order over a video call.
In his confession, Uldarow confirmed many allegations that had been made against the Wagner troops in recent months: the execution of their own fighters, the handing over of empty coffins to the relatives of fallen mercenaries, the high losses within the troops.
"We are illegal murderers. We are freaks, we are animals. I don't know what to call ourselves," says the man, completely distraught. He bursts into tears several times.
Prigozhin himself has gathered around 20 men who are completely his slaves and who can do nothing but kill. "Liquidators," Uldarow calls them. The Wagner boss keeps them under control through recordings that document their atrocities.
The executions of Ukrainian prisoners were also filmed for this purpose. "We liquidated them. We didn't ask for any explanations. Because we're nothing," says Uldarov about himself and the recruited prisoners.
Most of the prisoners were killed with knives. But if Prigozhin demanded an execution with a sledgehammer, then a sledgehammer was used. "It's our Prigozhin's preferred method. He's a loathsome man," says Uldarov, fear in his voice.
Both Uldarov and Savichev are in Russia. By confessing to their crimes in Ukraine, they make themselves enemies of Prigozhin. The two know only too well how the Wagner boss deals with those whom he considers to be polluters: they are murdered. The more pressing question is why the two mercenaries decided to make a public confession.
Prigozhin himself provides a possible clue. He turned directly to Savichev and asked him to get in touch with the Wagner troupe. What is required of him? He should explain "why he submitted this forgery, who is behind it, how he was blackmailed and whether other tasks were set." According to Prigozhin, he will not "shake up" those "skeletons in the closet" that prompted him to work with Gulagu.net. He promises Savichev: "You will remain alive and unharmed."
Meanwhile, however, Prigozhin has opened the hunt for his former subordinates. Both men report that they now fear for their lives. Savichev told the British "Guardian" that he was afraid of suffering the same fate as Yevgeny Nushin, who was executed in front of the cameras. "I was with Wagner and I know what you can do with those who speak," said the convicted murderer. "I understand that I could die soon. I just don't want my death to be violent."
Last Wednesday, Ukdarov got in touch with Ossechkin again and reported that the Wagner mercenaries paid visits to his parents, child and friends. Prigozhin himself called him, he says, even if he doesn't give his name out of fear. "Number 1," he calls Prigozhin. He is expected to retract his statement. Instead, he should tell that he was blackmailed into his confessions.
"They want to wipe me out," says Uldarow. "I recorded a final video where I tell everything. In case something happens to me." Out of fear, he now always has a grenade with him. He doesn't want to fall into the hands of the Wagner people alive.
The strategy is clear: Uldarov and Savichev should accuse themselves of lying and defame their confessions as false statements. The damage to Prigozhin should be minimized. Because the statements of his former fighters harm him above all. On the one hand, they testify to horrific war crimes, the murder of civilians and prisoners of war and bloody executions of his own soldiers. On the other hand, they hold Prigozchin directly responsible for the corresponding orders.
In the raging power struggle between the Wagner troops and the Russian Ministry of Defense, Prigozhin's position is considerably weakened. They could finally make him intolerable in the eyes of the Kremlin. Recruiting new fighters is also likely to become radically more difficult. Prigozhin has already been deprived of the opportunity to recruit prisoners by Vladimir Putin. There are hardly any volunteers left. The reports of how the Wagner boss has his own people executed will not trigger a rush of fresh recruits. The Wagner troupe threatens to bleed dry in front of Bachmut.
In Moscow, speculation has been going on for weeks that this could be the Defense Ministry's goal. In this sense, the confessions of the Wagner mercenaries play into the hands of Sergei Shoigu's authorities.
It is the classic question of criminalistics, which could therefore clarify the background of the sudden confessions: Who is the profiteer? In this case, it is the Russian Ministry of Defense.
A sentence by Uldarow confirms this suspicion. Despite all his regrets, he says he wants to go back to war. Civil life is no longer possible for anyone who has been at the front. But this time he wants to fight for the Defense Ministry.