Russian Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine seized the “lies” that lured them and the threats that kept them there

Bakhmut, Ukraine — For months, the battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut has been one of the most dangerous front lines in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s forces have used everything from heavy artillery to vicious trench warfare to crush Ukraine’s resistance and take the city.

At the head of the battle were dozens of men from the Kremlin-backed paramilitary Wagner group – a force reinforced by mercenaries recruited from Russia’s notorious penal colonies.

CBS News met two of these hit men, men who were seized in the east and are now being held by Ukrainian military intelligence.

Russia’s Wagner mercenaries wage a bloody battle in eastern Ukraine


Sergei was almost halfway to serving 19 years for murder in a penal colony when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin visited prisons and made his pitch to convicts: serve six months at the front for Russia and then you can go free.

“I had to get out of prison one way or another,” he told CBS News. “Ten years is a long time.”

So he made the deal with the devil – front-line fighting in exchange for freedom and money.

Barely aware that a war was raging in Ukraine, Sergei was told he was fighting foreigners there.

“American mercenaries, Polish mercenaries, French… we were told they were Nazis,” he said.

Vlad, the other Wagner man, had already served two years of his three-year sentence for assault, but the promise of parole, a clean record and a $3,500 salary proved too tempting.

After only two weeks of training, he was sent against Ukrainian tanks with nothing but a machine gun.

Vlad, a Russian mercenary who was arrested by Ukrainian forces while fighting for the Kremlin-backed Wagner group, is seen speaking to CBS News in Bakhmut, Ukraine, in February 2023.

CBS News

“Our brothers were killed in large numbers,” he said. “There were mountains of corpses.”

Prigozhin was recently filmed examining some of these bodies piled high in a makeshift morgue near the front lines. However, the final destination of the killed fighters is a special Wagner cemetery in Russia. It is already filled with freshly dug graves.

When new recruits see what they’re up against and refuse to fight, Vlad says they have no choice.

“You just got killed, that’s it,” he said. “If you disagree with an order, you will simply be killed.”

He told CBS News he saw it firsthand.

“One of the fighters was too scared to fight,” he said. “They made him dig his own grave and shot him.”

Vlad claimed he saw three comrades executed with bullets to the head, but insists he was not involved: “There are specially trained people for that, a security group that can do anything to you.”

Russian oligarch leads mercenaries against Ukraine


Both Wagner men now believe they were tricked into going to the front.

“Everything we were told was a lie,” Sergei said. “It wasn’t the Ukrainians who wanted to kill us – we came to Ukraine to kill them.”

They insisted they had not committed any war crimes, and both men said if they could turn back time they would prefer the brutality of a Russian prison cell to the carnage of a Ukrainian battlefield.

We’ve heard so much about the terror Wagner waged during that war, but in that cold, barren space, the Russian mercenaries showed no emotion. When we asked Vlad how he felt about everything he had seen and experienced, his response was chilling:

“Honestly,” he said, “nothing!” Russian Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine seized the “lies” that lured them and the threats that kept them there

Rick Schindler

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