‘Just to survive’: Wagner fighters recount the horrors of battle in eastern Ukraine | CNN

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Kyiv, Ukraine

Two former fighters of the Russian personal navy firm Wagner have informed CNN of their horrific experiences on the battlefield in jap Ukraine, and the way anybody who faltered was instantly shot by their very own commanders.

The 2 fighters had been captured by Ukrainian forces late final 12 months. CNN just isn’t disclosing their identities for their very own security. Each are married with youngsters and had been recruited while in prison. One was serving a 20-year sentence for manslaughter.

For safety causes, the Ukrainians saved a presence within the room the place the interview passed off. CNN informed the fighters that they may finish the interview at any time they wished. However they spoke intimately for greater than an hour.

The 2 fighters informed of hideous losses in “first wave” assaults harking back to World Battle I prices.

“There have been 90 of us. Sixty died in that first assault, killed by mortar hearth. A handful remained wounded,” stated one, recalling his first assault close to the village of Bilohorivka. “If one group is unsuccessful, one other is distributed straight away. If the second is unsuccessful, they ship one other group.”

The opposite fighter was concerned in an assault lasting 5 days, by way of a forest close to the town of Lysychansk on the Luhansk-Donetsk border in jap Ukraine.

“The primary steps into the forest had been tough due to all of the landmines unfold out. Out of 10 guys, seven had been killed instantly,” he stated.

“You’ll be able to’t assist the wounded. The Ukrainians had been firing closely on us, so even when their wounds had been minor, you’ve received to maintain going, in any other case you’re the one getting hit by the hearth.

“You’re at it for 5 days, folks dying proper subsequent to me, praying to God, begging for water. You assume which you could put down your weapon and nothing else will occur. After which the struggle begins once more 10 minutes later, and [the Ukrainians] hold coming after you. There isn’t any feeling hooked up to it. Simply wave after wave.”

“4 hundred [Wagner fighters] had been introduced there, after which increasingly more, on a regular basis.”

Graves of Russian Wagner mercenary group fighters are seen in a cemetery near the village of Bakinskaya in Krasnodar region, Russia, January 22, 2023.

The prisoner stated a self-preservation intuition had kicked in for him, however others froze. “Some cease proper there within the forest and drop their weapons. However to drop your weapons is to come back beneath sniper hearth and die.”

There was no evacuation of the wounded, he added. “For those who’re wounded, you roll away by yourself at first, any method you may, someplace impartial the place there’s no hearth, and if there’s nobody round, you administer first help to your self,” he stated.

Casualties piled up by the dozen, the boys stated. “When the casualties arrive, you get orders to load them, and also you don’t actually assume who’s useless and who’s wounded,” one of many fighters stated.

All through their a number of weeks on the entrance strains, the 2 males stated that they had just one intuition.

“Simply to outlive. I simply had the need to outlive, it doesn’t matter what the fee,” stated the prisoner concerned within the forest assault.

They grew to become numb to the casualties and the killing of the Ukrainian troopers they confronted. “You’d assume you’d really feel one thing [after killing someone], however no, you simply hold going.”

The choice to strolling by way of minefields in direction of Ukrainian artillery was simply as deadly, in accordance with the boys’s accounts.

“We couldn’t retreat with out orders as a result of if we don’t adjust to the order, we will likely be killed,” stated one of many prisoners.

“One man stayed at a place, he was actually scared, it was his first assault. We acquired an order to run ahead. However the man hid beneath a tree and refused. This was reported to the command and that was it. He was taken 50 meters away from the bottom. He was digging his personal grave after which was shot.”

The opposite fighter reported the same state of affairs: “Our commander was informed that if anybody will get chilly ft, he must be eradicated. And if we didn’t remove him, we might be eradicated for failing to remove him.”

The 2 males described how they had been recruited by Wagner. In August and September final 12 months, the group’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, arrived by helicopter on the prisons the place they had been held, providing six-month contracts in return for being pardoned.

One of many males nonetheless had 10 years of jail time forward after a manslaughter conviction.

“I weighed that six months was higher than the ten or 11 years I may nonetheless spend in jail… I simply wished a recent begin in life,” he stated.

On the time, Prigozhin’s recruitment campaign in Russia’s prisons was in full swing. It’s estimated by Western intelligence officers and jail advocacy teams that between 40,000 and 50,000 males had been recruited.

On Thursday, Prigozhin stated the prison recruitment drive was over however gave no cause.

“Solely a handful in my unit got here for cash, most got here as a result of that they had lengthy sentences,” stated one of many fighters. “However there have been additionally some who had solely 12 days of their sentence remaining, and so they went anyway.

“They lined everybody up within the yard and Prigozhin began recruiting folks,” he stated. “[Prigozhin] stated he had the authority from higher-up our bodies to take anybody from the jail, whatever the crimes or the jail time period. The best candidates are murderers, robbers.”

The choice course of was so rudimentary that older prisoners solely needed to present they may march a number of yards, one of many prisoners stated. “They took nearly everybody.”

“A few of them had been head circumstances … the loopy ones, those who after they get a weapon of their arms they wouldn’t know the way to deal with it,” he added.

For jail inmates with years to serve, the provide was tempting.

One of many prisoners stated: “For our freedom we needed to struggle for six months in Ukraine, to struggle the Nazis. On the identical time, he promised us wages, compensation of loans, and a clear historical past.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly pushed the groundless rhetoric of “denazification” as justification for his invasion of Ukraine.

Quickly after Prigozhin’s visits, a whole lot of prisoners had been taken by bus and aircraft to a coaching floor within the Rostov area of Russia, in accordance with the 2 males.

There was a strict ban on medicine and alcohol, one of many prisoners stated. A few of the commanders stated that they had fought for Wagner in Africa and Syria.

The coaching was transient and fundamental – dealing with weapons for the horrible assaults they’d quickly be ordered to hold out. The boys stated it was clear they had been being ready for missions they’d not signed up for.

Now they’re bitter concerning the deceptions in Prigozhin’s gross sales pitch.

“He didn’t point out something about hazard,” one stated. “He talked about expunging all convictions, we might serve six months, all convictions could be expunged, an advance cost of 240,000 roubles (round $3,300) and likewise that our activity was to carry the protection on the second line.”

Military academy cadets cover the coffin with flags during the funeral of a Wagner Group mercenary killed in Ukraine at a cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 24, 2022.

The 2 males additionally really feel deceived concerning the nature of the battle.

“We thought we’d be preventing Poles and numerous mercenaries. Germans. We didn’t assume anybody was left within the Ukrainian military there. We thought they’d left the nation,” stated one.

“So it grew to become clear they had been simply spinning lies to get us to enter into battle with the Ukrainians. Nobody actually thought that the AFU [Armed Forces of Ukraine] would really struggle for their very own nation, for his or her family members. We solely discovered this after stepping into there.”

It was nearly a reduction to be captured, the prisoners stated.

One stated he and a wounded comrade had been the one survivors in his group, caught “between two Ukrainian mortars and a sniper.”

“The command ordered me to dig in at my place, so I dug in at my place, awaiting evacuation. They despatched one group of 10, and the sniper eradicated all 10,” he recalled.

“Then the command informed us on the walkie-talkie: Get out any method you may, you’re by yourself.”

It was then, he stated, that Ukrainian troopers “got here up and fired a shot subsequent to my foot, stated ‘arms up,’ and that was it.”

When requested if they’d make the identical determination once more, the prisoners paused for a second.

“I feel it was the flawed selection… I’d by no means participated in any navy operation, particularly preventing towards the AFU, which refuses to surrender its land. They introduced us right here beneath the flawed pretext. And so we’re at conflict, however I don’t assume it’s a simply trigger,” stated one.

The opposite prisoner agreed. “I don’t assume it was value it. Now I hope I can flip over a brand new leaf.”

He stated he had managed to achieve his household since being taken prisoner.

“They thought that I used to be useless, till I had contacted them. They cried and had been shocked that I used to be alive.”

Each males stated they wished to return to Russia.

Mentioned one, “I don’t care about Russia, however I simply need to go house.”

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