CNN — The audio is garbled at times, but the emotions are unmistakable.
“I am being taken to be shot. I lost a lot of people there. Remember this: do not send more people here. It’s enough, they want to kill us all.”
It is the last message Viktor Sevalnev would send. A convict, who had been in jail for armed robbery and assault, he was sent from prison to fight for Russia in Ukraine. After most of his colleagues died in an assault on a factory outside Soledar, it was the act of survival that proved fatal to Sevalnev.
In a last message to his wife, he said he feared officials from the Russian Ministry of Defense would soon take him from his hospital bed, where he recorded the audio message, and execute him. Days later, his body was returned to his wife in Moscow, in a closed coffin.
Sevalnev’s callous fate joins a growing list of complaints of abuse from convicts whom CNN has spoken to. For months, Russia has been using the shadowy private mercenary company Wagner to bolster its frontline presence with prisoners – a scheme at first denied and secretive, but then openly promoted by Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
On Thursday, Prigozhin announced that Wagner had stopped recruiting convicts to fight in Ukraine, saying “those who work for us now are fulfilling all their obligations.” No reason was given for the decision and CNN cannot independently confirm the claims.
However, Sevalnev and several prisoners CNN has spoken to seem to indicate a disturbing new strategy. They say they were directly employed by the Russian Ministry of Defense.
A Ukrainian intelligence official confirmed to CNN that prisoners recently captured by Ukrainian forces had said they were directly employed by the ministry.
“They emphasize to us that they are not Wagner, that they were invited officially by the defense ministry,” Andriy Usov, representative for defense intelligence, at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, told CNN.
Usov said the development had “echoes of internal squabbling among the Russian military leadership,” and that the Russian defense hierarchy, defense minister Sergei Shoigu and the new head of the Ukraine operation, Valery Gerasimov, were creating a convict resource they could directly control through the ministry’s own private companies. Usov said the ministry had fewer convicts for now but they “will be used in the same way … as cannon fodder,” as Wagner does.
Vladimir Osechkin, from prisoner rights group Gulagu.net, said the Ministry of Defense appeared to be luring recruits and convicts from Wagner using “more favorable terms” as a check on the rising clout of its owner, Prigozhin, increasingly seen as a competitor to parts of the armed forces.
“Many in Moscow are really afraid of Prigozhin,” said Osechkin. “They understand that he commands a huge gang – an organized criminal group of mercenaries and killers – who at any moment can arrange the god knows what in Moscow.”
CNN has asked the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment and received no reply.
CNN spoke to several prisoners who worked for a unit known by its number “08807” – who all say they were employed directly by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Some held documents suggesting they were ultimately deployed to an element of the Luhansk separatist army, which has been suborned into the Russian defense ministry. The unit 08807 was deployed in October to the frontlines around Soledar, known as a “Shtrum” brigade – for storming Ukrainian lines – and suffered catastrophic casualties.
Grainy footage obtained by Gulagu.net shows Sevalnev and his unit celebrating pre-deployment by dancing at a camp inside of Luhansk. It also shows them eating and joking just behind the frontlines the night before they began an assault on a key factory in Soledar, which would prove fatal for the majority of Sevalnev’s unit, survivors said.
The convicts spoke of casual mistreatment on and off the battlefield, but Sevalnev’s fate stood out. According to a recording of a call to his wife from a Russian separatist official who arranged the body’s repatriation, his abrupt death was apparently caused by shrapnel injuries.
Sevalnev’s wife declined to be interviewed for this report, but his audio messages and images of him from the war were supplied to CNN by Gulagu.net. Russian court documents obtained by CNN show Sevalnev was convicted for theft, and should, according to his sentencing, have been in jail when he died. His grave is located outside Moscow, and records his month of death as November 2022.
Three other survivors of the unit spoke to CNN from hospital. One, also a prisoner, said Sevalnev had been wounded once but sent back to fight on the frontline, where he was then wounded again.
“No one is being operated on here, no surgeries performed on anyone,” he said. CNN is withholding his name and those of the other surviving convicts for their safety. “People walk around [the hospital] with bullet wounds, with shrapnel stuck in their legs.”
A former soldier before his imprisonment, he also described catastrophic losses. “Our batch was 130 people, but we also have many amputees, and we probably have 40 people left”, he added, saying many different groups of prisoners were added to their unit over time. He said his unit had only 15 survivors and that the 08807 was now called 40321, or “Storm unit.” “In short, the meat grinder,” he added. He told CNN in the past few days he had been sent back to the frontline, his injuries unhealed.
A second prisoner, himself a veteran of previous Russian conflicts, said he was employed by the Russian Ministry of Defense last year, a decade into his sentence for murder, after being overlooked initially when Wagner recruited from his prison. He described himself as a “patriot” and complained many of the prisoners sent to the front were “green.”
“I don’t have any complaints, war is war. Some come here, hear the machine gun, and run. It’s not good. They set everyone else up, as no one has my back,” he said. This soldier was wounded severely in the leg in October, after 25 days on the front, but described how he felt no fear. “In the trench, 2-6 meters from me a shell lands, soil falls down to the trench, but I don’t feel any fear at all. I don’t know why it happens like this with me.”
A third said he was serving a sentence for manslaughter when he was directly recruited by the defense ministry. He bemoaned how their convicts did not get the medical treatment or benefits that Wagner boasted it lavishes on its recruits. [Wagner recruits have also complained of being used as cannon fodder and poorly treated.] He described how one battle left half his unit as casualties. “We were sent to the very front. I radioed at our guys that they were firing mortars at us, that they should aim a bit to the right. And still they shot at us from both sides. Then I understood they were deliberately firing at us.”
The fate of convicts employed by Wagner appears no better, according to relatives of three convicts over the summer who appeared in an August CNN report.
One had disappeared without trace for four months, according to his brother. Another had fallen silent too, but was sending his brother his salary, collected monthly from a rented office in a sealed plastic bag. A third had appeared in a video with Prigozhin, portrayed as a lucky returnee. Yet a friend described his “zombie-like” appearance, heavy drinking and urgent desire to return to the front.
The scheme to send convicts to the war appears to have grown fast, with figures obtained by CNN from Russia’s penal system showing a 27,000 drop in the prison population between March and November last year, when the scheme was just three months old.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has also elaborated on the legality of the pardons that Wagner has insisted convicts are given, telling reporters last month any presidential decrees pardoning prisoners were likely classified. “There are open decrees and there are decrees with various classifications of secrecy,” he said. “That is precisely why I cannot say anything about these decrees. I can really confirm that the entire procedure for pardoning prisoners is carried out in strict accordance with Russian law.”
Wagner’s recruitment has also snared prisoners who are not Russian, and may not have been convicted of a crime. Tanzanian student Nemes Tarimo was on an exchange in Moscow when he was apparently arrested on drugs charges and held on remand. He was convicted in March last year to seven years in jail, according to the Tanzanian foreign ministry, citing information from their Russian counterparts.
His family in Tanzania told CNN they heard nothing of his fate until they were contacted by officials to say he had died.
Wagner released a ghoulish video of a memorial ceremony in Tarimo’s honor at a graveyard in Molkino, western Russia, saying he died in October near Bakhmut. His body was returned to Tanzania last month, according to state TV, with the foreign ministry saying in a statement that Tarimo had accepted an offer to fight in return for money and his freedom.
His cousin Rehema Makrene Kigoga told CNN: “Since his childhood, Nemes was a very obedient boy. He wasn’t a scamp, but was a very religious person.” She also said they had heard nothing about his recruitment until after his death. “When he was alive, we never heard about this report but now that he’s died we are told he was arrested for drug-related offenses. It gives a lot of sorrow and sadness as a family. He never even had a dream of becoming a soldier.”