| 23 April 2024, Tuesday |

Russia’s Wagner militia suggests deserter was – and wasn’t – executed

On Monday, a video that appeared to depict the killing of a Russian mercenary who had escaped the Wagner organization while fighting in Ukraine was uploaded on social media, but the creator of Wagner would not confirm whether the apparent victim had been slain or not.

The Wagner mercenary group, which operates in Ukraine independent of the main Russian military command and bills itself as Russia’s most ruthless and potent fighting force, has made the sledgehammer its emblem after it is said to have been used to execute a member who defected from its ranks last year.

In the footage, captioned “Video from the court for treason”, a man who identifies himself as Dmitry Yakushchenko is shown with his head taped to a block on a brick wall, while a man in camouflage stands behind him holding a sledgehammer.

Facing the camera in a seated position, the restrained man recites his name and gives 1978 as his year of birth and says he has been snatched from the street in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro.

“I was planning on finding some loophole, just, as they say, to run away,” he says, adding that it was “not his war”.

In the video – distributed by Grey Zone, a Telegram channel linked to Wagner – the person behind him raises the sledgehammer and appears to swing it into his head.

At this point, the video blurs. There is a loud noise, and the victim falls backwards onto the floor. The man swings the sledgehammer again.

A caption then says, “The court session is declared closed”.

In response to a request for confirmation of the video’s content from the Russian outlet Ostorozhno Media, which is run by liberal media personality Kseniya Sobchak, Wagner’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin replied on his Telegram channel in typically enigmatic style.

“Ksenia, don’t take everything so sadly. The children are having fun. You thought that the film about Yakushchenko was a one-episode drama … If you wish, we can share the next series with you.”

To add to what appeared to be a deliberate trail of confusion, Prigozhin’s channel then posted a video of “Yakushchenko” in front of a blank concrete wall saying he had been taken captive by Ukrainian forces, to his shame, but had brought back valuable information that saved colleagues’ lives.

“For that reason I’ve been forgiven, for which I’m extremely grateful” he says, above a caption reading “Dmitry Yakushchenko is a good man”.

Reuters was unable to immediately verify the authenticity of either video, the order in which they were taken, or whether “Yakushchenko”, who said he was born in Crimea and left prison before joining the Wagner group, was speaking freely or under duress.

Grey Zone had compared “Yakushchenko” to Yevgeny Nuzhin, a man identified as a defector from Wagner who was shown on video in November being executed with a sledgehammer.

In a rare interview with a Russian military blogger last week, Prigozhin said a sledgehammer was a “fine instrument” and a symbol, but said he knew nothing about it being used to punish traitors.

  • Reuters