The graves are all fresh. Row after row of them, almost identical. The same mound of sandy soil, the same black, red and yellow wreath mounted with a golden star.
The same wooden, orthodox cross to mark the grave, though there are some Muslim headstones too. Just the names and the dates on a small bronze plaque to distinguish the lives extinguished. None of them lived to a ripe old age.
This is a cemetery for Wagner mercenaries near Krasnodar in southern Russia. Krasnodar region is the Wagner Group’s heartland. Their training ground is nearby in a village called Molkino.
There is a newly built chapel not far away which houses the urns of cremated fighters. And there is space available for still more graves in this cemetery, when the next wave of bodies come home.
Wagner is heavily involved in Russia’s offensive around Bakhmut and Soledar in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Its fighters have died, Ukraine says, in their thousands.
Most likely the bulk of those were convicts, sent in to die like cannon fodder and be buried in a Wagner cemetery far from home. Perhaps after time in Russia’s penal colonies they no longer had homes to speak of.
“The area near Soledar is covered with corpses of the invaders… This is what madness looks like”, Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in one of his nightly addresses.
Russia claims to be in control of Soledar, a victory that Wagner’s boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, declares as his own.
In the last few days he has also claimed to be behind the capture of the village of Klishchiivka about nine kilometres south of Bakhmut, though that has yet to be confirmed from the Ukrainian side. Russia’s Ministry of Defence has been less gracious about Wagner’s role but it has conceded that they played a role in capturing Soledar.
There are rumours, dismissed by the Kremlin as media speculation, that army boss Valery Gerasimov was brought in to replace Sergey Surovikin as head of Ukraine operations partly to keep Prigozhin in line.
Putting the top military commander in charge of Russia’s “special military operation” could be interpreted as a way of reinforcing army hierarchy and reminding Prigozhin and his band of mercenaries who is ultimately in charge.
Prigozhin, who just a few months ago refused to confirm the well-known secret that he ran the Wagner Group and sued anyone who suggested otherwise, has come out in public all guns blazing. There is no longer a need for the “regime of silence”, he said.
There are videos of him now in the salt mines around Bakhmut where US officials believe he has an eye on the mineral spoils.
There are videos of him handing out medals to his fighters. There are videos of him surveying piles of body bags behind the frontlines and attending funerals back home. He has not shied away from his losses, demanding the same burial rights for his men as for regular army soldiers.
He has shown himself willing to be a presence at the frontlines, quite the battleground commander, which is more than can be said for the ultimate commander-in-chief who, unlike Ukraine’s president, has paid no visits to the front.
Prigozhin’s PR team provide quick responses, purportedly from the man himself, to media questions. In a recent salvo, he takes aim at Kremlin bureaucrats who he says are longing for Russia to lose the war and for the US to start calling the shots in Russia. But the US “won’t take you in”, he writes to these supposed Kremlin traitors. “And then you will come to us, where the Wagner sledgehammer will be waiting for you.”
The sledgehammer is no idle threat. In November, video appeared purporting to show a Wagner mercenary bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer for defecting to Ukraine. When asked to comment, Prigozhin replied, “a dog receives a dog’s death”.
Later that month, a bloodied sledgehammer in a violin case was presented to the European Parliament as they debated declaring Russia a terrorist state, a sinister message from the group also known in Russia as “The musicians”.
But losing that many men creates problems and the recruitment drive in Russia’s prisons is reportedly drying up.
Paul Whelan, a US citizen (who also holds British citizenship) and was jailed in 2018 on espionage charges, told his brother David that Wagner recruiters had little luck the last time they came round his prison colony. “Everyone else has a clear picture of what happens to prisoners who go to fight the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine”, David Whelan wrote in his regular email updates. This time round, they reportedly managed to sign up just eight men, compared with 115 on the previous occasion.
Prigozhin is a powerful man. He is unashamedly critical of both Russia’s senior military command and of the Kremlin elites though he does not say a bad word about Vladimir Putin.
Wagner has played a key role for years already as an unofficial arm of Russian foreign policy in Syria, Libya and other African countries.
Now in Ukraine, the group is out in the open. But Ukraine is a far bloodier battlefield and the fight more existential, both for the Wagner Group and for Putin’s Russia, which has enabled men like Prigozhin, with his brutal, sledgehammer tradecraft, to flourish.