A cemetery used by infamous Russian mercenary group Wagner has grown rapidly in size over the past few months, according to The New York Times interviews and analysis of satellite images and video footage. The enlarged burial ground is rare visual evidence of the damage the invasion of Ukraine is doing to Wagner, especially its ordinary soldiers.
This expansion coincided with a bloody offensive by Russian soldiers and mercenaries to regain territory in eastern Ukraine. The US government says that Wagner’s battlefield casualties run into the thousands, and that 90% of them are prisoners recruited to fight in exchange for being released from prison, assuming they survive.
A satellite image taken on January 24 shows about 170 burial plots in an area of the cemetery known to house Wagner warriors, a number that has increased to almost seven times the image. satellite just two months ago.
Wagner’s cemetery is a recent addition to its burgeoning infrastructure inside Russia, where it seeks to establish itself as a fighting force superior to the Russian military. The existence of the graves, near the group’s main training base in the southeastern village of Molkin, was first made public in December by Vitaly Wotanovsky, an activist and former Russian Air Force officer.
Mr. Wotanovsky, 51, told The Times that he visited cemeteries to document cases of Russians who died fighting in Ukraine. The location of the cemetery may have remained unknown had the locals not disclosed to him that the site was being used to bury the unclaimed bodies of Wagner warriors. During several visits, he took pictures of more and more tombstones and uploaded them to his Telegram channel, Titushki in Krasnodar.
“Our goal is to show people that war leads to death, and it’s not far away or on TV, it’s right next to us,” Wotanovsky said.
There may be more dead than is easy to see. He noted that locals had told him that many of the warriors had most likely been cremated.
For years, Wagner’s mercenaries kept a low profile while operating abroad in countries such as Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic. The United Nations and human rights groups accuse the group of targeting civilians and carrying out mass executions.
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But since the start of the war in Ukraine, the group has expanded its public presence with promotional videos and claims of its own combat prowess – much of this is led by example. the public face of the group, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In a video that appeared last SeptemberMr. Prigozhin hinted at the existence of the cemetery when he recruited prisoners from Russia’s prison system, promising to take care of their remains should they die in battle.
“For those who don’t know where they want to be buried, we bury them near PMC Wagner’s chapel,” he said.
Ten days after Wotanovsky revealed the location of the cemetery, several videos were published by pro-Kremlin media showing Prigozhin laying flowers at a grave in the cemetery. Also visible are rows of freshly dug graves, each decorated with garlands of the shape and color of Wagner’s emblem.
Olga Romanova, founder of Russia Behind Bars, a charity that supports convicts and their families, said: “He works a lot to be a hero – it’s now a major kind of thing. Russian book: why hold on to this life, when you can die so heroically. . “Death is not scary. The terrible thing is the opposite: not dying for the Fatherland.”
That footage, and photographs of Mr. Wotanovsky, also provide clues about who has fought and died for Wagner in recent months. At least 16 names and dates of birth found on gravestones have appeared in an online database of convicted criminals in Russia. Many people probably died in the fight around the Ukrainian towns of Bakhmut and Soledar, where Russian mercenaries and troops have suffered heavy losses over the past four months.
In another video, Mr. Prigozhin visits Wagner’s chapel, about eight miles from the cemetery. The footage shows the mercenary company emulating how a country’s official military might memorialize its own war dead, with monuments and murals on the grounds. carefully taken care of.
There are also rows of black walls containing compartments typical of cremated remains. Each compartment has an identification number and displays the deceased’s battle awards.
The Times identified a total of 21 walls at the chapel, each with 42 compartments, suggesting that hundreds of deceased Wagner warriors were buried or at least memorialized in the chapel. It’s unclear whether all of these fighters were killed in Ukraine or elsewhere, but the footage still provides a rare glimpse into the scale of Wagner’s losses.