Returning Wagner Mercenaries Are Not Getting Hero’s Welcome in Russia
A series of brutal attacks on Russian veterans returning from the frontlines are highlighting divisions in Russian society over the Ukraine war.
A number of Wagner Group mercenaries returning from Ukraine have been killed on their home soil, including one who was stoned to death, according to local media reports.
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s troops, once seen as vital to Russia’s battlefield successes, have fallen in disrepute since the short-lived mutiny in June, with soldiers’ families complaining that the government was reneging on promised benefits and pensions payments for the mercenary group’s former members.
Violent and deadly attacks both on—and by—the former soldiers who either returned home voluntarily after the group was allegedly disbanded, or were sent back after being wounded, underscore growing divisions inside Russia as the conflict drags on, taking a toll on Russian society and economy.
Two former soldiers, one ex-Wagner mercenary and one ex-conscript, were assaulted by a group of youths in the Russian region of Zabaikalye, in Western Siberia, on August 5.
According to local media reports, Putin’s “special military operation” soldiers returned from the front earlier this summer after being wounded—both lost a leg in the conflict. They were attacked after an argument at a cafe with local youths, who called the soldiers “murderers.”
Anti-war sentiment in Russia is most prevalent among young people aged 18 to 24, according to polling in June from the Russian Field sociological company.
At least one suspect has since then been arrested and charged with “discrediting” the Russian military, according to Russia’s Novaya Gazeta Europe, while Russian state officials launched a probe into police officers in Zabaikalye for alleged failure to open a criminal investigation into the matter.
Just days earlier, another Russia-Ukraine war veteran was killed in the city of Chelyabinsk by a “migrant worker,” who called the ex-military man an aggressor, pushing him to the ground. The soldier, Anton Chashkin, hit his head on the steps as he fell and later passed away at a local hospital, according to the URA.ru news agency.
Two more veterans, one reported to be a former Wagnerite, were stoned to death by four local citizens in the Krasnodar region of Russia, near the village of Dederkoy, the local Kuban24 outlet and state TV channel Tsargrad reported on Monday. Their lifeless bodies were discovered on a riverbank on August 5.
While no official reason for the assault has been revealed, local media reports citing regional VK and Telegram chats suggest the duo was deemed “extremely dangerous” and engaged in racketeering after returning from the front lines.
Newsweek reached out to Prigozhin’s Concorde Media Group and the Russian Defense Ministry via email for comment.
These incidents follow a string of reports about ex-Wagner mercenaries harassing, attacking and killing Russian civilians as hundreds of them are being let loose in Russia following the disarmament and disbanding of Prigozhin’s PMC.
The paramilitary group has been quietly but systematically taken apart since Prigozhin’s failed coup attempt, with some reportedly sent off to Belarus and others joining Russia’s main military forces.
The rest were given the green light by Vladimir Putin to return to civilian life in Russia, but many of them have not been getting the “hero’s welcome” from the Russian state and its citizens that they might have counted on.
While Prigozhin himself appears to have escaped largely unscathed and continues to enjoy freedom of movement, as evident from his recent appearance at the Saint Petersburg Africa summit, his men are steadily losing the privileges that were previously afforded to them.
Reports in recent weeks indicate that at least some of the former mercenaries are struggling to secure benefits and pensions for their families, despite Prigozhin’s claim that the more than $100 million in cash and assets discovered during the raids on his properties were allocated for his ex-employees.
Many of the wives and widows of ex-PMC members have complained that salaries have been either delayed or withheld from them, including the so-called “coffin payouts” that are allocated to relatives of those who were killed in Ukraine.
Some of these complaints and concerns are being voiced on Wagner-affiliated online “PMC chatrooms” and channels, according to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report.
The report details cases featuring soldiers and their relatives that were no longer given the necessary documentation to certify their veteran status, which would make them eligible for state pensions and other benefits.
“This occurred because now we have higher priority objectives,” said an administrator of one of such Telegram chat rooms, as reported by Sirena, a Russian independent news outlet.
This marks a sharp shift from the heyday of Wagner’s victories in Ukraine, including the capture of Bakhmut, and elsewhere around the world, as thousands, including ex-military men, joined the group on the promise of significantly higher pay and other perks.
Moscow for years has denied that the PMC was affiliated with the Russian state, only for Putin to admit that Prigozhin and his group received billions of rubles from Russia’s federal budget over the years.
Now, with Putin appearing to be increasingly reliant on other entities to maintain security, including the Rosgvarida and other private paramilitary formations, the Wagner Group’s fate is uncertain, but its former members’ painful reintegration back into civilian life is likely to result in more flare-ups.