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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How The Kremlin Has Shut Out Wagner Fighters From War Hero Status And Veteran Benefits

They were offered high salaries, promises of honor, and state welfare. But Wagner Group fighters say Russia treated them like pariahs after they returned from the war in Ukraine.

Photo of a Wagner mercenary in full military gear standing on a rooftop in the Ukrainian city of Artemovsk, near Bakhmut, back in May

A Wagner mercenary stands on a rooftop in the Ukrainian city of Artemovsk, near Bakhmut, back in May

Irina Dolinina

Reports late last month have confirmed that soldiers from the Wagner Private Military Company have returned to the frontlines in Ukraine. Inside Russia, despite the deaths of its leaders, Yevgeny Prigozhin and Dmitry Utkin, the group continues to recruit mercenaries. The new leadership of Wagner entices potential recruits with familiar tactics — offering high salaries, patriotic discourses and dreams of heroism.

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And yet a deepening disillusionment prevails among former Wagner Group fighters , who have faced difficulties obtaining the benefits they were promised. Many have returned from Ukraine with injuries and have been unable to secure disabled status, veteran's certificates, state-funded treatment, or other entitlements pledged to all war participants.

"I returned home in April,” says 38-year-old Alexander from the Bryansk region, whose name has been changed for security reasons. “I stayed at home for a month because I was afraid to go outside . I was wounded, they took out some of the shrapnel and sent me to the front again. There are still fragments in my hand, it is rotting.”

Alexander says he went to the military registration and enlistment office to explain that he had earned a medal for courage, which should give him the right to obtain a veteran’s certificate. "They told me that there are no regulations for obtaining veteran status. I asked: 'What about the presidential decree?' They told me: 'Come on, get out of here.' So I left."

Putin's decree

At the end of April 2023, Vladimir Putin signed a law according to which 'fighters of organizations that contribute to the fulfilment of the tasks of the Russian Armed Forces' can also be recognized as veterans .

Alexander found a state fund online that claimed to 'support participants who had participated in the special military operation. It was called 'Defenders of the Fatherland'. Branches of the fund were opened in all regions of Russia.

A bunch of rude people work in this foundation, they constantly insulted me and refused to help.

“I went to the foundation and said: 'You’re helping with organizing documents. I need to go to the hospital. I’ve had shrapnel in my hands for six months now,' recalls Alexander. “They told me that they didn’t know anything about me and that I had to go to the military registration and enlistment office again. A bunch of rude people work in this foundation, I argued with them on the phone, they constantly insulted me. They refused to help, one manager there told me: ‘I’ll call Wagner now, they will come and quickly put you in order.'"

Defenders of the Fatherland was established as part of Vladimir Putin's decree in the spring of 2023. Its tasks encompass offering diverse forms of support to those involved in the conflict in Ukraine , such as veteran status registration, medical care, job retraining, and employment assistance.

Photo of a Wagner Group fighter in front of a destroyed building in the snow

A Wagner Group fighter near the Ukrainian town of Soledar back in February

Ivan Noyabrev/TASS/ZUMA

No legal status

The widespread rejections faced by Wagner members in their pursuit of official recognition as participants in the Ukraine conflict are evident in the appeal made by Alexander Kapustin, the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Smolensk Region. This appeal was relayed to "Important Stories" by a source in the administration of the Smolensk Region.

Kapustin expressed his frustration, saying, "I contacted the Bryansk Duma, the Moscow Duma, the Ministry of Defense, the military prosecutor’s office, and wrote to the presidential administration three times. Pure bureaucratic madness! I also wrote to Putin and told him that I went to fight for the Tsar and the Fatherland, and when I returned, there were just idiot bureaucrats everywhere I went."

In his most recent letter to the president, he conveyed his sense of helplessness, writing, "If you are aware of everything that is happening to us and think this is normal, then send me out of the country, let them put me in prison. I’d rather sit there under torture for the rest of my life and die like a dog than live here with you and among those people who create these bureaucratic obstacles."

In August, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a decree outlining the procedures for issuing veteran certificates, stipulating that applications must be submitted to the organization with which the fighter had a contract. This further complicates matters for former Wagner members , as their organization's legal status remains uncertain, despite previous admissions that the group received substantial state funding, with more than 86 billion rubles allocated in the past year alone. President Putin previously stated that the Wagner Group did not formally exist.

Image of a Wagner Group soldier sitting by a damaged building in the city of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut).

A Wagner Group soldier sits by a damaged building near Bakhmut, in April

Valentin Sprinchak/ZUMA

Conflicting emotions

Ruslan, a 35-year-old reserve officer from the Tambov region whose name has been changed for security reasons, shared his story about joining the Wagner Group serving time in prison. "When I went to prison, my wife and I told our daughter that I had gone on a business trip,” he said. “She simply understood that I was in the military and away on duty . After a while, my wife told her that I was at war and would return soon."

Ruslan spent six months in an assault detachment near Bakhmut , where he fought until he was severely wounded. He initially thought his 10 years of military service would make things easier, but he soon realized that much of his knowledge was of limited use in this unfamiliar combat environment.

Upon returning home, Ruslan reached out to the military registration and enlistment office and the Defenders of the Fatherland foundation, but both informed him that they didn't handle matters related to Wagner. Ruslan mentioned that none of his fellow Wagner colleagues had managed to obtain veteran's certificates either.

In addition to bureaucratic hurdles, Ruslan faced discrimination and difficulties finding employment due to his identity as a former Wagner group member. He said he later managed to secure a job through personal connections.

I no longer have any desire to fight. Let them suffer the consequences.

When asked if he had any desire to return to the front, Ruslan responded with emphatically: "No, of course not! I no longer have any desire to fight . Let them [the government] suffer the consequences. I won't even participate in patriotic activities. I was invited to speak at a school, but I declined, as I refuse to pretend I’m someone I’m not or advocate for such activities. They have tarnished our reputation and destroyed everything."

Regarding the sacrifices made by Wagner fighters in Bakhmut, where 20,000 mercenaries lost their lives, half of whom were former prisoners, Ruslan at first expressed uncertainty about whether these sacrifices were worthwhile. However, he went on to recount the story of his brother, who was also recruited from prison by the Wagner Group and died at the front. Ruslan described his brother as “a hero who, despite facing difficulties in life, ultimately chose to serve at the age of 40. We should be proud of him”.

When asked about the goals of Russia's war in Ukraine , Ruslan deemed the question “purely political” and said he had nothing left to say.

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