This former Russian Wagner mercenary is the first to speak publicly The Wagner Group, known as "Putin's shadow army," has come to the world's attention because of the Ukraine war. Marat Gabidullin, who left Wagner after fighting in Syria, has written a book about it.

An ex-member of one of the world's most dangerous mercenary groups has gone public

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And now a look inside the Wagner Group. This private mercenary firm is financed by an oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin, although the Russian president has consistently denied any knowledge of the organization. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sat down with a former Wagner mercenary to learn about the group's activities.



BEARDSLEY: (Speaking Russian).

Fifty-six-year-old Marat Gabidullin's face is lined from exposure to the elements, and his hair is thinning, but he has the trim physique and muscular arms of a man 30 years younger. He wears a chunky ring with a skull, the symbol of Wagner. Born in central Russia, Gabidullin served 10 years as an officer in the Soviet army before being laid off. In 2015, he found himself unemployed and at a low point in his life.

GABIDULLIN: (Speaking Russian).

BEARDSLEY: "I was depressed," he says, "and a friend told me about this private military company that I could qualify for because of my military background." Gabidullin joined Wagner, which came to the world's attention in 2014 when it fought with separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Today, Wagner's clients range from the junta governing Mali to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Gabidullin served three years in Syria.

GABIDULLIN: (Through interpreter) In Syria, one goal was to quickly achieve victory. But the second goal that was as important - to hide the number of losses that Russian military had in that campaign because we wanted to create an image of a strong Russian military that achieved victory at a small cost.

BEARDSLEY: It was all deception, he says, because the cost was huge. But the public will never know the real numbers. Kevin Limonier is a Wagner specialist who teaches geopolitics at the University of Paris 8.

KEVIN LIMONIER: Wagner is not a group; it's a brand. In fact, it does not exist as an official structure.

BEARDSLEY: Wagner is financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the same oligarch wanted by the FBI for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

LIMONIER: Yevgeny Prigozhin has an empire based on three types of activities. First type of activity is, of course, mercenary and security business. Second type is disinformation business, information warfare, et cetera.

BEARDSLEY: The third is the exploitation of natural resources in Africa.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: A recent documentary about Wagner that aired on network France 2 shows how these three activities intersect to prop up corrupt regimes, terrorize local populations and spin lies. Limonier says Wagner is different from private military companies like the notorious Blackwater - now disbanded - because it doesn't have any official existence. It's a galaxy of organizations with different names that are hard to trace, he says. And it thrives in a violent post-Soviet society.

LIMONIER: Wagner is organized by people who grew up in a society where violence and death has not the same value that it has in our Western societies.

BEARDSLEY: Limonier says Wagner's earnings have grown tremendously in recent years because of its operations in Africa...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...Allowing it to recruit young men from remote Russian regions with rap songs and ultraviolent internet movies and videos glorifying war, which allows it to build a cheap and disposable force.


AKIM APACHEV: (Rapping in Russian).

BEARDSLEY: Mercenary Gabidullin says no one is responsible for a Wagner soldier, and there is no code of conduct in a Wagner war.

GABIDULLIN: (Through interpreter) Well, you have to understand that a person who is part of this group exists in this legal vacuum. On the other hand, that soldier is also relieved of any possible consequences of his behavior at war.

BEARDSLEY: Gabidullin has just published his book in France, "I, Marat: Ex-Commander In The Wagner Army." He says he wrote it to show the Russian people the truth and the propaganda behind their wars. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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