A Russian mercenary group has ruthlessly executed one of its former members who defected to Ukraine – but how did he end up back in Russian hands?
A quick warning: this podcast does contain references to violence.
A recent video surfaced on the messenger app Telegram called “The hammer of revenge”.
In it is a man in his mid-fifties, with a short, grey beard. You can only see his head which is taped to a brick wall.
He says he had surrendered to Ukrainian troops, before being abducted in Kyiv on 11 October and waking up in a cellar, where he was told he would be tried.
And just as he says those words, a man behind him dressed in military fatigues hits him in the side of his head with a sledgehammer, killing him.
The dead man’s name was Yevgeny Nuzhin. He was killed by his former comrades.
What do we know about Yevgeny Nuzhin? He was born in Kazakhstan in the late 1960s and moved to Russia as a child. After a career in the military, he was discharged in 1995.
At the time Russia was in bad shape; crime and gang warfare was rampant. After killing someone in a fight, in the late 90s, Nuzhin was sentenced to 24 years in prison for murder.
He was recruited from prison by the infamous Wagner private army to fight in Ukraine.
“You might have heard whispers about Wagner. It used to be a private mercenary group that operated entirely in the shadows. But in recent years, cnn has tracked wagner operatives in Ukraine, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Mali and Syria.
“The wagner group has a gruesome reputation and is linked to any number of human rights abuses including tortures and beheadings.”CNN
Although officially it doesn’t exist, its fighters have been heavily involved in the war in Ukraine and deployed to several countries around the world, including in Africa, where they’ve helped extend Russia’s influence by helping beleaguered governments to fight insurgents.
The Wagner group is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch best known as Putin’s chef, and for good reason. His restaurants and catering company and hosted dinners attended by Putin and other world leaders, including President George W. Bush. But Prigozhin is also known for serving up bodies.”CNN
After years of denying that he was the group’s founder – even suing journalists who dared to associate him with it – he finally publicly admitted his link to it in October.
According to Nuzhin, It was Prigozhin who flew to a prison, to recruit him and his fellow prisoners to fight in Ukraine.
“The war is tough”, he says. He compares the war in Ukraine unfavourably to the battle for Stalingrad. Prigozhin promised Nuzhin and the other prisoners a pardon, a salary, and compensation if they are killed.
The prisoners flew to Luhansk in the east of Ukraine, a region partially controlled by Russia which has seen fierce fighting. While there Nuzhin was interviewed by a Ukrainian website. When asked what he his fellow soldiers were doing there, Nuzhin replied:
“Well, [as] I understood for myself, cannon meat.”
After just a few days, mainly clearing dead bodies, he surrendered to the Ukrainians saying he wanted to fight for them.
When he was recruiting prisoners Prigozhin described desertion as a “sin”.
“The traitor received the traditional, primordial-Wagnerian punishment,” says the caption in the video in which Nuzhin is killed.
So there are several outstanding questions about how and why Nuzhin ended up in the hands of the Wagner group when he was in Kyiv. Some people have suggested he might have been part of a prisoner swap. But returning a deserter would mean sending him to certain death. Ukraine’s security services refused to comment, telling journalists “this is not our parish”.
The official Ukrainian agency which deals with prisoners of war said no deserters would be exchanged without their consent. But they call Nuzhin “the Wagnerian” and argue that he continued to support Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials told journalists that the narrative that Nuzhin was a voluntary, pro-Ukrainian defector was Russian disinformation designed to discredit Ukraine and scare any would-be deserters from defecting.
But other reports contradict this. One source told the BBC that Russia offered “very good conditions” for exchanging Nuzhin, and that the priority for Kyiv is the return of Ukrainian prisoners: “What the Russians will do with a Russian is your Russian problems.”
And now, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, has admitted that Nuzhin was exchanged – and that he consented to it.
But Nuzhin’s testimony that he was knocked unconscious before waking up in captivity, coupled with the fact that he would have known what fate likely awaited him at the hands of the Wagner group, means that consenting to the exchange seems unlikely.
The trail gets murkier because Prigozhin has alleged that Nuzhin was a secret CIA agent and that he was captured and killed by the Americans. There’s no evidence to back up these claims.
Whatever the truth of this story, Yevgeny Nuzhin’s death is a reminder of the brutal Russian tactics in this war, and the disinformation the Kremlin is prepared to peddle to defend itself.
This episode was written by James Wilson and mixed by Patricia Clarke.