A cemetery used by notorious Russian mercenary group Wagner has grown rapidly in recent months, according to interviews and a New York Times analysis of satellite imagery and video footage. The expanded cemetery is rare visual evidence that shows the toll of the Ukrainian invasion on Wagner, especially its rank and file soldiers.
The expansion coincides with a bloody offensive by Russian soldiers and mercenaries to gain ground in eastern Ukraine. The US government says Wagner’s battlefield casualties number in the thousands and that 90% of them are convicts who were recruited to fight in exchange for release from prison, assuming they had survived.
A satellite image captured Jan. 24 shows about 170 burial plots in an area of the cemetery known to house Wagner fighters, a number that has risen to nearly seven times that seen in satellite images just two months ago.
Wagner’s cemetery is a recent addition to its growing infrastructure in Russia, where it seeks to position itself as a superior fighting force to the Russian military. The existence of the graves, near the group’s main training center in the southeast village of Molkin, was first made public in December by Vitaly Wotanovsky, an activist and former army officer. Russian Air Force.
Mr Wotanovsky, 51, told The Times that he visited cemeteries to document cases of Russians killed in fighting in Ukraine. The location of the cemetery might have remained unknown had not local residents informed him that the area was used to bury the unclaimed bodies of Wagner fighters. During several visits, he photographed an increasing number of tombstones and uploaded them to his Telegram channel, Titushki in Krasnodar.
“Our goal is to show people that war kills people, and it’s not far away or on TV, but it’s right here next to us,” Wotanovsky said.
There may be even more deaths than is easily seen. He noted that locals told him that many fighters were most likely cremated.
For years, Wagner’s mercenaries kept a low profile while operating overseas in countries like 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 assertions of its own combat prowess – much of it led by the group’s public face, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In a video released last September, Mr Prigozhin hinted at the existence of the cemetery as he recruited inmates from Russia’s prison system, promising to take care of their remains if they died 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 Mr. Wotanovsky revealed the location of the cemetery, several videos were released by pro-Kremlin media showing Mr. Prigozhin laying flowers on a grave in the cemetery. Rows of freshly dug graves are also visible, each adorned with wreaths in the shape and colors of Wagner’s logo.
“He works a lot on heroization – it’s now a kind of Russian policy: why hang on to this life, when you can die so heroically,” said Olga Romanova, founder of Russia Behind Bars, an organization charity that helps convicts and their families. . “Death is not horrible. What is horrible is the opposite: not dying for the Fatherland.
These images and Mr. Wotanovsky’s photos also offer clues to who fought and died for Wagner in recent months. At least 16 of the names and dates of birth on the headstones have appeared in online databases of people convicted of crimes in Russia. Many are likely to have died in the fighting around the Ukrainian towns of Bakhmut and Soledar, where mercenaries and the Russian army have suffered heavy casualties over the past four months.
In another video, Mr Prigozhin visited Wagner’s chapel, about eight miles from the cemetery. The images showed the mercenary society mimicking the way a country’s official military might commemorate its own war dead, with large monuments and murals set in manicured grounds.
Also present are rows of black walls containing compartments typical of how cremated remains are buried. Each compartment has an ID number and a display of the deceased’s battle rewards.
The Times identified 21 walls in total in the chapel, each containing 42 compartments, suggesting that hundreds of Wagner’s deceased fighters are either buried or, at the very least, memorialized in the chapel. It’s unclear whether all of those fighters were killed in Ukraine or elsewhere, but the footage still offers a rare glimpse into the scale of Wagner’s casualties.