Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has cast doubt on a video appearing to show the brutal killing of a Wagner soldier for defecting to the Ukrainians.
In a new video clip, released by Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, the soldier says, “I was forgiven.”
And in a post on his Telegram channel, Mr Prigozhin calls the soldier, Dmitry Yakushchenko, “a fine fellow”.
Wagner may have faked the earlier video. It appeared to show Yakushchenko being hit fatally with a sledgehammer.
Mr Prigozhin joked about that video in reply to an inquiry from Russian news outlet Ostorozhno Media about Yakushchenko’s true fate.
“Ksenia, don’t treat everything so gloomily. The kids are having fun,” the Wagner chief wrote enigmatically.
He said the case was not a one-off drama, but more like the hit Soviet-era TV series Seventeen Moments of Spring, a thriller set in World War Two. “You know, good always triumphs over evil,” he added.
Yakushchenko’s current circumstances are unclear – and there is no confirmation that he is still alive, despite Mr Prigozhin’s message on Telegram. Yakushchenko may have returned to Wagner via a prisoner exchange, but that has not been confirmed.
In the first video on Monday, released on the Wagner-linked Telegram channel Grey Zone, he admitted having fled to the Ukrainian side, before being kidnapped and ending up as a prisoner of Wagner.
The apparent sledgehammer “execution”, filmed in a cellar, was presented as the “trial of a traitor”.
It was similar to a brutal killing shown in a Wagner video three months ago, again involving a soldier accused of defecting to the Ukrainians.
Wagner calls itself a “private military company” (PMC) and has thousands of troops involved in heavy fighting in Ukraine.
It began operations in 2014 in Crimea and has since operated elsewhere in Ukraine, in Syria and across Africa. It has been accused of brutality and war crimes.
In the second video on Monday, Yakushchenko said: “In Wagner PMC, everyone has the right to correct their mistakes.
“When I was captured, I said all sorts of garbage and I’m still ashamed, but it was the only way to survive. Upon return from captivity, I brought lots of valuable information that saved the lives of many guys, so I was forgiven, for which I am very grateful.”
Neither video indicated where or when the filming took place, nor was that clear from the accompanying text posts.
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Grey Zone named the alleged “traitor” as Crimea-born Dmitry Yakushchenko, 44, who defected to Ukraine four days after becoming a Wagner fighter.
The first part of the video showed him in Ukrainian captivity – the BBC has established that the clip came from Ukrainian channel Espreso.TV.
In it, Yakushchenko suggested that Crimea might return to Ukraine’s control in a couple of years.
According to the text, he had been jailed earlier for murder, but had seized the chance to fight for Wagner in order to leave jail. Wagner is known to have recruited men from Russian prisons.
The video then cuts to a shot of Yakushchenko sitting in a cellar with his head taped to construction debris set against a stone wall.
Another man is standing behind him holding a sledgehammer. A caption calls the scene “trial for treachery”.
At the point where the first hammer blow is struck, the video goes blurred and Yakushchenko falls backwards. Further blows are struck, then a caption reads “the court session is adjourned”.
The Grey Zone post makes a sarcastic comment about Yakushchenko’s apparent death, referring back to Wagner’s November “execution” of Yevgeny Nuzhin, who was also a former prison inmate.
“Like his colleague Yevgeny Nuzhin earlier, he caught the same disease that makes you lose consciousness in Ukrainian cities, earlier in Kyiv, now in Dnipro, and then wake up in a basement at your last court session,” the post said.
The shadowy mercenary group has adopted a more public profile since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago – even opening a big headquarters in St Petersburg.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, for years a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, has been nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for providing catering services for the Russian elite and armed forces.
But he has given Wagner credit for the offensive on Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, downplaying the Russian army’s role, and suggesting that his forces are more competent fighters.