Krakow Film Festival 2024

Before the fall

RUSSIA / How Yevgeny Prigozhin's mercenary army, Wagner, grew to become a major tool in Russian foreign policy – murdering its way across Africa and Ukraine.

The Rise of Wagner, Benoît Bringer’s thorough study of the emergence of Russian mercenary army, Wagner, was made before its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed in a suspected assassination when his private jet fell out of the skies over Moscow on 23 August.

That does nothing to detract from this chilling account of how a small group of private mercenaries became a key tool for Russia’s imperialist ambitions in Africa – and eventually a major part of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Wagner troops – many recruited from Russian prisons on promises of pardons after six months’ service – died fighting in and around Bakhmut, a strategically unimportant town in Eastern Ukraine that became a symbol for Russia’s war aims.

The Rise of Wagner Benoît Bringer
The Rise of Wagner, a film by Benoît Bringer

A road paved with bodies

From its early beginnings as a shadowy group involved in propping up unsavoury central African dictatorships in return for major concessions in gold and mineral mining to the murderous role it played in serving Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad in his civil war against Islamic extremists, Wagner’s road to riches was paved with the bodies of innocents tortured, murdered and executed.

Prigozhin – often referred to as Putin’s Cook for his role in building a catering business that won millions in Kremlin contracts to feed the Russian armed forces – may have over-reached himself after his abortive so-called «March on Moscow» in late June, when for a tantalising 24 hours it seemed that he turned against his old friend and patron, Putin, but the legacy he leaves is one of calculated, and effective, undermining of Western (particularly French) interests and presence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Wagner’s road to riches was paved with the bodies of innocents tortured, murdered and executed.

Uncovering crimes

The Rise of Wagner pivots around the story of the fearless journalists and human rights activists who have worked assiduously to uncover Wagner’s crimes and connect the dots between the Kremlin and its activities. It opens with the horrific story of the torture and brutal beheading of Syrian detainee Mohammed Taha-al Ismail by Wagner mercenaries.

Video of Mohammed being beaten with a sledgehammer – a brutal murder tool that Prigozhin gladly adopted as a symbol of his group – before he is beheaded, strung up in a dusty Syrian oil field and then set on fire, surfaced on the internet in a few years after his killing in 2017. When Denis Korotkov, a former policeman turned journalist at Novaya Gateza, Russia’s last remaining independent national newspaper, was sent a copy, his investigation revealed the identity of one of the killers, who had carelessly left his face unmasked. Earlier work investigating Wagner quickly enabled him to connect Prigozhin’s mercenaries to the murder. Human rights activists, working with the murdered man’s brother, brought a court case via Russian human rights group, Memorial, in an attempt to bring the killers to justice.

The case, in 2021, was dismissed by Russian courts – the lack of a formal death certificate for the murdered man was used as an excuse. Today, neither Novaya Gazeta nor Memorial function in Russia – both were shut down by government decree – and none of the murderers have been brought to justice (although the man identified, a former soldier and policeman named as Stanislav Dychko, subsequently died in unclear circumstances.)

Running foul of Wagner had already cost three Russian journalists their lives: in 2018, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, cameraman Kirill Radchenko, and journalist Orkhan Dzhemal travelled to Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, to investigate Wagner’s role in training (and fighting for) government forces and the gold mining rights they were earning in return. Within days of arriving, the three had been killed in what was staged to look like a robbery but was, in fact a well-planned execution. An investigation funded by former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky from exile in London established a direct connection between senior Wagner figures, the driver/interpreter for the Russians (who seems to have been complicit in the killings) and the killers. When these findings were raised with Putin at an annual press conference, he brushed them aside. The message was that Wagner operated outside the law and had nothing to do with the Russian state.

The Rise of Wagner Benoît Bringer
The Rise of Wagner, a film by Benoît Bringer

Cover lifted

Wagner’s cover was finally lifted six months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine when a video of Prigozhin touring Russian prisons to recruit fighters surfaced. Prigozhin – who had hounded journalists in the past who suggested he was the head of Wagner – now proudly boasted of the strength and brutality of his force.

Extensive interviews with Marat Gabidullin, a former Wagner fighter whose memoirs were published first in Russia and later in France last year, underpin a thorough examination of Wagner’s role in acting as an unacknowledged tool of Russian foreign policy in Syria, Mali, Central African Republic and elsewhere for years.

The Rise of Wagner is a detailed briefing on Wagner. Prigozhin may now be dead, but the influence achieved in African power politics remains alive and is now – as recently reported by the Wall Street Journal – being openly adopted by the Kremlin as part of its aim to challenge Western interests in the continent.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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