On November 13, a video showing the brutal execution of a Russian man appeared on the Grey Zone, a Telegram channel Russian media have associated with the notorious private military outfit known as the Wagner Group.
In the video, the victim introduces himself as Yevgeny Nuzhin and says he had joined Wagner to fight with Russia in Ukraine but changed sides, according to a Reuters account. Reuters said it wasn’t immediately able to confirm the video, which was titled, “The hammer of revenge.” It showed Nuzhin being violently bludgeoned to the ground with a sledgehammer.
On November 14, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the founder of Wagner, filed for a criminal investigation of the video with the Russian General Prosecutor’s office. Prigozhin’s press service published a copy of his complaint on Telegram.
In the complaint, Prigozhin confirmed that the man in the video was Nuzhin and that he had been a Wagner mercenary. But without providing any evidence, Prigozhin asserted that Nuzhin’s death came at the hands of American agents.
“It is absolutely clear to me that Nuzhin was kidnapped and brutally killed by the employees of the U.S. intelligence services.”
"Wagner employees are distinguished by their exemplary discipline and strict adherence to international standards and globally accepted rules of social behavior."
In fact, rights groups have documented alleged human rights abuses by Wagner mercenaries in Africa and elsewhere, including summary executions. Prigozhin’s accusation that the U.S. killed Nuzhin, on the other hand, is unsubstantiated.
Wagner has been called “Putin’s secret army” because of Prigozhin’s long ties to the Russian president and the company’s history of working with Russian-aligned forces in Syria, Libya, other African countries, and Ukraine. Prigozhin is popularly known as "Putin's chef" because of the Kremlin catering contracts his businesses have obtained over the years.
After long denying a connection to Wagner, Prigozhin recently said he founded the company in 2014 as "a group of patriots to fight for the independence" of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Since then, Wagner has become notorious for a long record of alleged atrocities.
In 2019, for instance, a Wagner-associated account on the Russian social platform vKontakte shared a gruesome video of a Syrian man being tortured, killed with a sledgehammer, beheaded, dismembered, and set on fire by six Russian-speaking individuals wearing military attire.
A joint investigation by the independent Russian news organization Novaya Gazeta, the International Federation for Human Rights, the Russian Memorial Human Rights Center (recently banned in Russia), and the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression identified the victim as a Syrian refugee and his executioners as mercenaries with Wagner.
In March 2021, the three nongovernmental organizations filed a criminal complaint against Wagner with the Russian Investigative Committee on behalf of the victim’s brother. (On January 21, the court in Moscow rejected the complaint.)
Prigozhin’s first reaction to the Grey Zone bludgeoning video was not to file a complaint or issue a denial. To the contrary, his company’s press service quoted Prigozhin as commenting that Nuzhin had “met with unkind but just people.”
“I think this movie is called 'To a Dog, a Dog’s Death.' It's a great directorial work, a breathtaking film. I hope that not a single animal was injured during the production of the film.”
The next day, Prigozhin followed with a longer comment via his press service, stating that “betrayal of your people is the highest degree of treachery,” and deserves the most severe punishment.
“Nuzhin betrayed his people, betrayed his comrades, betrayed consciously,” Prigozhin said on Telegram via his press office.
Something changed two days later. Then, Prigozhin flatly denied any connection to events in the video, which had prompted questions from the press at the Kremlin and the prosecutor’s office.
On November 14, the Kremlin press spsokesperson Dmitry Peskov also denied any knowledge of the video and questioned its authenticity. “We don't know what that is or how true it is. It's none of our business,” Peskov said.
The Russian human rights watchdog Gulagu.net said on November 13 that it asked for a war crimes investigation of Wagner on behalf of Nuzhin’s family.
Nuzhin’s statement about defecting to Ukraine corresponds with multiple interviews he gave to Ukrainian news media, including a September 15 session with prominent Ukrainian journalist Yury Butusov. In that interview, Nuzhin said Prigozhin had recruited him from a penal colony, where he had been serving 28 years for manslaughter.
On November 15, Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said that Nuzhin signed a voluntary prisoner swap consent agreement before being returned to Russia. Nuzhin was part of a "package" exchange of 45 Russian POWs, Podolyak told the independent Russian news channel Rain.
The United Nations and international rights groups have reported a recurring disregard for international norms by Wagner in Syria, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Libya, and Ukraine.
Experts at the U.N. Human Rights Office said in an October 27, 2021, report on the CAR that Wagner Group mercenaries:
“… are committing systemic and grave human rights and international humanitarian law violations, including arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances, and summary execution, a pattern that continues unabated and unpunished.”
“Wagner Group officers have committed rape and sexual violence against women, men, and young girls in many parts of the country. It is not clear how many people have been victims of sexual violence because survivors are terrified to bring their cases to justice for fear of retaliation.”
In Libya, Wagner mercenaries have been employed by the oppositional Libyan National Army since 2019 in a “breach of the existing arms embargo” by the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. rights office said, and Wagner mercenaries are also accused of summarily executing three civilians in Libya in 2019.