Ukrainian POWs say Wagner Group violated laws

A Ukrainian human rights organization has collected evidence of war crimes committed by the Russian Wagner Group. Lawyers say the mercenary commanders must be held to account

According to the MIHR, the Wagner Group, which was led by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin until June 2023, has been fighting in Ukraine since 2014 (photo: DW)
According to the MIHR, the Wagner Group, which was led by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin until June 2023, has been fighting in Ukraine since 2014 (photo: DW)


Torture and extrajudicial executions of Ukrainian prisoners of war, targeted attacks on civilians, and occupying critical infrastructure facilities on Ukrainian territory are some of the crimes that Russia's Wagner Group is accused of committing.

The Media Initiative for Human Rights (MIHR), a Ukrainian NGO, has collected evidence and released a report called "Wagner Group. Beyond Accountability," which includes the testimonies of a dozen Ukrainian soldiers who were held prisoner by the Russian mercenary force.

The MIHR's Tetyana Katrychenko told DW that it was the first time that Ukrainian soldiers held by the Wagner Group had been freed. She said there was a possibility that the mercenaries had changed their tactics and that in the past they had tended to kill prisoners of war immediately, in other countries and Ukraine.

According to the MIHR, the Wagner Group, which was led by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin until June 2023, has been fighting in Ukraine since 2014. It would seem that after Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, as Wagner mercenaries themselves started becoming prisoners of war, they decided to keep their own captives alive in order to create a "pool for a military exchange."

"There is evidence that the Wagner Group captured Ukrainian military personnel specifically for further exchanges from September 2022 to May 2023. It kept records of the prisoners, drew up lists and passed them on for exchanges," Katrychenko said. She added that the Ukrainian soldiers who had now come free had said that the Wagner mercenaries only wanted a certain number of prisoners. "Others were killed brutally and demonstratively."

'A mass execution'

Volodymyr Batsko of the Ukrainian 17th Tank Brigade, is quoted in the MIHR report as saying that he witnessed a mass execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war. "There were 20 of us at the position, there was no backup, we were running out of ammunition, and we were surrounded. I was held separately about 5-10 meters away from the others, who were bunched together. At that moment, I heard a burst of automatic rifle fire. I turned around and saw four men standing there shooting our guys, who were bleeding a river."

The report also quotes the testimony of Oleksandr Koval: "'They showed me the freshly severed heads of our guys, mounted on rebars. One of them said: 'This is Edik, and this is Valera. They wanted everything to be done according to the Geneva Conventions. Do you want to do it according to the conventions too? There is room for a third,' he says. This is not the only known case of Wagner Group members parading the severed heads of Ukrainian soldiers."

Katrychenko said that there was clear evidence of war crimes and that an investigation was crucial, including at the international level, so that perpetrators could be brought to justice. They "have not been named so far, not only because they hide their faces behind masks but mainly because the Wagner Group is trying to act independently without a defined status," she said. "But the war in Ukraine has shown that the Wagnerites operate under Russia's control and the Kremlin is responsible for all of these crimes."

The MIHR thinks that there were at least 11 prisoner exchanges from September 2022 to June 2023, mainly in the area of Bakhmut.

"The Wagner Group handed over prisoners and in return got back not only Wagner mercenaries but also members of the regular Russian army, which is more proof of the Wagner Group's firm connection to the Russian armed forces," Katrychenko said. She added that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had confirmed the link between the Russian state and the Wagner Group, by saying that it was funded by the state budget.

Holding the Kremlin to account

Would it be possible to hold Russia's top leaders, including the president, accountable for the crimes committed by members of the Wagner Group? Maksym Tymochko, a human rights lawyer based in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, said that international law provided the necessary framework for doing this and that Ukraine should use it. He told DW that there was no statute of limitations on war crimes, which were the worst violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

He added that there was considerable evidence that the Russian government controls and commands the Wagner Group, pointing out that it was very possible that senior Russian military officers might be held responsible for the war crimes committed by this "private army." He added that the principle of "universal jurisdiction" applied to war crimes.

According to the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), "the principle of universal jurisdiction provides for a state's jurisdiction over crimes against international law even when the crimes did not occur on that state's territory, and neither the victim nor perpetrator is a national of that state. The principle allows national courts in third countries to address international crimes occurring abroad, to hold perpetrators criminally liable, and to prevent impunity."

Tymochko added that it was also possible to classify the Wagner Group as a terrorist organization as the United Kingdom recently did. This would enable the prosecution of all its members and supporters. He said that the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, Netherlands could also hold the leaders and military commanders of such an organization to account.

Prosecuting war crimes in Ukraine

It is also possible to prosecute crimes such as genocide and other war crimes in Ukraine, said Tymochko, explaining that here the principle of "command responsibility" applied. According to the ECCHR, "in international criminal law, the principle of command responsibility allows for commanders to be held criminally liable for crimes committed by their subordinates."

Tymochko said that it is enough to prove that they "did not take measures to prevent these crimes and did not punish those responsible."

The MIHR is currently trying to expand on its report about the Wagner Group's crimes by including more testimonies, as well as hard data about the torture and murder of civilians.

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Published: 27 Oct 2023, 8:20 AM