A cemetery used by the notorious Russian mercenary group Wagner has grown rapidly in recent months, according to interviews and an analysis of satellite imagery and video footage by The New York Times. The extended burial ground is rare visual evidence of the toll the invasion of Ukraine took on Wagner, particularly on his rank and file.
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 percent of them are inmates recruited for release from prison, assuming they survived.
A satellite image taken on January 24 shows about 170 burial sites in an area of the cemetery known to house Wagner fighters, a number that has risen to almost seven times the number seen in satellite imagery two months ago.
Wagner’s graveyard is a new addition to his growing infrastructure in Russia, where he is attempting to position himself as a superior force to the Russian military. The existence of the graves near the group’s main training site in the southeastern village of Molkin was first made public in December by Vitaly Wotanovsky, an activist and former Russian Air Force officer.
Mr Wotanovsky, 51, told the Times he visits cemeteries to document cases of Russians killed in fighting in Ukraine. The location of the cemetery might have remained unknown had it not been informed by local residents that the unclaimed bodies of Wagner fighters were buried on the site. Over the course of several visits, he photographed a growing number of tombstones and uploaded them to his Telegram channel Titushki in Krasnodar.
“Our goal is to show people that war leads to deaths, and not somewhere far away or on television, but here next to us,” said Mr. Wotanovsky.
There may be even more dead than is readily apparent. He noted that locals had told him that many fighters were most likely cremated.
For years, Wagner’s mercenaries have kept a low profile when deployed abroad in countries such as 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 beginning of the war in Ukraine, the group has expanded its public presence with promotional videos and claims of its own fighting strengths – much of it spearheaded by the group’s public face, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
In a video released last September, Mr Prigozhin hinted at the cemetery’s existence as he was recruiting inmates from Russia’s penitentiary system, promising to take care of their remains if they died in combat.
“For those who do not know where they would like to be buried, we bury them near PMC Wagner’s chapel,” he said.
Ten days after Mr Wotanovsky announced the location of the cemetery, several videos were released by pro-Kremlin media showing Mr Prigozhin laying flowers at a grave in the cemetery. Also visible are rows of freshly dug graves, each adorned with wreaths in the shape and color of Wagner’s logo.
“He works a lot to heroize — it’s kind of a Russian policy now: Why hold on to this life when you can die heroically like that,” said Olga Romanova, the founder of Russia Behind Bars, a charity helping convicts and their families helps . “Death is not terrible. The terrible thing is the opposite: not dying for the fatherland.”
This footage and Mr. Wotanovsky’s photos also offer clues as to who fought and died for Wagner in recent months. At least 16 of the names and dates of birth seen on headstones appeared in online databases of people convicted of crimes in Russia. Many are believed to have died in fighting around the Ukrainian cities of Bakhmut and Soledar, where mercenaries and the Russian military 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 footage showed the mercenary company mimicking the way a country’s official military might commemorate its own war dead, with magnificent memorials and murals on well-maintained grounds.
Also present are rows of black walls with fans, typical of the burial of cremated remains. Each compartment has an identification number and a display of the deceased’s combat honors.
The Times identified a total of 21 walls in the chapel, each with 42 compartments, suggesting that hundreds of Wagner fighters who died are either buried or at least commemorated in the chapel. It’s unclear if all of these fighters were killed in Ukraine or elsewhere, but the footage still offers a rare glimpse into the magnitude of Wagner’s losses.