The Ukrainian Center for Researching and Combating Hybrid Threats has discovered and verified more than two hundred letters signed by Andrei Troshev (one of the leaders of the Wagner PMC) with condolences to the families of Prigozhin mercenaries recruited in Russian penal colonies. As of mid-October, a total of over 500 prisoners have been killed in action. The letters are accompanied by a posthumous Medal of Honor, and the documents themselves (as published on social media by relatives) are accurately numbered, which helps us estimate their quantity. The Insider got in touch with some of the relatives of those listed as killed in action. They confirmed the information that their loved ones had gone to war from penal colonies and died in Ukraine.
By circumstantial evidence (based on the numbering of the documents) we can conclude that in less than a month (between September 18 and October 13) Troshev sent at least 224 letters of condolences, and that by mid-October a total of at least 458 prisoners recruited by Prigozhin had died in Ukraine (and we mean prisoners, because in this series of letters The Insider was unable to find even a single letter sent to the family of an ordinary mercenary). Over the past three weeks dozens of new messages were published on social media by relatives of prisoners about their deaths, so by early November the number of those killed in action is definitely greater than 500, but it is unknow exactly how many were killed, because none of the relatives have posted any photos of awards with serial numbers since mid-October (they were probably warned that posting photos of award documents was forbidden).
For example, one of such letters addressed to the relatives of Yevgeny Abramovich looks like this. The document shows the serial number (No. 325) and the date, September 23, 2022.
In a conversation with The Insider, Zinaida Tarelko, Abramovich's sister, who posted a photograph of the letter, said her brother had indeed been killed in Ukraine:
“He made a video call to me from there once. He left the PMC, he didn’t tell me much. Didn't even say where he was. He said everything was okay, not to worry. They had been pardoned, and they went as volunteers. According to the papers, it is true. They hadn’t received the pardon papers, according to him. I’m grateful they let me bury him, I read a lot of articles which said people had been looking for their sons, husbands, and brothers for three months.”
It turns out that between October 12 and 13, the PMC command signed at least 90 letters about the death of its soldiers. AFU Major General Igor Guskov, who works at the Center for Combating Hybrid Threats, says:
“The date of the letter is not the date of death. In many cases identification is required [after a military serviceman dies] (bodies of soldiers are often removed from battlefield weeks after their death). So, a letter is just a statement that a soldier has died and will be decorated. Usually, the date of the letter is 7-10 days past the date of death.”
Nevertheless, all 90 letters refer to the period between September and October, Guskov claims. Reports of the arrival of Russian convicts in Ukraine began appearing as early as August, but the Center has in its possession only a single document confirming a recruit's death before September (in August).
The greatest serial number that could be found in the publicly available letters was 458. The letter with this number was sent to the relatives of Vladislav Ivanushkin on October 13.
Thus, by mid-October, the PMC informed relatives of the deaths of 458 convicts. At the same time, according to the Important Stories’ estimates, Prigozhin’s PMC had recruited nearly 6,000 prisoners by the end of September, and at least 2,036 of them had been transported by that time. It means that by October, the Ukrainian Armed Forces had eliminated about a quarter of the Russian criminals who made it to the front.
According to the Center, the numbered death letters of former convicts can be easily distinguished from the rest: they come with a special medal (on a green ribbon) and a letter of commendation from the “LNR” head Leonid Pasechnik. Ordinary mercenaries receive different decorations, Guskov says:
“These awards are given only to convicts turned mercenaries and only from 2022. Each mercenary has an award for a particular campaign (it's like a sign of belonging). As a rule, they only pop up in the public domain after the mercenary’s death. No such awards were given until September 2022.
If such letters had been sent to everyone, they would have been accompanied by the usual black crosses awarded posthumously to ordinary Wagnerites. At least one such case would have come up. But no. Currently I have files on at least 18 ordinary mercenaries, not convicts, who were killed while storming Popasna and Bakhmut and were decorated with black crosses. They don’t contain a single letter, nor is there a single “letter of commendation” from Pasechnik.
In my opinion, those letters and green awards have started appearing more often [on social media] because of psychological reasons: relatives used to be ashamed of their loved ones' criminal records, but after their death they scrambled to display [those letters and awards], as if to say that their husbands (sons, brothers) were not scoundrels, but heroes.
At the same time, according to the Center, the total number of killed Wagner PMC mercenaries in Ukraine (including both convicts and ordinary mercenaries) is between 800 and 1,000.
The Insider publishes the names of some of the killed convicts, whose participation (and death) in the war has been confirmed from publicly available sources. Among those people there are those who had been convicted of theft and drug dealing, as well as those who had been in jail for murder. Some relatives of those killed confirmed to The Insider that they had indeed been serving time in penal colonies, were recruited by the PMCs and recently killed in Ukraine.
1) Roman Suslov. 13.06.1982. Kirov region, Falenki district, Pervomaysky. Information about his death was published here. In a conversation with The Insider his wife said:
“My husband Roman Suslov was indeed killed in Ukraine, I have a son with him. He had been in prison for nine years for killing his buddy. They had been drinking, and the buddy said his father was weird. He only had a year left to serve. They were sent [to the front] almost unprepared. He served in the police force long time ago, his skills were gone.”
Before prison, Roman Suslov, 40, served in the police force and was detained in 2014. According to his wife, recruiters from the Wagner PMC promised the prisoner a pardon. However, no papers were provided to the family. Suslov himself believed he was going to the front as a volunteer.
2) Yevgeny Abramovich. 25.12.1988. Yaroslavl region. Information about his death is published here. In a conversation with The Insider, his sister refused to tell for what crime her brother had been convicted. As it turned out, he was sentenced to 9 years for murder in 2017.
3) Vasily Valchuk. 25.03.1995. Ryazan. Information about his death is published here.
Valchuk, 23, was sentenced in Ryazan to nine years in prison for causing grievous bodily harm resulting in death. In March 2018, he had an argument with his upstairs neighbor, a cadet at the FSIN academy, who was celebrating his birthday and listening to music too loudly at night. As a result, the conflict turned into a stabbing. The cadet died from his wounds and Valchuk was sent to a penal colony.
4) Ivan Vakhonin. 25.03.1992. Moscow region, Ivanovo. Information about his death is published here.
Before prison, Vakhonin was an activist for the Young Guard, a member of the LDPR party and even ran for municipal deputy in the Ivanovo region. In 2019, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for dealing drugs – spice and salts.
5) Evgeny Borisov. 27.10.1979. Republic of Tatarstan, Alekseevskoye. Information about his death is published here.
6) Mikhail Bykov. 16.01.1983. Yaroslavl region. Information about his death is published here. In 2022 he was sentenced to 4 years in prison for causing grievous bodily harm.
7) Dmitry Anokhin. Veliky Novgorod. He was convicted of murder in 2015. Information about his death is published here.
8) Alexey Brysin. 30.06.1994. Moscow region, Kolomna. Information about his death is published here. He was tried for theft in 2015 and convicted of murder in 2021.
9) Andrei Gaponov. 01.09.1983. Leningrad region, Vyborg district, Podgornoe. Information about his death is published here. He was serving time for theft.
10) Kirill Zhavoronkov. 19.08.1994. Moscow region, Mytishchi. Information about his death is published here. He was sentenced to a prison term for drug dealing.
11) Vladislav Ivanushkin. 17.09.2001. Tula region, Aleksin. Information about his death is published here. In 2021 he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for drug dealing.
12) Sergey Kireyev. 09.12.1976. Rostov region, Volgodonsk. Information about his death is published here. Served 8 years in prison for drug dealing.
13) Vladimir Matveichuk. 03.12.1989. Information about his death is published here. He was serving a sentence for theft and drug possession.
At the same time the high death toll among convicts can hardly be called surprising. Prigozhin (who himself had served time for robbery and involving minors in criminal activity) and his recruiters have openly warned that 80% of those who went to war with them would not return.