The Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) began as a joint project of the GRU, Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, and the Russian Ministry of Defense, but Yevgeny Prigozhin later fell out with Sergey Shoigu head of the Ministry of Defense, former Wagner mercenary Alexander Zlodeev, who has been part of the PMC since its inception, since 2014, told the Gulagu.net media project.
Zlodeev was invited to the PMC by his former “war comrade” from Serbia. Evgeny came to sign a contract at the “Molkino” training ground (near the village of Molkino in Russia’s Krasnodar region). This is a training ground of the Southern Military District, where the GRU special forces units are located. At that time, everyone was accepted by acquaintance only, says Zlodeev – there was no advertising, former military men called each other and passed along recruitment information by word of mouth.
According to Zlodeev, the PMC was divided into two branches – military and administrative – when he originally signed his contract. The PMC wasn’t originally called “Wagner” at the time – the mercenaries all signed a contract with a company registered in the Moscow region. “They were paid in cash. You were paid 60,000 roubles ($1000) while on base,” explains Zlodeyev. “If you were deployed, then that went up to 130,000 ($2100) to 150,000 ($2400),” he adds. The salaries came from the GRU. Initially there were about 200 men in the formation, but later it grew to 1,500 fighters, says the ex-mercenary.
The PMC received equipment, weapons and ammunition from the Ministry of Defense, including at base No. 51532 of the 10th Special Forces Brigade, said Zlodeev. The PMC’s headquarters, camp and combat training center were all located on the adjoining territories of that military unit.
“At first our supplies were really good. There was such a military brotherhood. The commander used to go on runs with us,” Zlodeev recalls. The commander of the unit was Dmitry Utkin.
Utkin had served as commander of the 700th Separate Spetsnaz Detachment of the 2nd Separate Brigade of the GRU of the Russian Ministry of Defense since 2013. After retiring from the reserve, he worked for Moran Security Group and participated in the Syrian expedition of the “Slavic Corps” in 2013. Since 2014, he has been the commander of his own unit, which was given the conventional moniker “PMC Wagner” in line with Utkin’s call sign – Wagner. Utkin was spotted at a December 2016 reception at the Kremlin in honor of “Defender of the Fatherland Day.” Later, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Utkin was present at the banquet among those invited from the Novgorod region, as he was “a holder of the Order of Courage.” However, Peskov did not comment on Utkin's connection with the Wagner PMC.
Andrey Troshev, one of the founders of the Wagner PMC, also came to the Molkino training ground and headed the security service, said Zlodeev. The security service had a connection with the FSB, and there was a sense of tension between it and the GRU, he notes. According to Zlodeev, they even tried to recruit him to be an FSB agent embedded with the Wagner PMC. However, the FSB never officially came to the PMC base to inspect it.
According to Zlodeev, Yevgeny Prigozhin became associated with the PMC later, and with his arrival came along “office influence.” “A new unit needs to be formed, they sent us [the description] and it was clearly written up by office workers. It didn’t match up to military science or technique,” – he recalls. It was during that time that salaries were cut and “combat” pay began to be counted, Zlodeev says.
Zlodeev had never seen Prigozhin personally, but spoke to him on the phone in Syria during the first Palmyra offensive. Zlodeev was at the headquarters in Palmyra itself at the time. Prigozhin spoke very politely, he says, and was primarily interested in casualties. “He had the call sign ‘Sergey Sergeyich’ or ‘Nikolai Nikolaich’ at the time, but we knew it was him, the top man,” the ex-mercenary claims. Over 200 mercenaries of the Wagner PMC were killed during the battle for Palmyra. At that time, not only Russians, but foreigners also fought in the PMC, he said. The presence of the Wagner PMC in Syria was not advertised, but all the ground operations there were exclusively carried out by the Wagner PMC, Zlodeev said. The Russian SOF (Special Operations Forces) were sometimes involved, but they were more engaged in targeting and aviation. The Wagner PMC mercenaries also had passes from the Russian Defense Ministry to the Khmeimim base, Zlodeev recalls.
According to Zlodeev, after Prigozhin “had a fight with the defense minister…everything was cut off, it became very bad,” including the deterioration of supplies. The quarrel between Prigozhin and Sergey Shoigu, the Russian Minister of Defense, occurred after the seizure of Palmyra, Zlodeev claims, when Vladimir Putin praised Prigozhin, to Shoigu’s chagrin.
That conflict led to the losses of the Wagner PMC near the gas fields of Hasham in 2018, Zlodeev says. “Then the PMC fighters crossed the river and started taking over the oil fields. NATO then called the Ministry of Defense and asked, ‘Are they yours?’ And the Defense Ministry replied: ‘No, not ours.’ And then they came under attack,” – says Zlodeev.
Zlodeev himself refused to participate in the war against Ukraine and has received political asylum in France.