KRAMATORSK, Ukraine —
In the action movie “Tourist,” military instructors with the Russian mercenary group Wagner deploy to the Central African Republic and find themselves reluctant warriors against rebels and a corrupt ex-politician ahead of a presidential election.
Then there’s “Granit,” another big-budget action flick whose title character, a grizzled but idealistic Russian military trainer, sacrifices himself to protect the southern African country of Mozambique from ISIS-style bandits.
And in the more recent “Best in Hell,” Wagner fighters duke it out with an unnamed enemy — clearly meant to be Ukrainians — in an unspecified location that’s an obvious stand-in for the Donbas, Ukraine’s war-ravaged eastern heartland. The movie starts and ends with the lines: “We have a contract — a contract with the company, a contract with the motherland. … We know we’re going to hell. But in hell we’ll be the best.”
Welcome to the Wagner-verse, a multimedia propaganda project encompassing action movies, documentaries, pro-war social media channels, animated shorts, comics and even children’s cartoons — all aimed at building the brand of Russia’s notorious private army, and promoting the Kremlin’s policies while they’re at it.
The group, a security contractor similar in some ways to the U.S. private military company Blackwater, is making headlines spearheading Moscow’s no-holds-barred battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. In Ukraine, its cadres — whose ranks include prison recruits — stand accused of horrific abuses against their foes, and sometimes against their own fighters.
Earlier this month, two videos emerged of presumed Wagner mercenaries beheading the corpses of two Ukrainian soldiers. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky condemned the perpetrators as “beasts” and vowed an investigation. The Kremlin said it, too, would investigate.
That followed footage last year of the apparent summary killing of a former prison inmate-turned-Wagner conscript who was bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer after deserting and returning to Russia. Indeed, the sledgehammer has become the group’s calling card after its members filmed themselves clubbing a Syrian army deserter in 2017, cutting off his hands and head with a shovel, then setting his body alight.
But that’s not the image you get in the Wagner-verse. Far from brutal mercenaries, the fighters are portrayed as heroes, going beyond the call of duty to help importunate countries fend off chaos agents often linked to the West, which is held in disdain.
By contrast, unsurprisingly, Russia is shown to be a reliable friend. One children’s cartoon in French, “Lion and Bear,” depicts a Russian bear racing across continents to help a lion in the Central African Republic beat back hyenas plundering a village’s crops.
In another animated short, a Wagner paratrooper comes to the aid of a soldier in Mali — another African country where the company has been active — and helps him repel hordes of zombies wearing helmets with the French flag; a figure in the French presidential palace pounds his fist in frustration.
“The Americans fight for democracy. But we fight for justice,” says a Russian trainer in “Tourist.”
That’s of a piece with Russian propaganda, especially in Africa, where Moscow has long played on anti-colonial sentiment against France and other European powers, said Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigerian policy analyst at the Beijing-based consultancy Development Reimagined, who wrote a report evaluating what he called Russia’s “private military diplomacy.”
“In Mali, there was a lot of anti-French rhetoric before Russian influence. But what Russian strategic communications and outlets were able to do was to fan the flames,” he said. “What it did was really position Russia as a natural ally.”
There is evidence that the messaging, though ham-handed, has played well in many of the places Wagner operates. “Tourist,” for example, had a red-carpet premiere in the Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui, that was attended by more than 10,000 people; the movie has racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube. (“Granit” and “Best in Hell” are also available on YouTube.)
During a coup in Burkina Faso in September, supporters raised Russian flags as they cheered the ouster of a president deemed incapable of quelling an uprising by rebels linked to Islamic militants. One demonstrator told the news network Voice of America: “We’re here because we want the defense of Russia,” adding that former colonial overlord France had had no success in fighting the insurgents during its multi-year deployment of troops in Burkina Faso.
The welcome for Wagner persists despite the allegations of abuses by its fighters in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Mali and Ukraine, including reports of summary executions, kidnapping, torture during interrogations and looting, Eguegu said.
Many Africans know that their governments’ relationships with Wagner are purely transactional, and have become desensitized to human rights abuses in their strife-torn countries, Eguegu said.
“There’s awareness of all these issues, but you have to understand: If you have mercenaries killing seven to 10 people, that’s Tuesday in the Central African Republic,” he said.
Wagner’s military operations have benefited Moscow diplomatically. Many African nations chose not to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, either because of economic or military ties, historical links with Communist figures or anger with the West for dismissing African concerns.
The Wagner multimedia propaganda campaign represents a sea change from the group’s earlier behavior, when it maintained a mostly enigmatic (journalists’ favorite word was “shadowy”) profile as a paramilitary organization whose very existence went unacknowledged.
Only last year did Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and former hot dog vendor close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, publicly identify himself as the chief of Wagner, formally called PMC Wagner, for private military company. Though under sanction by the U.S. and the European Union, Prigozhin is bankrolling films through Aurum Productions, a company he controls, to burnish Wagner’s image — and sully the West’s.
Take “Tourist.” The main character is an ex-police officer — call-sign Tourist — who lands in the Central African Republic as one of 300 trainers (presumably Wagner employees) for the national army. The assignment is not meant to include combat, until rebels rush into a village on their motorcycles and terrorize residents as part of a Western-linked coup attempt. The trainers — outnumbered, of course — join their charges to defeat their enemies. The hero is grievously wounded, and is evacuated by helicopter while a female Central African Republic soldier looks at him with sorrowful but adoring eyes. Cue credits.
The Wagner fighters are portrayed as an elite band of commandos who value every member of the team — a vision not always reflected by reality.
Despite what “Granit” would have you believe, Wagner had to leave Mozambique in defeat a few months into its deployment after the local Islamic State affiliate ambushed and beheaded a number of its men. And far from caring for its cadres, the group has employed human-wave tactics in Ukraine, throwing successive groups of fighters — usually prison recruits for the initial assault — to breach Ukrainian defensive lines.
“We didn’t expect in the 21st century to have an adversary using such tactics,” said Sensei, a commander in the Ukrainian army’s 3rd Mortar Brigade who is now fighting in the areas around Bakhmut. “They’re stepping over their comrades’ bodies on the way to us.”
Wagner has had prior experience in Ukraine. Indeed, its mercenaries first appeared in 2014 alongside pro-Russia separatists in Crimea and the Donbas, led by a retired special forces commander with a penchant for Nazi lore named Dmitry Utkin, call sign Wagner.
A year later, it appeared in Syria fighting a rebel uprising alongside government troops and defending oil infrastructure. Starting in 2017, it made inroads into Africa, propping up beleaguered dictators while also commandeering extractive projects in gold, diamonds, uranium, manganese and oil. In Libya, it fought with the forces of a rogue general — and former CIA asset — to defeat the internationally recognized government.
At the same time, it moved from being a run-of-the-mill private military company contracted by African governments to being an instrument of the Kremlin — but one that can be kept at arm’s length, said Lucas Webber, a researcher focused on violent non-state actors and founder of the website Militant Wire.
“It was a way to create some distance between the Russians, have plausible deniability and be force multipliers by training troops,” he said, describing the group as more of a semi-state organization than a traditional private military contractor.
In the last few years, Wagner has become part of a wider network of companies with Prigozhin, its chief, at the center. These include a so-called troll factory for social media manipulation, Prigozhin’s original Concord catering firm, Aurum Productions and the Paritet Film studio, and even a car wash.
And the Wagner-verse is set to expand. In November, Prigozhin opened a new corporate headquarters in St. Petersburg meant to house IT developers and entrepreneurs and provide them with “a comfortable environment for generating new ideas in order to increase Russia’s defense capability,” according to a statement he released at the time.
Gone is any reticence around the group’s existence or its name. At the front of the headquarters is a glass-clad tower; emblazoned at the top are the words “PMC Wagner Center.”