Two Russian men who claim to be former Wagner Group commanders have told a human rights activist that they killed children and civilians during their time in Ukraine.
The claims were made in video interviews with Gulagu.net, a human rights organization targeting corruption and torture in Russia.
In the video interviews posted online, former Russian convicts Azamat Uldarov and Alexey Savichev – who were both pardoned by Russian presidential decrees last year, according to Gulagu.net – described their actions in Ukraine, during Russia’s invasion.
CNN cannot independently verify their claims or identities in the videos but has obtained Russian penal documents showing they were released on presidential pardon in September and August of 2022.
Uldarov, who appears to have been drinking, details how he shot and killed a five- or six-year-old girl.
“(It was) a management decision. I wasn’t allowed to let anyone out alive, because my command was to kill anything in my way,” he said.
According to Gulagu.net, the testimonies were given to founder and Russian dissident Vladimir Osechkin over the span of a week. It said Uldarov and Savichev were in Russia when they spoke.
“I want Russia and other nations to know the truth. I don’t want war and bloodshed. You see I’m holding a cigarette in this hand. I followed orders with this hand and killed children,” Uldarov said, describing his motivation for the interview.
The Wagner Group is a Russian private mercenary organization fighting in Ukraine, headed by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin.
It has recruited tens of thousands of fighters from Russian jails, offering freedom and cash after a six-month tour. It’s estimated by Western intelligence officials and prison advocacy groups that between 40,000 and 50,000 men were recruited.
“There is a superior over all the commanders – it’s Prigozhin, who told us not to let anyone get out of there and annihilate everyone,” he added. CNN has previously reported on former Wagner fighters making similar claims.
Uldarov has since appeared to recant his account in a video call with Prigozhin-linked Russian news agency RIA-FAN.
At one point in the interview, Savichev described how they “got the order to execute any men who were 15 years or older.”
He also talked about getting orders to ‘sweep’ a house. “It doesn’t matter whether there is a civilian there or not. The house needs to be swept. I didn’t give a f**k who was inside,” he said.
“Whether a hut or a house, the point was to make sure that there wasn’t a single living person left inside,” he said. “You can condemn me for this. I will not object. It’s your right. But I wanted to live, too.”
Savichev said Wagner fighters who did not follow orders were killed.
Wagner Group chief Prigozhin confirmed on his Telegram channel that he had watched parts of the video, and threatened retribution against the two former Wagner fighters. “As for what (Osechkin) filmed, I looked at the pieces of video I managed to see,” he said. “I can say the following: if at least one of these accusations against me is confirmed, I am ready to be held accountable according to any laws.”
But Prigozhin said that “if none is confirmed, I will send a list of 30-40 people who are spitting at me like Osechkin (there is a whole list of them, including the scum that fled Russia) that the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine is obligated to hand over to me for a ‘fair trial,’ so to speak.”
“They will not be “civilians” for us, and especially not children, whom we have never touched and do not touch. This is a flagrant lie. These people (spreading the lies) are our enemies, and we will deal with them in a special way.”
Earlier, Prigozhin said on Telegram: “Regarding the execution of children, of course, no one ever shoots civilians or children, absolutely no one needs this. We came there to save them from the regime they were under.”
Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said in a tweet Monday that the group must be held accountable.
“Russian terrorists confessed to numerous murders of Ukrainian children in Bakhmut and Soledar. Confession is not enough. There must be a punishment. Tough and fair. And it will definitely be. How many more crimes like these have been committed?” he said.
In February, CNN spoke to two former Wagner fighters who described how recruited Wagner convicts are pushed to the front lines in a human wave, reminiscent of World War I charges. Deserters, or those who refuse orders are killed and there was no evacuation of the wounded, they said.
In January, US Treasury Department designated Wagner Group as a significant transnational criminal organization, and imposed a slew of fresh sanctions on a transnational network that supports it.
The US Department of State concurrently announced a number of sanctions meant to “target a range of Wagner’s key infrastructure – including an aviation firm used by Wagner, a Wagner propaganda organization, and Wagner front companies,” according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.