Bakhmut, Ukraine — For months, the battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut has been one of the most dangerous front lines in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s forces have thrown everything from heavy artillery to savage trench warfare into trying to wear down Ukraine’s resistance and take the city.
At the vanguard of the battle have been scores of men from the Kremlin-backed paramilitary Wagner Group — a force bolstered by mercenaries recruited from Russia’s notorious penal colonies.
CBS News met two of these guns-for-hire, men who were seized in the east and are now being held by Ukraine’s military intelligence.
Sergei was almost halfway into a 19-year sentence for murder at a penal colony when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin visited prisons and made his pitch to convicts: Serve six months on the front line for Russia, and then you can go free.
“I needed to leave the prison one way or another,” he told CBS News. “Ten years is a long time.”
So, he made the deal with the devil — front line fighting in exchange for freedom, and cash.
Barely aware there was a war raging in Ukraine, Sergei was told he’d be fighting foreigners there.
“American mercenaries, Polish mercenaries, French… we were told they were Nazis,” he said.
Vlad, the other Wagner man, had already served two years of his three-year sentence for assault, but the promise of early release, a record wiped clean, and a salary of $3,500 proved too tempting.
After just two weeks of training, he said he was sent up against Ukrainian tanks with nothing more than a machine gun.
“Our brothers were getting killed in huge numbers,” he said. “There were mountains of bodies.”
Prigozhin was recently filmed surveying some of those bodies, piled high in a makeshift morgue near the front lines. The slain fighters’ final destination, however, is a special Wagner cemetery in Russia. It is already filled with freshly dug graves.
If new recruits see what they’re up against and refuse to fight, Vlad said they’re given no option.
“You’re just killed, that’s it,” he said. “If you don’t agree with an order, you’re simply killed.”
He told CBS News he had seen it first-hand.
“One of the fighters was too scared to fight,” he said. “They made him dig his own grave and shot him.”
Vlad claimed that he saw three comrades executed with bullets to the head, but insists he had no part in it: “There are specially trained people to do that, a security group that can do anything to you.”
Both the Wagner men now believe they were conned into going to the front line.
“Everything we were told was utter lies,” said Sergei. “It was not Ukrainians who wanted to kill us — we came to Ukraine to kill them.”
They insisted that they didn’t commit any war crimes, and both men said if they could turn back time, they’d choose the brutality of a Russian prison cell over the carnage of a Ukrainian battlefield.
We’ve heard so much about the terror waged by Wagner during this war, but in that cold, stark room, the Russian mercenaries showed no emotion. When we asked Vlad how he felt about everything he’d seen and experienced, his answer was chilling:
“Honestly,” he said, “nothing!”