Yevgeny Nuzhin is pictured alive, before his executioner smashed his skull with a sledgehammer. Photo: social media screen grab via Radio Free Europe

A haggard ex-convict once jailed for murder who was released to fight for Russia in Ukraine but who deserted, Yevgeny Nuzhin was trying to explain on camera how he ended up back in Russia with his head taped to a brick pillar while a burly Russian guard stood over him with a sledge hammer in hand.

In August while in prison the middle-aged Nuzhin was recruited to become part of the Wagner Group, a notorious corps of mercenaries at the service of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He joined with scores of other inmates, escaped in September – but then somehow got captured in Kyiv by his countrymen, who returned him to Russia.

“I got hit over the head and lost consciousness and came around in this dungeon,” Nuzhin said facing the camera. “They told me I was to be tried.”

A moment later, the video showed, the guard slammed Nuzhin’s head against the wall with the sledgehammer. The prisoner collapsed and the guard crushed his skull with the hammer again as he lay on the floor.

The killing was broadcast on a Wagner Group website. It quickly came to exemplify the brutal bankruptcy of Russia’s invasion, now in its ninth month. It not only displays the fearsome cruelty of Putin’s drive to dismember Ukraine if not totally absorb it into Russia. It also exemplifies the out-of-control indiscipline of both the mercenaries and the Russian army itself, notorious for wanton attacks on civilians.

Initially, word of the barbarous Nuzhin case did not temper the haughty indifference to killing that characterizes the Putin regime. Over the weekend Putin friend Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former restaurant caterer who founded the Wagner organization, viewed and praised the video. Sarcastically, he extolled the film-maker’s skill, describing the video as an “excellent directorial work that is watchable in one sitting.”

Vladimir Putin tours his friend Yevgeny Prigozhin’s food factory. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The video was entitled “Hammer of Vengeance,” but Prigozhin quipped: “I think this movie is called ‘A Dog’s Death for a Dog.'” 

On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he knew nothing about it. “We do not know what it is or whether it is true or not,” he said. He added, “It is not our business.” 

Russia’s government television took note and approved the execution of a traitor. “Until such people get banged on their hands or on their head very painfully, with a sledgehammer, as they do on the internet now, these mistakes will hardly be quickly corrected,” said a commentator on Russia 1, a state media channel.

By Tuesday, Prigozhin had thought better of having expressed sadistic glee. He claimed his men could not have done such a thing because his  “employees are distinguished by their excellent discipline and strict compliance with international norms.”

He noted that the chatter heard on the video included “none of the Russian swear words typically heard in these kinds of videos.” His conclusion: Americans executed Nuzhin.

So goes the latest episode in the history of the Wagner Group, Putin’s go-to organization to perform off-the-books military operations. By employing Wagner, the Kremlin need neither take credit when shady operations go well nor take responsibility for failures – for instance, an unfortunate embarrassment such as the Nuzhin case. 

The Wagner Group was formed in 2014, at the start of Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. It has since taken part in civil wars on behalf of the government of Syria and in several African countries. Tales of atrocities regularly mark Warner’s involvement in its business of interventions-for-hire.

In 2017 in Syria a Wagner fighter beat to death Mohammed Elismail, a Syrian army deserter, and then quartered and burned Elismail’s body.

The next year, Wagner mercenaries led a group of Syrian soldiers in an assault upon a remote United States base in northern Syria. The goal was to gain control of petroleum fields. Americans repelled the attack and killed around 200 Wagner fighters.

Wagner forces, in league with governments in the Central African Republic and in Mali fighting insurgencies, have been accused of severe attacks on civilians. Early this month, witnesses from the Malian village of Nia Oura said that Wagner, invited to Mali by the government to help battle Islamic rebels, raped at least a dozen women and girls, one of the victims only 12 years old.

In 2019 in Libya, Wagner snipers and anti-tank units helped rebels under the command of renegade general Khalifa Haftar attack the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the capital. The country has been split in two ever since, and Haftar, based in eastern Libya, plans to go to war again soon, reports from the North African country say.

The Wagner team in Ukraine numbered about 300  at the beginning of this year’s invasion. Up to 1,000 may be there currently. The name of the group owes itself to Prigozhin’s admiration for Richard Wagner, the German composer. Hitler loved Wagner’s music, too.

In May, Ukrainian investigators captured a pair of Wagner mercenaries and charged them with torturing and killing captives in a Ukrainian village.

Last month, Wagner operatives were engaged in more mundane chores – laying concrete pyramid-shaped barriers along a front line in eastern Ukraine. Nuzhin said the only duty he saw was collection and burial of Russian war dead.

The Ukraine war has gone on longer – and with more setbacks for Russia – than anyone planned or expected. A month ago, Prigozhin uncharacteristically criticized Putin’s top commanders – but not Putin himself. “All these thugs,” he wrote in an internet media message, “Send them all barefoot, and with machine guns, to the front.”

He has continued criticisms ever since – still never aimed at Putin. “No mobilization of the elites has taken place,” he wrote a couple of weeks ago. “The oligarchs and other representatives of the elite have always lived in boundless comfort, and continue to do so. Until their children go to war, the country will not be fully mobilized.” 

Last week he added (before the Nuzhin execution but perhaps answering grumbling about his recruitment of prisoners), “Inmates have the highest level of consciousness – much higher than the Russian elites. This is because the incarcerated are regular plowmen, who had some bad luck in life – and this is why they volunteer on such a massive scale.”

Later, he also took a swipe at the ruling class and oligarchy. “Traitors are sitting tight in their offices, giving no thought to their own people,” he wrote.

Perhaps he is readying Russia for a purge of domestic critics, on Putin’s behalf, in the spirit of Stalin, who in 1931 launched purges against so-called “wreckers and saboteurs.” The failure of a five-year economic plan triggered Stalin’s official anger. His domestic enemies turned out to include intellectuals, Tsarist holdovers, suspected fascists, Trotskyite and old Bolsheviks that might have challenge him. 

Maybe Putin, too, will discover his own batch of wreckers to account for the possible failure-in-waiting of a war that was supposed to be short and glorious.

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.