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 – describe 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.
Uldarov said in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Soledar and Bakhmut – which have seen some of the fiercest fighting – Wagner mercenaries “were given the command to annihilate everyone.”
“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.
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.
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.
Wagner Group chief Prigozhin, when asked about the men and the contents of the 1.17 hour-long video, said he had not yet had the “technical ability to watch the entire video.”
However, he added, in his response 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 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.