Russia: the faltering reintegration of ex-Wagner and soldiers returning from the front

Alexander Fyodorov spent most of his life in Russian prisons

Russia: the faltering reintegration of ex-Wagner and soldiers returning from the front

Alexander Fyodorov spent most of his life in Russian prisons. He was serving yet another sentence when an unexpected chance for freedom appeared: going to fight in Ukraine for the Wagner group.

For six months he participated and survived the hellish battle for the city of Bakhmut. And, as promised, he was amnestied, awarded a medal and released.

“Everything was impeccable, I liked it, but for now I don’t want to fight anymore,” the ex-convict told AFP.

He is now helped by the “Union of Special Military Operation Veterans” in Ukraine, which campaigns for social and psychological monitoring of soldiers returning from the front.

This organization, independent of the Ministry of Defense but in line with the Kremlin, emphasizes that the reintegration of these often traumatized soldiers is a vital issue for society, but that it is in its infancy in Russia.

Alexander Fyodorov was treated to the first psychological consultation of his life at the end of August, organized in Zhukovsky, near Moscow, which AFP attended.

Cobwebs tattooed on his hands, shaved head, black jacket emblazoned with the Wagner group crest – a skull? this robust 46-year-old man confides calmly.

- “What would you like to do from now on?”, asks the therapist, Anna Kossyreva.

- “Become a normal person,” replies Alexandre Fyodorov, in a room usually used for consultations with children.

- “And if you were on a spaceship, for example, what role would you like to have?” asks the psychologist.

- “Teach young people to live on Earth,” says Alexander Fyodorov.

He describes growing up in an orphanage, falling into banditry and serving 25 years in prison for various crimes.

-Lack of psychiatrists?

Alexander Fyodorov says he “loves the Russian people very much” and venerates the late head of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who visited penal colonies in 2022 to enlist inmates.

During the conquest of Bakhmut, Alexander Fyodorov was a scout: his unit had to infiltrate the enemy positions before the attack of the assault groups.

In the dormitory of a modest Moscow hotel where he is temporarily staying, he shows photos of the two medals he received. One from the Wagner group, the other in the name of President Vladimir Putin.

If he says "to live in the present without looking to the future", he also wants "a family and a job". According to him, the reintegration of ex-soldiers is "vital" so that "they don't get lost and get drunk".

In recent months, the Russian press has already reported incidents involving soldiers returning from combat.

“A problematic individual will be a problem in our streets with possible crimes. He can start to violate the principles of our life and that is why we must supervise each person,” advocates Oleg Panchourine, 32, president of “ the Union of Veterans of the Special Military Operation".

Deputy commander of the 71st Guards motorized rifle regiment, Mr. Panchourine himself participates in operations in Ukraine. In early July, he was wounded in the leg at Robotyne, at the forefront of the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south. While recovering, he gets around on crutches.

"If you don't esteem a (veteran), he starts to feel offended by the system. So you have to show esteem and say that he did what many others cannot do" , he insists.

According to him, the Russian state provides financial and material benefits to veterans, but there are administrative burdens and a shortage of “specialists” for care: psychiatrists, lawyers, social workers.

Together with two other NGOs -- the "Dobryie Lioudi" fund and the "Officers of Russia" organization -- the Veterans' Union launched its own program to treat psychological disorders and reintroduce veterans into working life.

-Wounded Abandoned?

Head of the Veterans' Union in Moscow, Elnour Khismatoulline, 30, is a former special forces officer who later became a police officer. In 2022, he joined Wagner and fought in Bakhmut.

This fellow from the Bashkiria region claims to have suffered six successive concussions after finding himself under Ukrainian shells.

Evacuated from the conflict zone, he lost his speech due to shock and says he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. On his return to Russia, he began to speak normally again after two months of consultations with psychologists.

Since then, helping other veterans has become “the meaning of (his) life.” However, he regrets the lack of consideration from many of his fellow citizens who are disinterested in the conflict and live "in their own little world".

He is currently mobilizing to finance the care of a Russian soldier found half-dead in 2022 on the battlefield, victim of serious brain damage and then abandoned, bedridden and mute, in a hospice near Moscow.

The veterans interviewed by AFP want to avoid the ruts that followed the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Russian war in Chechnya, when tens of thousands of ex-soldiers found themselves without help.

Especially since the exceptional intensity of the fighting in Ukraine risks causing devastating trauma.

“We have to compare that to 1941 (date of the Nazi attack against the USSR) when our grandfathers were in the trenches, without water, without food,” points out Alexandre Bossenov, 25, who also fought for Wagner at Bakhmut .

He could see himself working in security or training recruits. “I know how to shoot all types of firearms, including mortars,” he says in a nervous voice, with a strange glint in his eyes.

On the top of his head, he reveals a long white scar, the one left by a sniper bullet that grazed his head.

18/09/2023 12:12:57 -        Zhukovsky (Russia) (AFP) -        © 2023 AFP