Wagner Group’s Grizzly Cult of Sledgehammers


Wagner Group mercenaries point to video cameras capturing the Syrian Army’s brutal torture and killing of Hamadi Buta in Syria in 2017.

Still: Wagner Group promotional video

in the long run, The horrific history of Syria’s civil war, a 2017 video of a war crime committed by Russian mercenaries, still stands out for its horror. The videotaped torture and killing of Syrian Army deserter Hamadi Buta by members of the notorious Russian-led Wagner Group has sparked global outrage as well as legal cases against the paramilitary organization. Footage of Bouta’s body being beaten to death with a sledgehammer before being beheaded and set on fire rivals the worst atrocities promoted by Islamic State. Yet the film did not terrify all who saw it.

Among members of Wagner’s group and its supporters, the video of Booter’s killing has given rise to a culture that glorifies violence against non-combatants that is clearly centered on the symbol of the sledgehammer. The cult is now embraced by the group’s leaders, including its founder Yevgeny Prigogine, who has made the sledgehammer part of its brand. T-shirts and other merchandise depicted sledgehammers alongside the Wagner logo, while both fans and group members adopted it. Take pictures of yourself Photos shared online hold both real sledgehammers and replicas, often dressed in imitations of the killers from the footage.


Yevgeny Prigogine’s bloody sledgehammer sent to the European Parliament in the violin case.

Image: Screenshot from Telegram video

Wagner now seems to be making the sledgehammer his official calling card. Last November, Prigogine sent a sledgehammer smeared with fake blood to the European Union parliament, based on a symbolic EU resolution designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. This was followed by another incident in which a group of Russian ultra-nationalists threw a sledgehammer at the Finnish embassy in Moscow. Last month, Sergei Mironov, a Russian member of parliament who heads an ultra-nationalist party, posted a photo of himself with a sledgehammer branded on top of a pile of skulls, in another visual tribute to the group.


Sergei Mironov shows off a sledgehammer given to him by the Wagner Group on January 20, 2023.

Photo: Sergey Mironov via Telegram

The barbaric culture surrounding Wagner’s group comes at a time when it is on the rise within the Russian state and making a strong recruitment drive, appealing to foreign volunteers, including Americans, to join the group.

“A lot of the content I see on Telegram and elsewhere is reminiscent of neo-Nazi propaganda, which is an aesthetic they seem to have copied,” said Colin P. Clark, director of policy and research at Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consulting firm that monitored Wagner’s online activity. “That makes sense given the audience they’re trying to recruit, who are basically, for lack of a better word, sociopaths.”

Clark said Wagner’s recruitment pitch was in many ways reminiscent of the Islamic State, which had its own unique method of carrying out executions and promised its fighters similar loot — including sex slaves and property confiscated from minorities in Iraq and Syria — in exchange for their similarly Islamic service. To the state, Wagner fighters have been accused of torture, murder, sexual violence and looting in many areas where the group operates. Its brutality is increasingly seen as part of a sales pitch to potential clients, especially in weak and failed states where governments are unconcerned about human rights abuses.

“As long as you go in and get the job done, no one’s going to ask any questions about how you behave,” Clark said of the culture the group promotes for recruits. “It’s part of their brand now.”

Its creation Wartime violence is not a uniquely Russian pathology. During the US-led Global War on Terrorism, some weapons, including the tomahawk, used by US special forces to repel enemies, became part of a culture of glorifying death that took root among some members of the military and the right-wing fringes of American society. . Today the ubiquity of the Punisher logo, popular during the war and now common among police officers domestically, is another legacy of the war’s cultural impact at home.

Mercenaries enforce Russian foreign policy goals even as their private military contractor status provides a measure of reasonable deniability.

The United States employed private military contractors during its conflicts, the most infamous being the company formerly known as Blackwater, and many of them were involved in crimes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite their brutality, however, none of them matched the political prominence of Wagner, who was fast becoming an integral part of Russian foreign policy. In addition to its role in Ukraine, where the group is said to field thousands of fighters, including prisoners convicted of serious crimes such as rape and murder who have been given the chance to fight in exchange for their freedom, Wagner’s mercenaries are now active across Africa. and the Middle East. In these regions, mercenaries enforce Russian foreign policy goals even while their private military contractor status provides a measure of reasonable deniability. In countries such as Mali, Libya and the Central African Republic, Wagner’s mercenaries have been accused of participating in war crimes and exploiting natural resources as part of lucrative security deals with local leaders.

ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - AUGUST 9: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian billionaire and businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin attends Russian-Turkish talks at Strenler Constantine Palace on August 9, 2016 in St. Petersburg, Russia.  President of Turkey is coming on a one-day visit to Putin's hometown.  (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Yevgeny Prigogine attends Russian-Turkish talks in St. Petersburg, Russia, on August 9, 2016.

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

In a system where power is largely centered around President Vladimir Putin, Prigogine, an ex-convict who previously worked as a contractor supplying Russian school lunches, has emerged as a political force in his own right, becoming a focal point of ultra-nationalist sentiment. Represented by Putin and more extreme than the conflict with members of the military elite. In some quarters, Prigogine and his group are even rumored as possible rivals for power.

“The post-Soviet Russian state has always had two sides: the criminal element that Prigogine represents, and the intelligence and military bureaucracy,” said Chris Elliott, a Ph.D. Researcher at King’s College London focused on the study of political violence and war crimes. “Wagner becoming a more important tool of Russian foreign policy is really about the growing importance of the criminal element in pulling the levers of the state.”

In that light, Wagner’s embrace of the group’s culture and ultra-violence, symbolized by the sledgehammer, sends a chilling warning about Russia’s trajectory under its current regime. The sledgehammer is not just a symbol either. Late last year, the Wagner-linked Telegram channel posted a video of a defector from the Gray Zone group who tried to join Ukrainian forces being killed with a sledgehammer, similar to Hamadi Buta. The video was posted with an approving comment from Prigogine, stating that the executed man had received “a dog’s death for a dog”. As the group continues to expand its operations around the world, this is unlikely to be its last snuff film.

“Sledgehammer is a message for all of us,” said one Russian oligarch, speaking of the growing culture of glorification of violence around Wagner and his rise to a Russian state where criminals increasingly call the shots.