February 7, 2023 - 7:15am

Even mercenaries need a social media presence. The controversial and highly secretive Wagner Group, which is currently fighting in the Donbas, can now be found ramping up its propaganda machine. The militia’s extensive online supporter base provides fundraising opportunities for extra supplies and equipment, while one music video promoting the group has drawn almost 400,000 views on YouTube. Offline, Wagner has produced flashy recruitment ads on TV, and has previously marketed on billboards across Russia to fill its ranks. 

These ranks are now claimed to include over 50,000 men fighting in Ukraine, according to White House official John Kirby. Of this number 40,000 are recruited convicts, many of whom joined after Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, offered them ‘redemption’ through participation in the group’s campaigns in Ukraine. Various clips of the prisoners-turned-soldiers have subsequently been released to supposedly prove that Prigozhin is a man of his word. Of course, he is less eager to concede that, as is widely reported, the criminals perform high-risk tasks to preserve Wagner’s more professional operators.

The organisation’s recruitment efforts are not just confined to Russia, with reports of Wagner producing propaganda material aimed at recruiting men in Serbia. Intriguingly, another video targeting disenfranchised US veterans went viral on social media last week, complete with footage of the Capitol riot and the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, though its authenticity is unclear.

Prigozhin has leveraged Wagner’s role in Russia’s war effort to boost his own personal profile. He has been at the centre of many of these propaganda efforts, presenting himself as a leader who is willing to visit his men on the frontline and listen to them, while taking part in publicity stunts. This week, he was filmed in the cockpit of a military plane, challenging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to an aerial duel.

This is largely intended to distinguish Prigozhin from the political class sitting comfortably in Moscow, and particularly from the prominent military and political authorities with whom he has continuously bumped heads. Last week, for example, he got into a back-and-forth with legendary pro-Russian separatist leader Igor Girkin, AKA Strelkov, subsequently inviting Girkin to join Wagner’s ranks on the front line.

Prigozhin was quick to credit Wagner with the victory in Soledar and to make a photo-op appearance to pre-empt any statement by Russia’s Ministry of Defence. Wagner was conspicuously omitted from the official announcement the next morning, in what seems to have been a case of Moscow sending a deliberate message to check Prigozhin before a reluctant follow-up acknowledgement.

Indeed, the Wagner Group has gone further by challenging the dominance of state and establishment media with the introduction of an official Telegram channel. Here it can communicate directly with troops and Russians alike. Prior to this, Reverse Side of the Medal (RSOTM) was the primary propaganda source for Wagner, though it remains actively aligned and has been central in advocating for the group online.

Wagner has recently taken its media campaign to the next level by producing and releasing a movie, widely available with English subtitles, about a mercenary group which isn’t explicitly named, but whose real-world basis is hardly difficult to work out. 

The film, titled The Best in Hell, was apparently directed by Prigozhin himself and written by former Wagner commander Aleksey Nagin, who was killed near Bakhmut several months ago. “We have a contract 
 with the company, a contract with the motherland,” the narrator says, characterising the organisation as a place for patriots rather than mercenaries. Aiming to show the brutality of modern warfare, the film does not explicitly mention the location as being Ukraine though, again, one does not have to be a military expert to join up the dots.

Notorious for its filmed executions and a bloodlust that goes beyond the standards even of the Russian military, the Wagner Group is trying to buttress this image by producing films like The Best in Hell. But given the high churn rate of Wagner soldiers on the frontlines in Bakhmut, it’s going to take more than a propaganda film to convince others to join Prigozhin’s call to arms.

Lucas Webber is the co-founder and editor of Militant Wire