April 13, 2023 - 1:30pm

Over the weekend, two videos posted by Russian forces of Ukrainian soldiers being beheaded began to circulate on social media. On the 8th and 9th April, numerous pictures of decapitated soldiers, their heads mounted on sticks, were also posted by Wagner Group personnel. This is just the latest in a series of war crimes committed by Russian forces, including Wagner, during the invasion of Ukraine.

Notably, Rusich, a paramilitary formation with a large neo-Nazi membership and links to the Wagner Group, responded via its Telegram channel to the circulation of the gruesome videos. A picture of one of the beheadings was accompanied by the caption: “You’ll be surprised at how many of these sorts of videos will be emerging soon”. The screenshot was posted at a time when Rusich had been spotted as operationally active on the front line in Ukraine, suggesting they might have the potential to act on such provocative statements. 

Regardless of when these videos were filmed originally, the succession in which they have been released  — alongside other imagery depicting atrocities committed against prisoners of war — could indicate the start of a more aggressive, terror-based information warfare campaign emanating from Russia. The invasion of Ukraine has been plagued by war crimes committed by Russian forces, including “attacks on civilians and energy-related infrastructure, wilful killings, unlawful confinement, torture, rape and other sexual violence, as well as unlawful transfers and deportations of children,” per a UN report published in March of this year.

Wagner and Rusich have built up a pronounced reputation for not just committing but celebrating such atrocities. Their practice of publicising war crimes goes as far back as 2017, when Syrian Army soldier Hamidi Bouta was violently murdered on video by Wagner personnel using sledgehammers. Indeed, the weapon has also been used to execute traitors in the group’s ranks, to the point where it has now become a proudly adopted Wagner symbol. In September 2022 Rusich publicly advised its fighters, again via Telegram, to not report the capture of Ukrainian soldiers, and called for their torture and murder.

The desire to glorify and incite atrocities towards Ukrainian prisoners of war, seen through these recent gory videos, is part of a broader attempt to normalise such acts, appealing to the organisational culture of brutality within Wagner and Rusich. However, the influence of this very public violence extends beyond the membership of these organisations, and towards altering the behaviour of other military personnel and the segments of Russian society who follow (and support) their activities. 

This speaks to a wider pattern of online engagement, as seen by Rusich urging its followers to gather and share intelligence on Nato member states. That’s not to mention raising funds from their supporters for military equipment and attracting foreign fighters — apparently from countries including Norway, Poland and Italy — through the use of transnational influence. This has also been replicated to some degree by Wagner’s own fundraising efforts.

It is clear that certain elements of Russian forces see publicising and glorifying atrocities as a propaganda tool. Given the increasing frequency and brutality of these videos, it’s likely that we will only see more of them in the near future, as Russia’s extremist militias exert ever more influence over the direction, and the tone, of Putin’s war.

Alec Bertina is a conflict analyst at Militant Wire.