Two Russian military videos showing the beheading of Ukrainian soldiers spread on social media over the weekend. The Wagner Group also released several images of decapitated troops with their heads fastened to poles on April 8 and 9. The Russian soldiers, including Wagner, perpetrated several war crimes during the invasion of Ukraine, and this is just the most recent.
No matter when these videos were first produced, the order in which they were made public – together with other photographs showing brutality toward prisoners of war – may signal the start of a more aggressive, terrorist-based information warfare operation coming from Russia. In addition to the invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces also committed war crimes, including “attacks on civilians and energy infrastructure, targeted killings, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and other sexual violence, and the illegal transfer and deportation of children,” according to a UN report published in March.
“Wagner and Rusić have a well-deserved reputation for not only perpetrating such atrocities but also exalting them. Since 2017, when Wagner staff members mercilessly killed Syrian army man Hamidi Buta with sledgehammers and recorded it, they have a history of making war crimes public. This weapon was proudly adopted as a Wagner symbol since it was used to execute traitors that existed within the gang. Rusych publicly urged his militants not to report the seizure of Ukrainian soldiers and urged their torture and murder in September 2022, again via Telegram.
The inclination to laud and encourage cruelty against Ukrainian prisoners of war, as witnessed in these new graphic recordings, is part of a larger effort to legitimize such acts by appealing to Wagner and Rusich’s institutionalized brutality. However, the effects of this same public violence go beyond membership in these organizations to alter the behavior of other military personnel and groups within Russian society who support (and follow) their antics.
This reflects a wider trend of internet interaction, as evidenced by the way Rusich encouraged his fans to gather and exchange intelligence about NATO member states. Not to mention using transnational influence to allegedly recruit foreign warriors from nations like Norway, Poland, and Italy. He also raised money from his fans for military equipment. In some ways, Wagner’s fundraising initiatives mirrored this.
Certain elements of Russian forces perceive the publicizing and glorification of atrocities as a propaganda tool. Given the increasing frequency and brutality of these videos, it is likely that we will see more of them shortly as Russian extremist armed groups increasingly influence the direction and tone of Putin’s war.