The infamous Wagner mercenary group was founded in 2014 to target people undesirable to the Kremlin. Now, someone using the same approach is targeting those in the Wagner group.
The incident would be worthy of a Hollywood drama. A public event in a cafe. A speaker gets a gift from a young woman in the audience. He is pleased: the present was made exclusively for him. It's a gold-painted bust, a man with the speaker's face in a coal miner's helmet — a proud reference to his origins. The speaker grins, laughs, and jokes until the bust, filled with about two hundred grams of tritol, explodes in his hands.
The explosion, which occurred in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on April 2, 2023, killed the host, a pro-war military blogger Maxim Fomin, known by the pseudonym Vladlen Tatarsky, and wounded 40 people.
On the day of the explosion, witnesses and the police claimed to identify the woman who brought the deadly gift. Daria Trepova, 26, was arrested the next day. Although she has been an opponent of the Russian war in Ukraine, she claimed she didn't know the bust was stuffed with explosives. She said she was tricked into bringing it to the cafe and giving it to Fomin.
Maxim Fomin: a coal miner to thief, then fighter to influencer
Maxim Fomin, 40, was from Makiyivka, Ukraine, a coal-mining city of about 400,000 near Donetsk, Ukraine. He was once a coal miner, though later, he tried to launch a few businesses, which were ultimately unsuccessful. He had a bank loan he struggled to repay. So, in late 2011, with two friends, he robbed a bank in his city. He was caught and handed an eight-year prison sentence.
In 2014, when an initial, covert Russian invasion started in the east of Ukraine and Donetsk was proclaimed the capital of the breakaway “peoples’ republic,” Fomin fled the prison and joined local pro-Russian fighters against the Ukrainian state. After several years, he moved to Moscow and took Russian citizenship. Around that time, he started developing a Telegram channel.
Since 2014, in Ukrainian areas under Russian control, freedom of speech has been totally suppressed. Ukrainian media were the first to be expelled, then local outlets which were loyal to Moscow were also shut down. Only outlets established and controlled by the local “governments” remained.
Since 2018, Telegram has become prominent in the “republic.” The messaging platform promised anonymity and protection from surveillance. But as its popularity has grown, it has also attracted many “governmental” and “pro-governmental” writers and users. By the time Fomin was killed, his personal Telegram channel had over 500,000 subscribers.
In his Telegram channel, Fomin regularly attacked Ukraine, the West, and LGBTQ+ people. He advocated against abortions, promoted the Russian state's version of orthodox Christianity, and applauded President Vladimir Putin's war effort in Ukraine. As the effort stalled, Fomin became one of the “patriotic” war bloggers who grew more and more critical of the Kremlin, saying its moves were not decisive or radical enough.
“Putin's chef,” his trolls, and “musicians”
By the time all anti-Kremlin media were silenced in Russia, the Kremlin suddenly discovered an influential opposition in its political rear. And this is how Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as “Putin's chef,” one of the most influential yet shadowy figures in Russian politics, suddenly came out into the light. Prigozhin got his nickname for owning a restaurant in St. Petersberg favored by Putin, as well as a catering company that used to serve the Kremlin and other Russian governmental bodies.
Later, it was supposedly Prigozhin who established the prominent “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, promoting Putin, harassing opponents, and flooding media forums and social media both domestically and abroad with disinformation. Later, he also admitted to founding the mercenary group Wagner.
Prigozhin admitted his connection to the Wagner group only in the fall of 2022, no less than eight years after it was established. The Russian losses on the battlefields in Ukraine prompted him to step up publicly. He claims he has been frequently travelling to the frontline and to the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, which Russian forces and Wagner mercenaries have struggled to capture for about seven months. He had also been caught personally recruiting inmates in Russian prisons to join the Wagner group in Bakhmut for exchange for reduced sentences.
The Wagner group drew international attention for its military, economic, and criminal activities in several African countries. But it was first launched and tested in the east of Ukraine in 2014–2015.
Wagner's first steps, war in Ukraine
The war in the east of Ukraine started as a popular uprising following the Maidan revolution, which toppled the pro-Russian president and Donetsk local, Victor Yanukovych. Russia successfully annexed the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula. Driven partly by panic and partly by pro-Russian sentiment, Russian state propaganda, and military operatives, the conflict was becoming more and more violent. It was joined by different groups and individuals, from political idealists to overt criminals, occasionally either cooperating or fighting each other.
In the beginning, the domestic rebels and Russian fighters in the area had been busy expelling and exterminating local groups and individuals loyal to the Ukrainian state, which met Moscow's interests. But soon, those loyal to the Ukrainian state were suppressed and moved almost exclusively to an emerging frontline, and Moscow needed to create and stabilize local “state” structures, which led to a period of political jockeying. The various “field commanders” and political factions remaining became a problem to the Kremlin.
In 2015, several popular local “field commanders” in the occupied east of Ukraine were killed one after another (warning: the linked video contains scenes of violence), mostly from explosives planted in their cars. Some of the killings were perfectly staged, such as that of Pavel Dryomov, whose car exploded when he was driving to his wedding. These were seemingly meant to send messages of intimidation to the remaining operatives in the “republics.”
Between 2015 and 2018, about a dozen of demonstrative murders of this kind occurred in the areas of the east of Ukraine that Russia seized in 2014 and 2015, but also in Russia itself, where the “field commanders” used to travel to or move to after losing internal political power struggles in the “republics.” This period of violence culminated in a blast at a restaurant in central Donetsk on August 31, 2018, which killed the “republics” head, Alexander Zakharchenko, who was seemingly too independent — and too corrupt — for the Kremlin to tolerate.
Since then, Moscow has gained nearly total control of the area which it annexed after launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. At least some of these murders were apparently committed by the Wagner mercenaries.
A radical turn in Russia
Paradoxically, now, it is the Wagner group's leader who is sowing anti-Kremlin dissent in the same area. Prigozhin has issued numerous statements attacking the Russian governmental elites. It is he, not Putin, who is now praised by increasingly radicalizing Russian right-wingers like the prominent far-right ideologist Alexander Dugin — himself an apparent target of a car blast on August 20, 2022, in Russia near Moscow, which killed his daughter and ally Daria instead.
And Prigozhin, not Putin, is now the idol of Russian and pro-Russian bloggers like Fomin, who, in his latest video clip, published three days before his death, once again praised “the steel infantry of the Wagner.”
In the clip, Fomin also claimed that there are “scums who do not like what I'm saying” who were writing complaints about him to the Russian military and security agencies. “I believe in our victory […], and then, after everything, we will settle scores with them,” he concluded. “Now, there is simply no time [for this].”