„There’s a short time before we see each other again. Two more months and I’ll come home for good, buy a house, get married, make a few kids…”
This is the word Vladislav Apostol left to his childhood friend during their last conversation in early 2018. A month before Apostol got wounded in a U.S. strike in Syria on 7 February.
He lived almost one month after this attack before dying from wounds. He was 30.
Vladislav Apostol was one of the nine Moldovans enrolled by the Wagner paramilitary to kill. RISE Moldova teamed up with New Lines in the US, Delfi.ee in Estonia, and Dagens Nyheter in Sweden to obtain the largest ever database about Wagner fighters and now we are ready to introduce those men to our readers.
As many as 4,184 Wagner mercenaries have been identified by Ukraine’s Security and Cooperation Center (SCC) and the Security Service (SBU). The men who had been recruited mainly from Eastern Europe were nationals of 15 countries, including the Republic of Moldova. The record contains the names, special identity codes, nicknames, unit number, and combat positions.
Leaving behind family and friends, they went to kill for money. Some of them would never return.
TORTURED TO DEATH
Wagner mercenaries have been accused of human rights violations, tortures, and illegal executions in war zones. On 13 December 2021, the European Council enforced sanctions on the Wagner along with three more entities and eight individuals connected with the organization. The sanctions provide for the asset freezing, EU travel ban, and denial of EU funding.
One of the blacklisted individuals is Dmitry Utkin (Details, HERE) who the EU suspects of being the founder and commanding officer of the Wagner group. He is personally responsible for the abuses committed by his fighters. One of their crime is the torture to death of a Syrian deserter by four Wagner members, in June 2017, at Homs, Syria. A former Wagner fighter testified that Utkin had personally ordered his men to torture the deserter and film the process.
The video was shown for the first time over the internet shortly after the crime. The two- minute video shot with a mobile phone shows how four men in military uniforms and covered faces hit with a sledge-hammer another man. Two years later, in 2019, another video was posted online to show the continuation of the torture.
With a spade, the mercenaries cut off the victim’s head and hands. They hanged the body upside down and set it on fire. The four made selfies with the charred corpse behind. The victim was 30-year-old Muhammad Taha al-Abdullah, also known as Hamdi Bouta, a Syrian army active duty deserter.
One of the four torturers was Vladislav Apostol, a Moldovan national.
MY ADDRESS: NO HOME, NO STREET
Vladislav Apostol is a double citizen: of Moldova and of Russia. In the Wagner group his code-name was Volk (Wolf). The same nickname he used in his social media accounts VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. There he published pictures from Chechnya and Syria, including of himself in military uniform and firearm in his hands. “He had a wolf tattoo on the back side of his neck. I have no idea why he had wanted that wolf. Perhaps because his mother had abandoned him… there was also a motto [in Russian]: “My address: No home, no street”,” remembers Vlad Ungureanu, a friend of Vladislav Apostol who lived in the neighborhood.
Vladislav was born in Ciutulesti, a village in Floresti District of Moldova, a two-hour drive from the capital. He was raised without a father. Along with his younger brother Anatolie, the two boys had been left in the care of their grandmother while their mother had worked in Russia.
After the grandmother’s death, when Vladislav was nine, the boys were taken to a boarding school in Belgorod, Russia. “During their stay in that school, their mother used to visit them very rarely – once a year or so,” Vlad recalls. “The boys were quite angry and I suppose they didn’t really talk to her,” says the boys’ godmother and a friend to their mother.
„He had a good memory. He loved my lessons of history and sports. He often participated in competitions and earned prizes,” recalls Alexander Buryak, a former history teacher at the Belgorod boarding school.
After graduation, Vladislav Apostol joined the army, then worked a while as a bodyguard, tried to hold on a construction job. Later on, he told Ungureanu that he earned a contract to work in Chechnya. „During 2012-2014, if I am right, he used to tell me that he was studying there, and nothing else. If I insisted, he went around. Therefore, I quit asking.”
Apostol signed up for Syria in 2016, without leaving a notice for his family or friends.
“When he last time departed for Syria, as I heard from Anatolie, they had a long conversation, then they hugged, and Anatolie still didn’t get where his older brother was heading to and why. Vlad, he said, I must go, I have a contract to work for, but never mentioned Syria. If only Anatolie knew where his brother was going to…” the former friend recalls.
Apostol and Ungureanu didn’t get to talk to each other for more than half a year after the Syria mission had begun. Contacts resumed when Apostol called from Syria via Viber, a video chat app. “He used to call me many times but never switched the camera on. Said the camera was not working, or found other excuses. And one day he switched it on. With a beard on his face, he murmured: I’m not going to tell you where I am. Perhaps he feared something…” Ungureanu said.
During those conversations, Apostol used to keep his rifle close to his chest. His status – a sniper, according to the Wagner records.
Vlad UNGUREANU, a friend of Vladislav Apostol: „He was at his duty station, as a way to say. For one year, things were alright. He never complained of anything to happen, never had to shut off the phone, or hide. But lately he looked frightening, seemed to be scared.”
PAY PROMISES VS. REAL PAYMENTS
Ungureanu says he never saw the video showing his friend torturing a Syrian man. He never learned of any people Apostol might have killed, or of any financial benefits he might have received. „He said he wanted to buy a house, or an apartment, a Hummer maybe, and I realized that he had that cash if he wanted those things.”
Wagner mercenaries from Moldova were promised rewards ranging from at least $1,000 a month, depending on the status they earned in their units, says an officer at the Moldovan Information and Security Service (SIS) who asked not to be named.
SIS officer: „One thousand [US] dollars, that’s the promised amount, but reality has turned to be different, and then they tried to weight what is better for them and figure out how to return home.”
Mercenaries are usually recruited from poorer layers of society, mainly among those who don’t have a job or a permanent income, according to the source in the SIS, who is part of a unit that fights mercenary and terror activities. He has drawn the profile after having reviewed the information of 114 Moldovan mercenaries in various paramilitary organizations.
SIS officer: „Money is an illusion for them, because while they join the ranks they think like “I’m going to fight, to earn cash, and maybe help my family,” but reality is different. The money they get is enough to fund their own living, and is spent for food, cigarettes, cars, home, and nothing more. We are talking about ordinary mercenaries, not like commanding ranks or operations supervisors.”
In May 2018, as Ungureanu recalls from the words of his friend, the contract was approaching its final days and Vladislav Apostol was due to return home. That was their last conversation, in January.
On 7 February 2018, Vladislav Apostol was severely wounded during a US air strike near Khasham, Syria. The fight near Deir ez-Zour started with a night attack by Wagner mercenaries and pro-Assad forces on a base held by a joint contingent of US commando and a Kurdish unit of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Wagner papers show that another 77 mercenaries of this organizations died the same day in Syria, and four more later, because of their wounds. Most of them were ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, and there was of Kazakh national, one Armenian national, and one Moldovan national.
„I am looking for my son. He was in Syria on 7 February. No news from him ever since. Whoever has returned from that place, let me know. Hit me in private,” Vladislav’s mother left those words in her Odnoklassniki profile.
Shortly after the news had spread that Vladislav Apostol got killed in Syria and his mother’s comments surfaced in Moldovan media, her Odnoklassniki account was no longer available.
Rare are the cases when families or friends learn about details who or where their sons or husbands, or fathers get killed as mercenaries. One of the reasons is that it’s hard both for the authorities and the special services to collect information from combat zones such as Syria, no matter whose citizens the fallen are, the SIS source explained.
The case of Apostol and other Moldovan soldiers of luck who perished in Syria is still under investigation by the SIS. „Investigations are still going on as we are trying to figure out what has happened and put together more pieces about the crime,” the office said.
Vladislav Apostol is one of the 86 mercenaries who got killed in 2018 alone, according to the Wagner records. A list of casualties seen by RISE Moldova counts 372 deaths: 315 in Syria, 35 in eastern Ukraine, eight in Libya, one in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and one in Sankt Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city (some regions might pinpoint the location of hospitals where wounded mercenaries died). Of those killed in Syria, 81 lost their lives as a result of the 2018 clash with US and allied forces.
Sources in Syria say that not all bodies were identified or repatriated, and some remained forever in that country.
More than two months had passed before Vladislav Apostol’s body arrived for his funeral. „The coffin stayed in the car, in front of the school. We were walking towards [the coffin] for a farewell from him,” recalls those moments Alexander Buryak, Vladislav’s former teacher of history at the Belgorod boarding school.
Anatolie, Vladislav’s younger brother, declined to have a discussion with us, saying he had nothing to comment about. Ungureanu said he was told that the family had received no financial assistance from the government. The history teacher, however, quoted Anatolie as saying that the family had received six million rubles ($85,700 in 2018).
The childhood-times home of the Apostol family in Moldova is empty now. It was sold to a local, a neighbor said. Village residents and teachers still remember Vladislav and the news about his death in Syria.
OTHER WAGNER MOLDOVANS
Aside from Vladislav Apostol, the Wagner records mention three more Moldovan mercenaries who lost their lives. One is Radu Donciu, a 43-year-old man from Chisinau, who was killed on 7 February 2018, the day of the Wagner assault on the US-Kurdish base. He had spent time in prison for theft during the Soviet period. Details, HERE.
After money, criminal history is the second aspect which recruiters use to lure fighters, the SIS officer said. “We are aware of people who committed offenses in Moldova or in Russia, and this fact is used by recruiters to lure fighters into enrollment either in Russia or elsewhere. Some men who sign up for mercenary actually seek to avoid criminal liability.”
Egor Matcovschi was killed at the age of just 32. According to SIS records, he had first acted as a mercenary in Ukraine, and later accepted a mission in Syria, where he got shot to death on 9 June 2017. The fourth Wagner mercenary from Moldova, is Serghei Prida. The place or date of his death are unknown yet.
We know about five more Moldovans in the Wagner group, they are all alive, according to the Wagner records. One is 53-year-old Alexandru Butnarciuc. A dual citizen – Moldovan and Russian – he was born in the village of Cotihana, Cahul District and grew up in a family torn by violence, according to former neighbors.
A local school teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Alexandru and his brother Victor were frequent school runaways. “They used to listen to my lectures but never prepared their homework. It was because of violence. Perhaps, this is why they would never express their opinions,” she said.
The boys’ mother died when Alexandru was 12, a neighbor said. They were raised by a stepmother who married their father. “The man beat the hell out of his second wife just like he had done to the first one,” said the neighbor who was a friend to the second wife, also dead. Alexandru was caught for stealing, and for this reason he got locked in prison in the Russian city of Tomsk.
Shortly after the graduation from the Cotihana school, the Butnarciuc brothers left the village and were rarely seen there. Alexandru’s first wife said he moved to Russia. Their son and the Wagner records confirm that the man still lived in Tomsk.
It was 2016 when Alexandru was last time seen in his native village, at the funerals of his father. He told former neighbors that he was working in the construction business and his brother Victor was an employee of his. Victor’s name does not appeal in the Wagner list of fighters, but surfaced as a volunteer fighting for pro-Russia separatists in the Donbass. He was killed in action in September 2021, according to the Myrotvorets database.
Myrotvorets is an independent nongovernmental organization that investigates the threats to Ukraine’s national security, including terrorism and mercenary.
The Butnarciuc family home is now abandoned. A sister of Alexandru and Victor is looking after the house. She said she was out of touch with any of her brothers. Last time she spoke to Alexandru she was instructed not to sell the house, in case they return to Moldova and have no place to stay.
Other Moldovan mercenaries are Alexandru Prida, 49, Mihai Junghin, 47, Alexandru Sevcenco, 30, and Veaceslav Ababii, 56. The last one, a dual citizen, acted as a sniper in a Wagner unit.
LOOKING AFTER MERCENARIES
Five Moldovan nationals are being investigated by the SIS for being part of Wagner. Irrespective of the paramilitary organization, the Moldovans on mercenary services share the same traits: men aged 18 to 50, unstable from the psychological point of view.
SIS officer: „A part of them suffer from certain mental disorders. I mean medical circumstances or various childhood trauma that motivate an adventure to search for the unknown.”
None of the five Moldovan mercenaries alive is currently serving any penitentiary term in Moldova. Details, HERE.
The Prosecution Office for Organized Crime and Special Investigations declined our request for information about the investigations on the name of the mercenaries RISE Moldova has identified in the Wagner records, citing the classified nature of the investigations and personal data protection. Details, HERE.
SIS records show that only 17 out of 114 Moldovans identified as mercenaries until now have appeared in a court of law for trial. Seven of them have been sentenced conditionally and another ten are serving prison terms now.
Moldovan laws require between three and seven years in prison for mercenary activities.
Editing: Marcela ZĂMOSTEANU
Fact-checking: Dumitru STOIANOV
Graphics: Roman FILIPPOV
Acest material a fost realizat de RISE Moldova cu sprijinul National Endowment for Democracy în cadrul proiectului „Fostering Accountability through Investigative Journalism”, implementat de RISE Moldova. Opiniile exprimate în această publicație aparţin în exclusivitate autorului şi nu reflectă neapărat poziţia National Endowment for Democracy. Instituțiile finanțatoare nu influențează în niciun fel subiectul şi conținutul materialelor publicate.