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A former mercenary in eastern Ukraine and Syria, Alexander Zlodeyev spent years in the now infamous Wagner group, which he believes was nurtured by the Russian government from the start.

“I was there when this organization was created,” 53-year-old Zlodeyev told AFP at a center for newly arrived asylum seekers at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.

Lean, with light eyes and short gray hair, the former mercenary joined Wagner between 2014 and 2015, at the start of the bitter conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass between pro-Moscow separatists and troops loyal to Kiev.

He says he was one of the organizers of the annual Russian March, which brings together political extremists from the far right to staunch monarchists, though AFP was unable to verify this or other claims made by Zladzeev.

“We received information that in the Donbass, in the Luhansk region, Russians are being killed for the Russian language,” he adds.

“That’s why we went to protect the Russians. When we arrived, we were noticed and invited to join Wagner.’

Zlodeyev insists that he did not directly participate in the fighting.

“I worked in headquarters in front of a computer, in an office, commanding troops,” he says.

– “Very beautiful form” –

In recent years, the Wagnerites have been active in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali.

Critics see it as a shadowy force controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, used to advance Russian interests abroad by providing fighters, trainers and advisers.

The UN, Western governments and aid groups have accused him of atrocities against civilians.

Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin in September recognized the founding of Wagner in 2014, calling its employees “pillars of our homeland.”

But the Russian government has always denied any links with paramilitary groups.

“The organization was created by the Ministry of Defense… The GRU (military intelligence) transferred responsibility for the “Wagner” PMC to Prigozhin for guardianship,” Zladzeev said.

Until then, “there was no organization that could solve these or other problems outside of Russian territory by military means,” he adds.

In the early days, Wagner was staffed by “trained people who knew what they were doing. Professional soldiers, some of them fought in Chechnya, former officers of the Ministry of Defense,” Zladzeev recalls.

“We received all military uniforms directly from the special warehouses of the GRU. We got a very nice uniform,” he added, as well as the salary paid by the special service.

A few months later, Zlodev was sent to Syria, where “Wagner” suffered heavy losses, fighting alongside the regular Russian army against the Islamic State group.

– “Too many losses” –

Zlodeyev claims that he was in regular contact with Prigozhin himself from his position in Wagner’s headquarters.

“I spoke to him on the phone in Syria when Palmyra was first captured. There were great losses. He called. We had to be aware of such information every minute, second by second,” he recalls.

At the time, there were signs of growing tension between Prigozhin and Defense Minister Sergei Shaigu as they jockeyed for influence.

“When PVK “Wagner” liberated Palmyra for the first time and Putin sang about it, Shaigu was not too happy, and after that friction began,” says Zladzeev.

“Supplies became very poor and we began to receive much less weapons.”

Zlodeyev claims that “I kept saying that we were taking too many losses… it got to the higher command at headquarters and I was fired.”

His lawyer in France, where he arrived on Oct. 12 seeking asylum, says Zlodeyev left Wagner around 2017 and sought a circle around Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader and anti-corruption fighter who is now serving a harsh prison sentence.

Stating that he is now “against the war” in Ukraine, Zlodeyev claims that he wrote posts on Russian social networks against Moscow’s February invasion of its neighbor, to no avail.

“Inside Russia, I cannot fight as I should, so I decided to leave,” he says.

Already granted political asylum in France in 2003 before returning to Russia in 2010, Zlodeyev says he has three French children.