Stylized representation of elements important in the Redut story.

The Redut Ruse

Inside Russia’s Fake Private Mercenary Company Fighting In Ukraine

In September 2022, as Ukraine was pushing Russian troops out of the eastern Kharkiv region, several Russian mercenaries were cut off from their main group after Kyiv’s forces recaptured the town of Balaklia.

For more than two weeks, these fighters hid in empty homes as they attempted to make it to the Russian side of the front line east of Balaklia. At some point during their flight, a member of their group took pen to paper and wrote a desperate note.

“Dear God, help us to return home alive and healthy. We are tired of wandering behind enemy lines for 15 days, thrown into defensive positions,” the note reads.

The trapped fighters were part of a battalion called the Wolves, one of numerous armed formations fighting for Russia’s invading forces under the umbrella of Redut, purportedly a private military company like Wagner, the mercenary group led by led by Yevgeny Prigozhin before his death in an August 23 plane crash.

But an investigation by Schemes and Systema – RFE/RL’s Ukrainian and Russian investigative units, respectively – revealed that Redut is not, in fact, a private military company. It is a front: a shadowy recruitment network run by the Russian military’s main intelligence directorate, known as the GRU.

Based on battlefield records and multiple interviews with Redut fighters and recruiters, the investigation provided an unprecedented look inside this secretive GRU program that at times resembles a hall of mirrors: contracts signed with nonexistent companies, fighters attached to military units on paper only, and in one case, a posthumous state award from Russian President Vladimir Putin for a Redut fighter of whom the Defense Ministry said it had no record.

Now, RFE/RL is publishing additional records, testimony, and independent reporting by Schemes and Systema revealing the inner workings of this system, which Redut recruiters say offers multiple benefits for those who sign up – including the option to quit without the threat of a court-martial and the ability to earn cash that can be hidden from creditors, courts, and the government.

Redut was created “so that people could avoid paying taxes or, for example, any court costs,” one recruiter told Systema.

This arrangement also allows the Russian government and military to maintain a layer of legal distance from the many fighters and units under the umbrella of this ostensibly private organization.

“Russia has faced big challenges with recruiting and retention because of the available pool of potential recruits being very low,” Candace Rondeaux, a researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington and the author of a 2019 report titled Decoding The Wagner Group, told RFE/RL. “And because of the culture of the military and the benefits that it offers, it just isn't incentive enough to get people to sign up voluntarily.”

“So these kinds of ghost forces or backfill forces, like we've seen with Wagner or Redut, are necessary because it essentially is a means of creating incentives outside the current system,” Rondeaux added.

Neither the Russian Defense Ministry nor Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to written inquiries about Redut.

But in the Redut system, all roads lead back to Russian military intelligence, the Schemes and Systema investigation found.

The note left by the trapped Russian fighters in Balaklia in September 2022 was just one of a cache of documents left behind by the Redut-linked Wolves battalion. A few months later, four Wolves fighters who were captured by Ukrainian forces – Ruslan Kolesnikov, Mikhail Ivanov, Maksim Volvak, and Valentin Bych – were convicted of torturing civilians and sentenced to prison.

Written in block letters in the bottom left-hand corner of the note was a three-letter acronym: GRU.

The note left behind by members of the Wolves battalion features the acronym GRU in the bottom left-hand corner.
The note left behind by members of the Wolves battalion features the acronym GRU in the bottom left-hand corner.(Schemes)
A soldier standing in a doorway to a dimly-lit room.

Redut, Wolves, And Torture

A GRU mercenary unit’s bloody incursion into Ukraine

At the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ivanov and his fellow fighters with the Wolves were deployed in the Kremlin operation to seize Kyiv. When it failed a few weeks later, they were ordered to cover the withdrawal of regular Russian troops from the region around the Ukrainian capital.

On April 1, their battalion was ordered to retreat to Belarus and then to a base in the town of Valuyki, near the Ukrainian border in western Russia.

Wolves’ Movements In Russia’s War On Ukraine: A Map

  • 47.204719, 39.724686
  • Megamag Shopping Complex
  • Rostov-on-Don, Russia

December 8-9, 2021

A muster point for mercenaries prior to deployment to Ukraine. Redut fighter Mikhail Ivanov, who was captured in Ukraine and later convicted of torture, told Schemes that he arrived in December 2021 at an assembly point at the Megamag shopping complex after a recruiter for the Wolves battalion examined his documents. Ivanov said he then boarded a bus and traveled toward Ukraine with around 70-80 other mercenaries.

  • 48.537110, 39.351235
  • Transpele base
  • Ukrainian territory occupied since 2014, Luhansk

December 10-28, 2021

A property of Ukraine's largest logistics company, Transpele, was seized by Russia-backed separatists after Moscow’s 2014 invasion and has been used to store Russian military equipment since 2015. In late 2021, Russian fighters were brought here to prepare for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Redut fighter Mikhail Ivanov of the Wolves battalion said it was here that he signed a contract with a company called Redut LLC on December 10. The mercenaries lived in shipping containers converted into barracks.

Handwritten internal records from the Wolves battalion
Handwritten internal records from the Wolves battalion(Telegram)
  • 52.661498, 41.569449
  • Trigulyai training facility
  • Tambov region, Russia

A military training ground and the location of the GRU’s 16th Special Forces Brigade, in which the Wolves battalion fights. In 2020, the facility was used to train special forces of Russia’s Western Military District. This facility is the main base of the Wolves battalion: most of the mercenaries undergo training there.

Wolves fighter Ruslan Kolesnikov, who was convicted of torture in Ukraine, arrived at the Trigulyai training ground on January 22, 2022, about a month before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Fellow Wolves fighter Valentin Bych told Schemes that he signed up at the Trigulyai base on July 28, 2022, and that he was deployed to Ukraine after eight or nine days of training.

The stamp on Wolves battalion certificate lists the Trigulyai training ground.
The stamp on Wolves battalion certificate lists the Trigulyai training ground.(Telegram)
  • 48.399381, 39.202299
  • Lutuhyne
  • Ukrainian territory occupied since 2014, Luhansk

January 10 - February 17, 2022

Wolves battalion fighter Mikhail Ivanov said he and around 200 fellow mercenaries lived in dormitory-style housing at this base. A Russian officer with the call sign Amur was their supervisor. It was here in Lutuhyne that the fighters were issued uniforms and weapons.

The fighters stayed here until mid-February before a contingent of around 400 people traveled to a location in Russia’s Bryansk region on the border with Belarus. On February 23, a day before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the fighters crossed into Belarus.

  • 51.456631, 29.245526
  • Belarus-Ukraine border
  • Chernobyl exclusion zone

February 24-25, 2022

The Wolves fighters crossed into Ukraine from Belarus on February 24-25. Battalion fighter Mikhail Ivanov claimed that the mercenaries traveled straight through the exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, through forests and abandoned villages, and stayed there overnight. The Wolves’ Telegram channel posted a video titled “Heading To Kyiv” that shows fighters crossing the Zhelon River near the Ukrainian-Belarusian border.

Video footage of Wolves fighters driving in Ukraine
Video footage of Wolves fighters driving in UkraineTelegram
  • 50.742495, 29.915947
  • Velykyi Lis
  • Kyiv region

February 26, 2022

Near the village of Velykiy Lis in the Kyiv region, the Wolves mercenaries fanned out in a forested area and set up a field camp. A headquarters for regular Russian forces moving toward Kyiv was also set up nearby.

  • 50.689905, 29.846723
  • Kachaly
  • Kyiv region

March 2022

In March 2022, the Wolves battalion took part in the occupation of villages and in battles in the Borodyanka district northwest of Kyiv.

In mid-March, the battalion received an order to cover the retreat of the forces of Russia’s 36th Combined Arms Army from the Kyiv region.

Between March 18-22, at least two members of the Wolves battalion were killed as a result of artillery shelling: a medic using the call sign Kaskad and a deputy platoon commander with the call sign Nemo. Schemes was able to locate the building in which they were killed.

The ruins of the building where Wolves fighters Kaskad and Nemo were killed
The ruins of the building where Wolves fighters Kaskad and Nemo were killed(Schemes)
  • 50.664097, 29.804385
  • Zahaltsi
  • Kyiv region

March 2022

Schemes was able to establish that in March 2022, Wolves battalion fighters were stationed in Kyiv region villages including Kachaly, Zahaltsi, Shybene, Babyntsi, Klavdiyievo-Tarasove, and Borodyanka.

On March 21, a battalion member with the call sign Guno was killed as a result of shelling.

Russian troops began to remove their equipment from Hostomel airport on March 27-28, and by April 1, the Wolves had left the Kyiv region.

A handwritten record of the Wolves losses in Zahaltsi
A handwritten record of the Wolves losses in ZahaltsiTelegram
  • 51.299330, 37.856880
  • Stary Oskol
  • Belgorod region

April 1-10, 2022

The city of Stary Oskol and the town of Valuyki are popular stops for Russian military personnel fighting in Ukraine. Several military units, military hospitals, and even payroll distribution points are located there. Wolves fighter Mikhail Ivanov said he traveled to Stary Oskol to receive his salary. Valuyki was one of the muster points for the Wolves in August 2022, and a hospital where the wounded were brought was also located there.

The Wolves spent around a week and a half in the Belgorod region after retreating from the Kyiv region and leaving Ukraine at the end of March 2022. From there they again moved into Ukraine – this time to the eastern Kharkiv region. Internal records from the Wolves that Schemes obtained include a receipt for an express shipment by the delivery company SDEK from Stary Oskol.

A receipt for sending personal belongings from Stary Oskol
A receipt for sending personal belongings from Stary Oskol(Schemes)
  • 49.463849, 37.268103
  • Oleksandrivka
  • Kharkiv region

April 15-June 10, 2022

As of mid-April, the headquarters of the Wolves battalion was located in the Kharkiv-region village of Oleksandrivka. From there they traveled to the Donetsk region for the assault on the village of Bohorodychne.

The Wolves’ headquarters remained in Oleksandrivka until the end of May but was moved to the village of Borova following numerous artillery strikes. Wolves fighter Mikhail Ivanov said at least 16 of his fellow battalion members were killed in shelling by Ukrainian forces.

A list of Wolves fighters wounded in Aleksandrovka
A list of Wolves fighters wounded in Aleksandrovka(Schemes)
  • 49.013638, 37.502898
  • Bohorodychne
  • Donetsk region

April 15-September 7, 2022

During the spring and summer of 2022, the village of Bohorodychne changed hands 14 times amid battles fought by the Ukrainian military and invading Russian forces.

Have this one for now. Just in case.


I’m aware what it is.

They’re firing on us from the basement.

Friendly [grenade]!

Ah, fuck! Get down!

Be careful here, ammunition is exploding.

[inaudible] Ukrainian assault rifle.

Gardens [springtime] soon, fuck up the moskals.

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Wolves fighters in Bohorodychne (Telegram)

  • 48.996506, 37.431651
  • Dolyna-Krasnopillya
  • Donetsk region

June 2022

The Wolves battalion was active in June 2022 at the front line between the villages of Dolyna and Krasnopillya, which the Russian military called one of the tensest in the war: A breakthrough along the M03 motorway leading from Kharkiv would mean the opening of the road to Slovyansk for Russian troops. The line was moved by Ukrainian forces in September 2022 – the same time they pushed Russian invaders out of the city of Izyum and later out of the Kharkiv region.

"The fact that we failed to achieve radical success there is not our fault, but our misfortune. The overall exhaustion of forces on the entire front had an impact," the Wolves said on their Telegram channel.

  • 49.376254829887785, 37.624965653254954
  • Borova
  • Kharkiv region

May-September 2022

After the Wolves’ headquarters in Oleksandrivka came under fire, the mercenaries moved a little further east to the village of Borova. The headquarters remained there until they were pushed out of the Kharkiv region by the Ukrainian military in September 2022.

Wolves fighter Valentin Bych recalled arriving in Borova in early August, staying for a few days, and then traveling "to the front" – to storm Bohorodychne .

The commander with the call sign Amur - a "short, sturdy" man "about 40 years old" – was in charge of the Wolves. It was he who gave the mercenaries lists of local residents who were to be brought to him for interrogation and torture. Multiple Wolves fighters said Amur was with the GRU.

This song is also romantic.

Pokrov! Pokrov!

Good lad! Salam Aleikum!

Take the bag off him.

Look, I’ll drop you now at…you know the house of culture there?


The two-story building. Yes. I’ll drop you off by that…

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Wolves mercenaries take a resident of Borova for interrogation (Schemes)

  • 49.459463, 36.836910
  • Balaklia
  • Kharkiv region

September 6-26, 2022

Balaklia, which was home to about 30,000 people before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, was occupied by Russian troops from March-September 2022 and was one of the stronghold towns for Russian forces on the front line.

Wolves fighters were based nearby, and some of their detachments entered Balaklia at the time of the Ukrainian counteroffensive in early September 2022. Ruslan Kolesnikov, a Wolves fighter convicted of torture in Ukraine, recalled that he received orders to set up positions at the entrance to Balaklia on September 6. The Ukrainian military entered the town that same night. Russian troops fled the town, and Kolesnikov’s group found themselves cut off from their team and hid in Balaklia for nearly three weeks until they were captured.

  • 49.059861, 38.145070
  • Kreminna
  • Luhansk region

November 2022

After fleeing the Kharkiv region, the Wolves first relocated to the area of Kreminna, where they covered the withdrawal of Russian troops, and then rested for a while in the occupied part of the Luhansk region. Beginning in November 2022, they went to fight again in the area of the villages of Ploshchanka and Shypylivka.

There were four of them. Four guys.

They just… completely fucked up this corner.

It’s just fucked up.

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Aftermath of the shelling of a Wolves position (Video from the Wolves’ Telegram channel)

  • 48.111993, 37.795071
  • Avdiyivka
  • Donetsk region

February-March 2023

In early 2023, the status of the Wolves was upgraded from a "battalion-size unit" to a brigade. In February, the brigade was transferred to the assault on Avdiyivka, one of the most powerful strongholds of the Ukrainian military and which Russian forces had been unsuccessfully trying to capture since 2014.

The Wolves described their participation in the battles near Avdiyivka as follows: they conducted aerial reconnaissance, worked as artillerymen and mortarmen, and their assault groups "repeatedly participated" in battles "in the area of Avdiyivka industrial zone."

  • 48.684108, 38.085512
  • Soledar
  • Donetsk region

March-May 2023

A screenshot from the Wolves’ Telegram channel
A screenshot from the Wolves’ Telegram channel(Telegram)
  • 48.585524, 38.005045
  • Bakhmut
  • Donetsk region

In early 2023, the fight for Bakhmut became the bloodiest and longest battle of Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine. Russian authorities announced the “capture of Bakhmut” in May 2023, with the Wagner Group taking credit.

Screenshot from the Instagram of a Wolves fighter with the call sign Scalpel.
Screenshot from the Instagram of a Wolves fighter with the call sign Scalpel.(Instagram)
Held by Russia-backed separatists or occupied by Russia prior to invasion

The following September, Ivanov and his fellow mercenaries were deployed to the Kharkiv region to fight Ukraine’s liberation effort in the area. They were two weeks into the mission when, fearing they had been abandoned by the retreating Russian military, a battalion member wrote the note pleading for help that was left behind and later obtained by Schemes.

Wolves fighters in Balaklia

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Over the previous weeks, the Ukrainian military had recaptured Balaklia, where evidence of torture by Russian occupying forces was uncovered in the wake of their withdrawal.

Positions abandoned by the Russian military in Balaklia
Positions abandoned by the Russian military in Balaklia(Schemes)

The Wolves, who are also known as the Lapwing battalion, are one of at least 20 armed units operating in Ukraine under the Redut network, according to an RFE/RL analysis of open-source records and interviews with recruiters and fighters.

Russian Armed Formations With Ties To Redut

Fully staffed via Redut
Fully staffed via Redut
Partially staffed via Redut
Partially staffed via Redut

Systema, RFE/RL Graphics

Two Redut formations, known as Borz and Espanola, have begun recruiting women for combat in Ukraine, according to recent reports by the Russian independent investigative news outlet IStories.

Ivanov himself told Schemes that he signed his contract to fight in Ukraine with Redut.

Convicted Wolves fighter Mikhail Ivanov on signing up with Redut

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But in fact, the company Ivanov believed he had signed his contract with does not exist. It was a fictitious firm used as part of the Redut recruitment operation run by the GRU.

Two of Ivanov’s fellow fighters told Schemes that the battalion was directly overseen by a GRU officer. Several battalion members said this handler used the call sign Amur and gave the orders to hold multiple local men in the Kharkiv region village of Borova captive in an earthen pit for interrogations – including at least one in which he wielded a knife and threatened to cut off a captive’s fingers, according to a Ukrainian court verdict.

The Wolves battalion’s connections to the GRU, the military intelligence directorate linked to the poisonings of Kremlin targets and sabotage operations in Europe, don’t end there.

In both their trial testimony in Ukrainian court and in interviews with Schemes following their convictions on torture charges, two battalion members said they signed up with the GRU’s 16th Special Forces Brigade.

Internal records from the battalion also show that it was identified as part of the GRU.

How Redut’s Wolves Battalion Calls Itself Part Of The GRU

Alt text.

A typed report on the Wolves personnel losses identifies the formation as part of the GRU.

Alt text.

A handwritten report on casualties identifying the Wolves as part of the GRU

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A handwritten report on casualties within a Wolves unit describes the battalion as part of the GRU.

The Wolves also use the training facility of the GRU’s 16th Special Forces Brigade in the Tambov region, according to photographs obtained by reporters and interviews with fighters. The facility is where Wolves fighter Ivanov says he stayed briefly in December 2021 – less than three months before Russia’s full-scale invasion – before being sent almost immediately to Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region.

It was in Luhansk, Ivanov said, that he signed his contract with “some kind of Redut LLC.”

“We arrived [December] 9, and on the 10th they handed us contracts and [said]: ‘Read it, sign it,’” Ivanov told Schemes.

The Redut Mirage

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, several media reports have connected Redut to Redut-Security, a Moscow-based private security company that had previously guarded Russian energy facilities in Syria and was even targeted with sanctions by the U.S. government, which described it as a GRU-linked “private military company” that “is fighting in Ukraine.”

The owner of Redut-Security is Yevgeny Sidorov, a former Russian mercenary in Syria and a business associate of Konstantin Mirzayants, a special forces officer with the Russian air force. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta previously identified Mirzayants as the leader of a mercenary group involved in guarding energy assets in Syria controlled by Kremlin-connected billionaire Gennady Timchenko. Timchenko, who did not respond to a request for comment, has been linked to Redut in media reports and anonymous testimony in the British parliament.

But RFE/RL’s investigation found no evidence that either Redut-Security or Timchenko is linked to the Redut forces deployed in Ukraine following the full-scale invasion, which appear to have begun to take shape sometime in late 2021.

One contract reviewed by RFE/RL, which features the name RLSPI Redut, directly points to an affiliation with Russian military intelligence.

A CV posted on a Russian job site spells this acronym out as “Regional Laboratory of Social and Psychological Research” and links it to military unit No. 35555, part of the GRU’s 78th Intelligence Center, which is associated with the 175th Command and Communications Brigade based outside Rostov-on-Don, a regional seat near the Ukrainian border. The resume describes the unit as “secret.”

Public information about this military unit is scarce, but the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has previously listed it as part of Russian military intelligence. Members of a Russian social-media page dedicated to unit 35555 regularly post images celebrating Russian military intelligence, while one user of the social-network VK describes himself as a veteran of “[military unit] 35555 GRU.”

The sheer number of Russian firms using the name Redut likely helps the fake companies listed on the fighters’ contracts fly under the radar. At least 180 LLCs with the name Redut have been registered in Russia, more than three dozen of which are currently active, according to the Russian commercial registry.

A search of Russian public records by Systema found nearly 50 people named Igor Ivanovich Shirokov – the name listed as the Redut head on multiple contracts signed by fighters. Reporters found no links between any of these individuals and a registered legal entity that included the name Redut.

The legal mirage of this purported “private military company” has made it difficult for relatives of Redut mercenaries to track down those in charge to ask about unpaid wages, death benefits, fighters’ whereabouts, leading to exasperated posts on Russian social-media networks.

Social-Media Posts From Mercenaries’ Relatives Searching For Redut

There are no publicly available contact numbers for the various armed units operating under the Redut brand in Ukraine. In conversations with Systema, recruiters for these units said no such numbers exist and that families should just call them.

The widow of one Redut fighter told Systema she’d been through “seven circles of hell” trying to collect back wages for her husband after he was killed in action.

Exclusive documents obtained by Systema highlight the murky, off-the-books nature of the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine under the Redut banner.

Among the cache of records left behind by the Wolves and later obtained by Schemes include mentions of battalion fighter Aleksandr Kopyltsov, a sniper using the call sign Nemo who was killed in battle in late March 2022 near Kyiv.

Kopyltsov’s relatives subsequently attempted to receive death benefits from the Russian government but hit repeated roadblocks. They received at least five letters from the Russian Defense Ministry and military prosecutors saying there was no record that he had fought under Defense Ministry forces or “volunteer” groups in Ukraine.

While the Defense Ministry and military prosecutors may have had no record of Kopyltsov, the Kremlin apparently did: Putin posthumously granted him the Order of Courage in November 2022 – even before his family received multiple official letters saying the Defense Ministry was unaware of his combat in Ukraine.

Russian military prosecutors ultimately informed Kopyltsov’s family in July 2023 that it had already received compensation weeks after his death from “the private military company Redut,” and that because he had not fought under the Defense Ministry or a “volunteer organization,” there were no grounds to pursue action for the Russian government’s failure to pay death benefits.

That reference is the only official mention by Russian authorities of a purported private military group called Redut that RFE/RL reporters were able to find.

A response by Russian military prosecutors to an inquiry about Aleksandr Kopyltsov states his death benefits were paid by the “private military company Redut.”

A response by Russian military prosecutors to an inquiry about Aleksandr Kopyltsov states his death benefits were paid by the “private military company Redut.”

(Courtesy photo)

It remains unclear exactly how the Russian government would have learned of a payout to the family from Redut if it had no record of Kopyltsov as either a Russian soldier or volunteer.

But according to multiple Redut recruiters with whom Systema spoke, the paymasters of this purported private force are the Russian Defense Ministry itself – and its operators, the GRU.

"The majority of those fighting for what journalists call ‘private military companies’ are simply soldiers fighting under the control of the Defense Ministry," one source close to the GRU told Systema when asked about Redut.

A soldier standing in a doorway to a dimly-lit room.

‘It’s, Well, GRU’

The Redut recruiters who admit the links to military intelligence

While Russian military prosecutors have called Redut a private military company, the recruiters who find people to fight under the Redut auspices confirm that no such company exists. In fact, there is no such legal category as “private military company” in Russia, although the appellation is regularly used for Wagner and the other mercenary groups supporting the Russian military.

In order to find out what ordinary Russians could learn about the ostensibly private Redut units fighting in Ukraine, Systema reporters contacted 11 different recruiters for Redut-linked battalions involved in the war. Five stated explicitly that the Russian Defense Ministry and the GRU are behind the operation of the Redut system.

“The Redut system – it’s, well, GRU,” Natalya Lashkaryova, a senior member of a group called the Union of Donbas Volunteers, a semiofficial Russian organization recruiting fighters for the war in Ukraine, told a Systema reporter who called posing as a recruit.

Another recruiter, who uses the call sign Gonyets (Messenger), said that while those who enlist sign contracts with Redut, “we are working with the Defense Ministry, the Main Intelligence Directorate. They pay us the money.”

Recruiters On Redut’s Links To The GRU And Russian Defense Ministry

Gonyets (“Messenger”), Tigers Battalion Recruiter:

"This contract is specifically with Redut. We are working with the Defense Ministry, with the Main Intelligence Directorate. They pay us the money." "[Redut] is an analogue of a [Private Military Group]. We receive money from the Defense Ministry. Directly. Our handler is from the Defense Ministry."

Nadezhda Lashkaryova, Union of Donbass Volunteers, Head of Personnel:

"The Redut system – it’s, well, GRU."

Igrok (“Player”), Redut-linked Lynx Formation Recruiter:

"The contract is with a private company, but the [Russian] Defense Ministry pays. All of the payments come from them."

Zodiac, recruiter for Union of Donbass Volunteers battalions:

"Redut is a [private military company], but under the patronage of the Defense Ministry."

Jamal, Recruiter For Redut-Linked Battalion Veter 177:

"Ours is Veter 177. This is a unit that is part of the GRU’s 16th brigade. We are part of this exact brigade. We do intelligence. We don’t do assaults."

In chats with Systema reporters on Telegram, two other Redut recruiters said fighters would receive payment and support from the Russian Defense Ministry and the GRU. One of the recruiters, using the call sign Djamal, called Redut a “fake company.”

John Doe

а редут это какая-то компания официальная? я так и не понял просто, все пишут разное, якобы такой ооо вообще не существует и потом идти не к кому


Фиктивная компания

John Doe

Is Redut some kind of official company? I just don't understand, everyone writes different things, supposedly such an LLC does not exist at all and then there is no one to turn to


Fake company

The amount of money recruiters promise potential recruits for enlisting is roughly the same: 110,000 rubles ($1,100) a month for time spent training and 220,000 rubles ($2,200) a month for time spent fighting in Ukraine. Thе salary for fighting is around three times the average monthly salary in Russia. Recruits are also promised large payments in the event of injury or death.

Redut contracts, as well as interviews with Wolves mercenaries and their relatives, indicate that Redut mercenaries are paid in cash.

Mikhail Ivanov, the Wolves mercenary who was taken prisoner and agreed to speak to Schemes following his conviction on torture charges in Ukraine, said the cash is brought to the front – in U.S. dollars – by the unit commander.

Paying The Redut-linked Wolves Battalion

Alt text.

An image from the phone of a fighter with the Wolves, whose members receive payments in U.S. dollars.

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A contract to join the Wolves specifies a $25,000 payout for serious injuries and a $60,000 payout in the event of death.

Alt text.

A spreadsheet of Wolves battalion members shows their salaries listed in U.S. dollars.

As of early 2023, fighters in some Redut units received money at the base of the 150th Motorized Infantry Division in the Rostov region, a source told Systema.

For potential mercenaries, a contract under a system like Redut offers better conditions than signing up with the military. The contracts last from three to six months, and if a fighter decides to go home early, the worst that usually happens is that they lose some of their pay and are blacklisted by their Redut unit. By contrast, soldiers in the military are required to serve until the end of what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine and, in the event they go AWOL, they could face years in prison.

The recruiter Djamal said fighters are signed up via the Redut system so they can avoid debt-collectors, legal garnishments, and alimony payments -- and so they have the option to quit before getting thrown into “a long meat-grinder with no way out.”

It’s unclear whether commanders have a formal accounting system for the money passing through this black-box operation.

After the dramatic but short-lived mutiny by Prigozhin’s Wagner forces in June, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered all mercenaries to sign contracts with his ministry by July 1. However, a recruiter with the call sign Kesha said that as of midsummer, only commanders were being pressed to do so, while rank-and-file fighters continued to fight “unofficially.”

Kesha is a recruiter for the Zubr (Bison) battalion, one of at least 20 armed mercenary groups that RFE/RL has identified as fighting in Ukraine as part of the Redut system.

Some of the groups are based at the Trigulyai training and mustering center outside Tambov, which is the home of the GRU’s 16th Brigade. These include one, called Alexander Nevsky, that calls itself a Russian Orthodox, patriotic formation, as well as several units named after animals – the Wolves, Tigers, and Lynx.

Because of the large number and varying sizes of these groups, it is difficult to estimate the total number of Redut mercenaries in Ukraine. The recruiter Kesha estimated the size of the Redut network at up to 25,000 fighters.

Sources – including Redut fighters interviewed by RFE/RL – indicate that recruitment under the Redut system began in the second half of 2021.

Ivanov, the Wolves battalion fighter who was convicted of torture after being captured in Ukraine, told Schemes that he signed up in December 2021 after hearing about the opportunity from a friend.

Fighters With The Redut-Linked Wolves Battalion Convicted Of Torture in Ukraine

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Maksim Volvak

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Ruslan Kolesnikov

Alt text.

Mikhail Ivanov

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Valentin Bych

On December 9, 2021, Ivanov arrived at the gathering point for recruits near the Megamag shopping center in Rostov-on-Don. There, he says, he and around 80 others boarded minibuses and traveled to the Transpele base in the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine’s Luhansk region. It was there that Ivanov signed his contract with the fictitious Redut company for a monthly salary of $2,000, plus combat bonuses and benefits for injury and death.

Would-be Redut mercenaries can call or message a number listed on the ads, and the demands of the Redut recruiters on the other end vary depending on which formation is involved. A recruiter from a formation called the Veterans only asks a recruit’s age and immediately relays the address of the mustering point.

By contrast, recruiters for the Wolves battalion -- in which Ivanov fought -- require a full name and date of birth, a driver’s license, and background on a potential fighter’s military and civilian skills. Wolves recruiters also often ask about a prospective fighter’s criminal record and his health, although they usually do not demand medical documentation.

Recruits then assemble at the mustering centers and typically spend from a few days to a couple of weeks there. Many of the units gather at the GRU’s Trigulyai base outside of Tambov and are instructed to report to the base commander’s office.

Satellite Images Of The GRU’s Trigulyai Base

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Image © 2023 Planet Labs PBC (RFE/RL Graphics)
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Image © 2023 Planet Labs PBC (RFE/RL Graphics)
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Image © 2023 Planet Labs PBC (RFE/RL Graphics)

The soccer-hooligan unit known as Espanola has its mustering base in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, in the Donetsk region. The Veterans, meanwhile, gather at a village in Russia’s western Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine. Units associated with the Union of Donbas Volunteers, including one called the St. George Brigade, are based in Rostov-on-Don and muster at a three-star hotel called Timosha on the left bank of the Don River.

After the recruits sign their contracts, the newly minted mercenaries are assigned to a military unit – often only on paper.

“We have a ‘virtual’ unit,” Gonyets, who recruits for the Tigers formation, told Systema. “If you end up in a hospital, you mention the number of your unit. When you arrive, they tell you what number to give in case something happens.”

Call Sign
Gonyets (“Messenger”)
Recruiter for the Tigers formation

Age 41, believed to be a native of Kyiv

0:00 / 0:00

Some people embrace the war.

People are different.

We try to avoid that.

We remove those who don’t fit,

those who are seeking to make profit,

those involved in dirty business.

I’ll tell you frankly about the Veterans unit: don’t even come close to them.

They work alongside us

but three of the groups they drafted

have already been killed.

People join them just to make money.

They have no other interest in it.

A recruiter with the Redut-linked battalion known as Wind 117 said those who sign up with the formation can receive “a certificate” from the GRU.

Systema also identified several military units associated with the Wolves battalion. Two of those units are under the GRU.

The Redut network does not have a single training ground or a unified training program. In Tambov, the mercenaries use the Trigulyai base, while in the Rostov region they have access to the Kadamovsky training base.

A satellite image of the Kadamovsky training base in Russia’s southern Rostov region.
A satellite image of the Kadamovsky training base in Russia’s southern Rostov region.(Image © 2023 Planet Labs PBC (RFE/RL Graphics))

A Union of Donbas Volunteers recruiter told RFE/RL that their fighters use a training center in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea, although he did not name it.

Before they are sent into combat, the mercenaries are inspected by handlers from the Defense Ministry. Among other things, Kesha said, the handlers check the recruits for “the presence or absence of ties to neighboring governments,” meaning Ukraine.

When a mercenary’s six-month contract expires, he faces the choice of signing another Redut agreement or returning to civilian life. For those who return to Russia, it can be difficult to prove that they fought in Ukraine at all.

A soldier standing in a doorway to a dimly-lit room.

Redut’s GRU Patrons And ‘Volunteers’

A gathering of mercenaries offers a glimpse of who runs the Redut network

On February 4, 2023, the Union of Donbas Volunteers held a “congress” in Russian-occupied Mariupol, on the Azov Sea coast. More than 450 fighters, many of whom came “straight from the front,” participated in the event, according to Russian state media. It was seemingly the kind of run-of-the-mill uber-patriotic event that has become commonplace since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

But this gathering provided important insight into just who is running the Redut network of mercenary groups, which includes the Union of Donbas Volunteers.

The pro-Kremlin Telegram channel WarGonzo posted a video of the proceedings in which representatives of other mercenary companies could be seen. Those present included Aleksandr Borodai, a Russian lawmaker and former leader of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine who heads the group, as well as Russian tycoon Konstantin Malofeyev and Aleksei Zhuravlyov, deputy chairman of the Defense Committee in the State Duma, Russia’s lower chamber of parliament.

During the gathering, organizers announced that all the volunteer militias were being concentrated into a single group called the Russian Volunteer Corps, an apparent attempt to bring order to the loosely connected formations.

Systema has obtained a document that was issued to a Redut fighter to confirm his participation in the “special military operation” in Ukraine. That document states that the Russian Volunteer Corps was created on February 27 “by order of the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation.” It bears the stamp of the Defense Ministry.

Several recruiters contacted by Systema said that Redut -- not the Union of Donbas Volunteers -- served as the nucleus of the Russian Volunteer Corps. In fact, the Union of Donbas Volunteers itself is part of the Redut network. RFE/RL has established that fighters with the St. George Brigade sign contracts with Redut.

The document Systema obtained is signed by Colonel A. Kondratyev, who is identified as the “commander of the combat unit of the Volunteer Corps.” The signature belongs to Aleksei Kondratyev, a retired GRU colonel and a former mayor of the city of Tambov, which he also represented in the Russian parliament. The signature matches Kondratyev’s signatures found on publicly available parliamentary documents.

Kondratyev was one of at least three senior figures linked to the Russian Defense Ministry who were present at the February 2023 gathering of the Union of Donbas Volunteers.

Aleksei Kondratyev at the February 2023 gathering of the Union of Donbas Volunteers.
Aleksei Kondratyev at the February 2023 gathering of the Union of Donbas Volunteers.(Telegram channel Wargonzo)

The other two were Colonel Sergei Drozdov, a senior recruitment official with the General Staff of the Russian military, and Lieutenant General Vladimir Alekseyev, deputy head of the GRU.

Sergei Drozdov at the February 2023 gathering of the Union of Donbas Volunteers.
Sergei Drozdov at the February 2023 gathering of the Union of Donbas Volunteers.(Telegram channel WarGonzo)

Sources cited in a May 2023 joint report by The Insider, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and the open-source investigative group Bellingcat said that the idea of creating Redut belonged to Alekseyev, whom a Telegram channel linked to the late Prigozhin’s Wagner forces has called “one of the founders” of Wagner.

Vladimir Alekseyev at the February 2023 gathering of the Union of Donbas Volunteers.
Vladimir Alekseyev at the February 2023 gathering of the Union of Donbas Volunteers.(Telegram channel Wargonzo)

During Prigozhin’s murky mutiny in June 2023, Alekseyev released a video in which he called on the mercenaries to stop their “coup.” He was also one of the high-ranking Defense Ministry officials who held talks with Prigozhin in southern Russia during the mutiny.

Alekseyev disappeared from public view for several months following those negotiations with Prigozhin at the headquarters of Russia’s Southern Military District in Rostov-on-Don on June 24. On October 16, a video appeared on the Telegram channel of the Redut-linked detachment Espanola showing Alekseyev awarding one of the unit’s fighters with the Order of Courage.

Neither Alekseyev, nor Drozdov, nor Kondratyev responded to requests for comment, though Alekseyev marked the inquiry sent to his Telegram account with a heart emoji.

A soldier standing in a doorway to a dimly-lit room.

The Redut ‘Zoo’ On the Front Lines

Putin badges and ‘volunteer’ certificates for Redut network fighters

In August, Schemes reporters traveled to the front line near the devastated city of Bakhmut in the northeastern part of Ukraine’s Donetsk region. On the outskirts of the village of Orikhovo-Vasylivka, fighters with the Ukrainian Army’s 225th Separate Assault Battalion were conducting aerial reconnaissance of Russian positions.

Ukrainian forces have been battling invading Russian forces in the area for more than a year, and many collect chevrons worn by Russian soldiers they have captured or killed. Among the chevrons they showed reporters were those of the Veterans, one of the armed formations operating in Ukraine under the Redut umbrella.

One of the insignia used by the Veterans is a chevron featuring the visage of Vladimir Putin.

Chevrons of Russian soldiers killed near Bakhmut
Chevrons of Russian soldiers killed near Bakhmut(Schemes)

“They are made up of former policemen, former FSB officers, soldiers, national guardsman – that is, former security forces,” a Ukrainian military commander said of the Veterans.

He added that captured Russian fighters from the Veterans formation carry military-unit documents bearing the seal of the Russian Defense Ministry and “volunteer” certificates.

“Plus a contract for six months, which is automatically renewed after six months,” the Ukrainian soldier said.

The Veterans are not the only Redut formation fighting in and around Bakhmut, he said, reeling off a list of purported private military groups that he likened to a “zoo,” including the Lynx and the Tigers as well as the Alexander Nevsky formation.

Russian fighters from the Veterans formation began appearing in Bakhmut after Russia’s main assault on the city in August 2022, another Ukrainian soldier told Schemes. Russian forces took control of most of the city in May 2023, with Wagner mercenaries playing a key role, but fierce fighting continues in the suburbs.

“From here, it’s about 5-6 kilometers to the [Russian] positions,” one Ukrainian soldier told Schemes in August in Chasiv Yar, a few kilometers west of Bakhmut, “including those occupied by the private military company Redut.”

Watch the documentaries by Schemes and Systema

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This project is a collaboration between Schemes, RFE/RL's Ukrainian investigative unit, and Systema, RFE/RL’s Russian investigative unit.

Authors: Yelizaveta Surnacheva, Daniil Belovdiev, Valeriya Yegoshyna, Kira Tolstyakova, Robert Coalson, and Carl Schreck

Contributing reporters: Dmitry Sukharev, Kirill Kruglikov, and Olha Ivlieva

Editing: Steve Gutterman, Carl Schreck, Andrei Soshnikov, Kira Tolstyakova, Natalya Sedletska, and Anna Peterimova

Design: Wojtek Grojec, Ivan Gutterman, and Juan Carlos Herrera Martinez