At least three criminals sent from Estonia to Russia to serve their sentences have been involved in combat operations in Ukraine within the ranks of Wagner, an investigation by "Pealtnägija" found.
Their story in Estonia
Oleg Pitjukov, who had already killed two people, called 911 in February 2014 to confess to a third murder. Because the call was exceptional and implicated again an infamous killer, district prosecutor Helga Aadamsoo remembers it.
Eyewitness examined the case background: old files and publications revealed how 1976-born Pitjukov first broke the law at 14 when he seriously injured a taxi driver during a robbery. A few years later, the eighth-grader at a central Pärnu school stabbed a man asking for a light, causing significant injury.
The most serious episode came in April 1995, when then-19-year-old Pitjukov and a group of peers murdered an Armenian acquaintance with a hammer and axe and disposed of the body afterward.
Pitjukov killed one of the gang members preparing the murder a few days later, thinking the man would betray them to the authorities. The 54-knife-wounded victim was dumped into the riverbank reeds. The case investigator requested a psychiatric examination to prove the young man's guilt due to "the particular brutality and cynicism of Pitjukov's behavior, and the testimony of witnesses that he was interested in Satanism," the archive document reads.
As a Pärnu court clerk in the 1990s, Aadamsoo attended the trial, which quickly gained notoriety. In early March 1996, Pitjukov was sentenced to death for robbery, theft, and the use of illegal firearms in addition to the two murders. The Supreme Court reduced the sentence to 15 years two years after the penalty was reduced to life.
Vladimir Viira has a similar life story: born in Tallinn in 1972 and by the end of the 90s he had been convicted 10 times and served at least three prison terms.
Pitjukov had at least two violent prison episodes, but he served his time and was released in May 2010. He was back in court within two years. In December 2011, he attacked two people with a knife while drunk. As the injuries were not fatal, Pitjukov was sentenced again to a year in prison in 2012.
Viira's life at that time became more and more like an alcoholic and drug-addicted adventure story. On a rainy July 19, 2013, a traffic police patrol saw a strange car near Laagri around 8:30 p.m. Viira, a robber, drunk driver, drug user, and ten-time convict was swerving in his Toyota Avensis. The police tried to stop him but he drove fast, veered dangerously into the opposite lane, nearly avoided a head-on collision with oncoming cars, veered the wrong way, smashed a traffic sign, and ended up nose-to-nose with the blocking police car. So Vira, who was facing jail time again as another drink-driving charge was already pending; but it got worse.
Viira, who worked as a welder at a company in the Telliskivi district of Tallinn, was unpaid €2,400 in wages, which his employer delayed paying for months, on October 18, 2013, he headed to the shop to ask for money: "As soon as I got upstairs, I saw [name redacted – ed.] sitting here, but the tables were different then. And immediately the roof flew off my head. I moved right over there, I don't know where I got the knife, by the time I got to him, I had the knife in my hand and I hit him in the leg with it," Viira told to police.
The victim died as a result of the bleeding. When the other workers called for an ambulance, Viira ran away, throwing the murder weapon into the bushes by the railway. The fugitive, who was caught eight days later at the Latvian border, partially admitted the crime and revealed the facts to investigators.
Meanwhile, Pitjukov was released from prison, but just repeated the pattern. On February 10, 2014, he attacked a man with a knife and five days later killed a neighbor. Pityukov, who had spent most of his adult life in prison, then calmly called the helpline himself.
Aadamsoo, who had become a prosecutor, asked Pitjukov for the highest possible sentence - life imprisonment - and in July 2015 the Supreme Court's decision came into effect, making him Estonia's 41st life prisoner. Viira was sentenced to nine years, two months, and ten days for robbery and causing death by negligence in March 2016.
Extradition to Russia
This was just a prologue, as the fate of these two people took a turn. While there is not much in the public record about Pitjukov since his last sentence, Viira began to systematically run down the prison administration and the courts. In the summer of 2019 alone, he lodged 74 complaints with the prison authorities in just two months. In total, the courts dealt with more than 30 of Viira's complaints.
None of Viira's appeals to the courts were resolved in his favor. "Pealtnägija" does not know for sure whether the two came into contact with each other, but it is a fact that Viira and Pitjukov were in Tartu prison at the same time. As both were born in Estonia but were Russian citizens, first Pitjukov and then Viira requested to be sent to Russia to serve their sentences there. Extradition to serve a sentence in another country is quite common, Markus Kärner, undersecretary for the Ministry of Justice, said.
Kärner explained that the idea behind extradition is that an ex-convict could be better reintegrated into society among his own people and, secondly, that it is preferable not to keep another country's nationals in Estonian prisons on taxpayers' expense. The extradition documents of Pitjukov and Viira appear to be quite ordinary. The only thing that stands out in their own statements is how Viira said that he "wants to be among the Slavs" and Pitjukov "wants to be with Russia."
EU countries accept the punishment one-to-one, but third countries like Russia must recognize the ruling. "If it recognizes this decision, it will also determine – it has a certain possibility under this convention to modify the punishment a little, to say that in our country the punishment for such an act could be a little different - and then let Estonia know that you see, we are ready to accept this punishment, but under these conditions," Kärner explained.
This is exactly what happened with Pitjukov and Viira. Pityukov's life sentence was lowered to 16 years and Viira's to seven years and seven months by the Moscow court. Both were sent to a colony with a strict regime and Estonian Justice Minister Raivo Aeg accepted both men's extradition. Pityukov was deported to Russia in August 2020 and Viira in March 2021.
However, the plot takes an unexpected turn here. Russia's aggression in Ukraine began in February 2022, where, contrary to the fears of many, the Ukrainians bravely repelled Russia's forces. So successfully, in fact, that Russia had to call in the notorious Wagner Group to cover its losses, which was given the power to recruit fighters from the punishment columns in the summer of 2022. Wagner's role in the Kremlin's geopolitical plans and war crimes in the Middle East and Africa are a story on their own, but now the world watched in amazement as Yevgeny Prigozhin offered amnesty to those sentenced criminals who would come to Ukraine to fight.
Security expert Rainer Saks said that it is absurd and revealing that a private military firm, which should not exist under Russian legislation, recruited inmates to fight for the state, who under Russian law cannot be conscripted into the army. Approximately 40,000 people were recruited that way.
"Pealtnägija" found evidence that Pitjukov and Viira were among those who accepted Wagner's offer. The Estonian ISS confirmed that the men had ended up fighting on the Russian side, but would not give further details.
Most of those recruited in prison were killed in the Artyomovsky or Bahmut area, and, judging by the date, Viira, the man who killed his employer in Telliskivi, was killed in the first battles. His grave is in a special Wagner cemetery in Krasnoyarsk Krai and bears the date of death as October 13. That the man served in Wagner and was killed is confirmed by his relatives in Estonia.
However, a handful of prisoner soldiers were released alive at the beginning of the year. Among those released was Pitjukov, who also has relatives in Estonia, but according to them they have no contact.
Pitjukov and Viira are not the only ones. In the last 10 years, a total of 64 people have been extradited from Estonia to serve their sentences, 12 of them to Russia.
After requesting information and cross-referencing with public sources, "Pealtnägija" found 37-year-old Vitaly Say, another Wagnerian. Despite not killing anyone in Estonia, a 19-year-old inebriated man sped away from police and smashed his car on Kloostrimetsa road in October 2005, whereby five innocent persons suffered injuries, some of them permanent.
His last conviction in Estonia was in 2011 for a series of robberies in which he attacked defenseless prostitutes in Lasnamäe. He was extradited to Russia in 2014. Social media shows him having served his sentence in Tomsk and apparently joining Wagner as a free man. This spring Say was awarded the medal for "bravery" for fighting in Ukraine.
Prigozhin was personally sanctioned for previous crimes in Syria and Africa, and after the start of the war in Ukraine, several countries, including Estonia, recognized Wagner as a terrorist organization. Prigozhin's special army is now in disarray and Prigozhin himself is dead.
Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Kristina Kersa