by Bethany Elliott
Monday, 23
January 2023
News
07:00

Thousands of Russian convicts join the front line in Ukraine

The Wagner Group militia is being replenished with freed prisoners
by Bethany Elliott
Yevgeny Prigozhin pictured alongside prisoners recruited into the Russian army.

Typically, men who beat their elderly mothers to death in a drunken rage do not become state heroes. Yet this is exactly what occurred when convicted murderer Sergei Molodtsov was buried with full military honours this month after giving his life for Russia in its war against Ukraine. 

Last September, video footage showed Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s confidante and head of the Wagner mercenary group, touring Russian prisons to recruit inmates for the war effort and offer them a pardon in return for six months of frontline duty in Ukraine. 


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According to Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak, 38,244 Russian convicts have now accepted Prigozhin’s offer, tempted by the lure of freedom, 200,000 roubles payment (£2,383) and compensation of 700,000 roubles (£8,342) to their relatives should they be killed in action. 

The historical parallels are striking, the Soviet Union having released nearly a million prisoners from Gulag camps to fill the battle lines of the Second World War. Now, with Russia’s military losses in Ukraine reaching into the many tens of thousands, its government has been forced to look to the country’s 400,000 prison inmates to either labour in factories, and so rapidly replenish Russia’s decimated military stocks, or become frontline soldiers, and so rapidly replenish Russia’s equally decimated army. 

As their deaths are less likely to fuel domestic unrest than losses from the rest of the population, convict soldiers have found themselves used as ‘cannon fodder‘. Deployed at the very front of the front line, ahead of conscripts and career soldiers, prisoners have reported being sent on the most perilous reconnaissance missions to locate Ukrainian positions and into repeated, head-on assaults entailing heavy losses, but leading to the territorial gains which enabled Wagner forces to attack the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.  

Unsurprisingly, there is a high attrition rate. Podolyak claims that 29,543 convict soldiers — around 77% of the total — have been killed, captured or injured. According to prisoner rights activist Olga Romanova, just two of the first 500 convicts who headed to the front line in June made it back. 

Yet not all those who sign up actually reach the front line. Russian independent media outlet Volya reports that Prigozhin has himself designed a scheme whereby the wealthiest inmates can pay bribes to be registered to fight and then simply be released. The convict goes into hiding for six months, while prison officials and Wagner split the ill-gotten gains. 

While up to 100 inmates have reportedly paid $70,000 to $100,000 to sit out the war, for those who favour a premium service, $300,000 will buy the convict an official death followed by citizenship documents in the name of a real dead soldier, close to their own age, who did not possess a criminal record. Volya holds that organised crime boss Igor Kusk, sentenced to 23 years imprisonment for offences including murder, used this service to start a new life. Recruited by Wagner to fight in the Donbas and declared dead after less than two months of combat, he was reportedly buried in a closed coffin without any medical examination. 

Meanwhile the prisoners that do make it to the front line are treated with brutal discipline. Inmates on the front line have reported having their fingers cut off for clandestinely using their phones or arguing with officers, while potential deserters have been threatened with being skinned alive or shot. One NGO estimates that 100 prisoners have been executed for violating orders, fleeing and “failing to comply with requirements”, their bodies rapidly cremated. Any successful deserters would do well to remember that a precondition of joining the war is to provide family contact details.  

For those who somehow survive six months, it is not always clear what happens next. Frontline reports claim prisoners who complete their service are pressured to remain in the Donbas or join Wagner’s Africa operations. Last week, ex-prisoner and Wagner commander Andrei Medvedev fled to Norway after learning the group intended to make his contract permanent. 

Others are more fortunate. This month, footage emerged of Prigozhin congratulating pardoned veterans. However, he betrayed qualms about how they may behave upon returning to cities, urging them not to “do drugs” or “rape women”. An influx of ex-cons turned state heroes is already proving a flashpoint of dissent among Russian citizens. 

“Bless you prison,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote. As today’s Wagner recruits face freezing temperatures, perilous missions and the ever-present threat of summary execution, there may be some already feeling nostalgic for their former captivity.

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j watson
j watson
5 days ago

Yet another reason why the Ukrainians are and will fight so hard – could you countenance a criminal force full of convicted criminals controlling your home town? It is existential for them and we must continue to help with everything we can.
At some point too there must be a chance of mass defections across to Ukrainian lines. If you know you are permanently locked into serving with Wagner until you die what do you have to lose?

Andy E
Andy E
5 days ago

Only an imbecile would draw conclusions about what is happening in Russia based on what Ukrainian officials say. And vise versa, about what is going on in Ukraine based on Russian propaganda. I don’t believe a single digit in this article.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
5 days ago
Reply to  Andy E

Ah, there’s probably some truth to it – as there probably was to the claims the Ukes did the same thing back last February.

Peter B
Peter B
5 days ago
Reply to  Andy E

So you would then dispute the *fact* (stated in the article) that the Wagner group recruited convicts ? And would denying a fact openly acknowledged by the Russian leaders as well as Ukraine and Western media make you an “imbecile” ? Or something else ?

D Walsh
D Walsh
5 days ago
Reply to  Andy E

propaganda articles like this just make me assume the Russians are winning. I expect to see more of them

Bruce Edgar
Bruce Edgar
5 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Yes. Reading this am reminded of the deliberately distorted images of our opponents in previous wars: the which have always been a staple of pro-war propagandists.

martin logan
martin logan
4 days ago
Reply to  Bruce Edgar

Those ridiculous WW2 images of Nazis torturing people were sooo off the mark.

martin logan
martin logan
4 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Indeed, Putin’s retreats from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson and Kharkiv Oblast were all brilliant Russian ruses.
Just like Hitler’s drawing in of the allies to Berlin–to deal his knock-out punch.
And the sinking of the Moskva created a TOTAL blockade of all Ukrainian ports.
Genius…

martin logan
martin logan
4 days ago
Reply to  Andy E

This is what Prigozhin says.
But you already knew that.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
5 days ago

No money for anyone guessing what a bunch of rapists and murderers would do once they took over a Ukrainian town.
As far as cold psychopathic leadership goes, it is, you have to admit, pretty brilliant:
1. Either the convict succeeds in battle and rapidly becomes the problem of the Ukranian population or
2. He dies and is one less expense for the Russian state.
Win-win, Dr Evil.

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
5 days ago

“Yevgeny Prigozhin pictured alongside prisoners recruited into the Russian army.”

This caption is about as incorrect as it gets. They’re being recruited into the mercenary Wagner group, conceived from the ground up to be plausibly deniable by the Russian army.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
5 days ago

The Dirty Dozen was a movie. IRL these men will have zero morale and cannot be used for anything other than cannon fodder.

D Walsh
D Walsh
5 days ago

And the Dirty Dozen were killing Germans, which Hollywood loves

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
5 days ago

This ngo says and that ngo says. Just propaganda

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
5 days ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

That’s what I thought. The article is cannon fodder too.

martin logan
martin logan
4 days ago

A bit old news, since Prigozhin’s failure to capture Bakhmut led to Surovikhin’s demotion, and the army’s now total control over the battle space.
Still, if the army fails again this spring (can’t have significant operations before the end of rasputitsa in May), Prigozhin may be resurrected.
The Russian Govniks have antique tanks and weapons, infantry with zero morale–plus a petrified Moscow elite that demands that their city be protected at the expense of the front.
So Prigozhin may be just biding his time–just as Lenin did in 1917.

Last edited 4 days ago by Martin Logan
Todd Kreigh
Todd Kreigh
1 day ago

Almost everyday you can read about some bu*t-munch of a Republican Congressperson whine about the money we are “wasting” on Ukraine. These are the people that mouse-farted over trillions being printed up to spend on nothing, and now carp about a few billion spent trying to help save a soverign nation from being engulfed by pure evil.
I also read on a so-called Christian satire site (Babylon Bee) jokes about the waste of money as its funneled into Ukraine’s corrupt infrastructure. That hurts even worse, because they’ve got a point.
My Ukrainian wife cries almost daily over news from the war. But, as I’ve told her, the thing that will really kill Ukraine is not the population loss, or the destruction of infrastructure, or even a loss of territory. The real dagger to the heart are the traitorous people in powerful positions whose love of personal enrichment trumps love of country.