‘We thieves and killers are now fighting Russia’s war’: how Moscow recruits from its prisons

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Prisoners of penal colony No. 8 in the Tambov region, 300 miles south of Moscow, rushed to the windows of their cell when they heard a helicopter approach in the late afternoon of July.

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“Nobody ever uses a helicopter to land here. We were curious what the big opportunity was,” recalled Ivan, one of the prisoners.

Half an hour later, he and the others were ordered to report to the main square of the prison, where two heavily guarded men were waiting.


“We couldn’t believe our eyes, he would actually come all the way to visit us,” said Ivan, who is halfway through his 23-year sentence for murder and, like the other prisoners interviewed, worries. asked to use a pseudonym for his protection. “But there he stood before us: Prigozin, in the flesh, urging us to join the Wagner private military group and fight in Ukraine.”

Alleged Wagner group fighters charged with killing civilians in Ukraine
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Since the beginning of the summer, reports have surfaced that Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin and the alleged head of the Wagner Group – an allegation he has repeatedly denied – has come from within Russia’s wider penitentiary system in an attempt to compensate. was recruiting soldiers. For the acute shortage of the country’s personnel on the battlefield in Ukraine.

a leak last week Video A man resembling Prigozhin has gone viral on Russian social media. The man was shown telling inmates at another prison 500 miles north of Tambov that he would be freed if he served six months with his group, admitted on camera for the first time. The process was imprisoned.

“When I saw that video, I thought Prigozhin would be in a very busy schedule because he told us the same thing,” Ivan said. “He promised that if we kept fighting for six months, we would be free. But he warned that some people would come back.”

The Guardian spoke to four inmates and three close family members of prisoners in various penal colonies in Russia, who all gave similar details about how Prigozhin was personally recruiting prisons.

Ivan declined the job offer but said that about 120 prisoners signed up and were now fighting in Ukraine after a one-week training course.

She said that if Prigozhin calls again she will join now. “I have 11 more years to spend in prison,” he said. “Either I die in this mess or I die there, it doesn’t matter. At least I will get a chance to fight for my freedom. We all compare it to Russian roulette.

“Also, signing up now is voluntary. Soon we may have no choice and be forced to leave,” he said, expressing a belief echoed by other inmates contacted by the Guardian .

2 in the isolated northern Komi region of Russia, described a similar visit to Prigozhin in mid-July.

Vladimir, who had only three weeks left of his sentence for burglary when Prigozhin arrived, also decided not to sign up, but said that his cousin, who had been behind bars for 15 years, was among the 104 prisoners there. was one of those who had agreed to fight in Ukraine. ,

The Guardian was unable to verify all the details of the prisoners’ accounts, but their stories confirmed earlier reports by Russian investigative outlets. important stories And medusa,

According to Vladimir, the prisoners were shown footage during a visit of Russian soldiers to Ukraine to “fight bravely” and were promised that their actions in the country would not be punished.

“The prisoners will find that they can get there with complete impunity,” said Vladimir, who has since been released from prison. “Prison turns you into a beast, and a lot of hatred is being created in you. Their hands will be open there,” he said.

All the prisoners interviewed said they were promised an amnesty from the president after six months and a salary of 100,000 rubles (£1,400) a month.

Vladimir said that Prigozhin told the group during his visit that they were “recruiting prisoners of all backgrounds, as long as they were healthy,” but warned that alcohol consumption, drug use, looting, and violence in Ukraine were involved. Deportation shall be punishable by execution.

It is difficult to establish the exact number of Russian prisoners admitted. A US official said on Monday that Wagner, who has been charged with war crimes and human rights abuses and other conflicts in Ukraine, was trying to recruit more than 1,500 convicted criminals.

An undated photo published by the Security Service of Ukraine purportedly shows Wagner Group mercenaries at an undisclosed location. Photo: Handout

But the head of the imprisoned Russia, Olga Romanova, believes the number is much higher. According to Romanova estimates, about 11,000 Russian prisoners have already signed up to move to Ukraine, according to her, the number is increasing rapidly.

“The process is accelerating. Only this morning, we received information about the evacuation of 600 prisoners from Nizhny Novgorod.”

Military experts have raised questions about the potential impact of poorly disciplined and badly trained Russian prisoners of war on war. Rob Lee, a military analyst, said Moscow’s latest recruitment push could “plug some holes” in the short term, but will do little to address Russia’s “critical” manpower shortage.

According to Lee, the Kremlin’s reliance on unconventional methods to continue fighting in Ukraine is worrying for Russia. “Russia no longer has a professional army in the traditional sense. It is now composed of a few professional units, mixed with paid short-term contract soldiers, mercenaries and now, apparently, prisoners.

“Armys are effective when there is a clear hierarchy and cohesion,” Lee said. “I can’t even imagine what disciplinary problems the prisoners would bring.”

On Tuesday, the leader of the opposition behind bars, Alexei Navalny himself, tweeted that Russian prisons are full of “big problems with discipline and even bigger problems with alcohol and substances”. He said: “What can such an army achieve even in battle?”

In addition to questions of effectiveness, Romanova stated that the process of recruiting prisoners to fight for a private military organization promising a presidential pardon was “totally illegal on many levels”.

Her group has now focused its attention on helping families prevent prisoners from signing up. “Every prisoner who doesn’t go there is potentially a saved Ukrainian life,” she said.

But for some families, Romanova’s offer of help will come too late. One woman, Irina, said that her husband, who was in prison in Nizhny Novgorod, told her two weeks ago that he was leaving for Ukraine the next day.

“He told me he was doing it for me and our baby. So that we could meet again,” Irina said. “But what is he dead for us? I wish Prigozhin never came.”

Prigozhin’s personal recruitment of prisoners has made the previously shadowy businessman one of Russia’s most visible pro-war figures. Although Wagner forces had previously been deployed in Syria and several African conflicts, its operations were wrapped in secrecy until the invasion of Ukraine brought it out of the shadows.

Despite Prigozhin’s previous denial of any links to Wagner, a spokesperson for his company, Concorde, when asked about the recruitment video, said that the man in the footage “looked and spoke like Mr. Prigozhin”.

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Prigozhin, whose photo now appears on Wagner’s poster, commented on the footage, criticizing those opposing the recruitment of prisoners. “It’s either private military contractors and prisoners” [fighting in Ukraine] Or your children – decide for yourself,” he said on social media.

Prisoners said that Prigozhin was comfortable looking inside the walls of Russia’s notorious prisons. “You can see that he was commanding the honor of the prisoners,” said Mikhail, the third prisoner of the Ivanovo region, whose penal colony Prigozhin came to in August.

“He was not trying to sweet talk us. He said that we were going to enter hell, but this could be our lucky ticket. He said that Prigozhin’s speech made a “great impression” on the prisoners, including 170 fellow prisoners signed up to fight.

Telegram groups linked to Prigozhin now share videos of Wagner soldiers of prisoners encouraging other prisoners to join their ranks.

But not all prisoners going to Ukraine seem ready to fight for Russia. Yuri Butusov, a Ukrainian journalist, published an interview last week with a Russian prisoner recruited to fight in Ukraine and captured by Kyiv, who said he had been given the opportunity by Prigozhin to hand himself over to Ukraine. was used.

“I told myself that when I came, I would do whatever it took to surrender,” said the prisoner, citing his anti-war stance and that he intended to fight for Ukraine against Russia. hopes.

Prisoners’ rights activist Romanova expects recruitment efforts in Russian prisons to accelerate in the coming weeks. In a country that has the world’s fifth-largest prison population per capita, Prigozhin’s helicopter is likely to take off, he said. “They’re covering more ground every day.”

Whatever the eventual impact on the war, the extraordinary footage of Prigozhin recruiting prisoners has been described by observers as one of the defining, grim images of Putin’s presidency.

“The truth is,” said Tambov’s prisoner Ivan, “we, thieves and murderers, are now fighting for Russia.”

Source: www.theguardian.com

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