A leading expert on Russia’s prison system, Olga Romanova, says the Kremlin’s latest recruitment tactic in the war against Ukraine is something out of her “worst nightmares.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Vladimir Putin’s shadowy private army, the Wagner Group, has been making trips to Russian prison camps to recruit convicted criminals to fight in Ukraine, according to accounts by military analysts and videos that have surfaced on Telegram from Russian prisons. .
And according to Romanova, who has spent the last 15 years of her life monitoring Russia’s prison population as head of the organization Russia Behind Bars, the recruitment drive is targeting some of Russia’s “worst criminals.”
“Putin’s plan is to recruit at least 50,000 convicts and Prigozhin, who is an ex-convict, has already sent more than 3,000” inmates to Ukraine, including “serial killers, thieves and at least one cannibal,” Romanova told The DailyBeast. .
As part of its work, Russia Behind Bars provides legal and charitable help to half a million prisoners in Russia and is often in contact with the families of prisoners. Romanova told The Daily Beast that they began hearing reports of recruits being deployed from prisons in Ukraine in early June. “If in July and August they were bordering on prisons in the central part of Russia, yesterday they traveled to the Urals, [which] it has more than 35 prison camps and jails.”
On September 3, Romanova’s team said they were horrified to recognize a prisoner they had worked with in a video released by Ukrainian officials of a captured Russian fighter. According to Romanova, he was still wearing some of the underwear the organization had provided as part of an aid package.
Beaten and bloodied with his hands tied, the man was recorded saying there were “ashniks” (free civilian conscripts) and “kashniks” (Russian convicts) fighting in Ukraine. “We are not a battalion, we are just a group of people. Wagner took us… showed us what to do, but you can’t learn in a week,” the inmate, who said Ramonova had been sentenced to nine years in prison before being sent to fight in Ukraine, said in the video.
A Russia Behind Bars lawyer, Ruslan Vakhapov, said the Wagner Group has visited at least three prisons in Russia’s Yaroslavl region. “Originally, Wagner mainly caught those convicted of homicide (article 105 of the Penal Code) and robbery (article 162). But now, his fishing net catches everyone, including the man-eaters. So far we know of one case of recruitment among Russian cannibals,” Vakhapov told The Daily Beast.
“It’s time to investigate this phenomenon now, before they start recruiting from orphanages.”
“The shady characters go to Ukraine,” he added. “I just spoke with the wife of a convicted serial killer in Kostroma. He was supposed to spend five more years behind bars, but Wagner had released him, so her wife was terrified that she might [come back] and attacking her for filing for divorce.
Vakhapova and Romanova The Daily Beast that since the end of June, Russia Behind Bars has received a flurry of panicked phone calls from convicts in remote prison camps and their relatives discussing the war draft. According to them, Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef”, promised the convicts freedom after spending six months at the front.
“Almost all the assassins we have in our charge have been recruited and are dying like flies in the Ukraine. Of the first 42 convicts recruited in the first group, only three survived, of the second group of 66 convicts, only six returned, including one who had lost his arm,” Romanova told The Daily Beast.
In Ukraine, Prigozin’s army is often referred to as an “army of orcs and goblins”, a reference to Lord of the Rings.
“By arming these goblins and sending psychopaths and maniacs to the front lines, Putin is showing the weakness of his army, which has been losing a lot,” Anton Naumlyuk, founder of Ukraine’s Graty media group, told The Daily Beast.
Officially, Russian law prohibits private military campaigns, but Putin regularly decorates private Wagner Group mercenaries for their secret operations in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine. The Wagner Group carried out its first operations in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in 2015.
“This phenomenon… should be widely discussed as it illustrates the core of Russian power,” Wagner Group veteran Marat Gabidullin told The Daily Beast. “Prigozhin has unlimited authority, he can kick the door of any open prison colony. It’s time to investigate this phenomenon now, before they start recruiting from orphanages.”