To war or to prison?

Many Russian armed groups accept anyone as “cannon fodder” for Ukraine War, including convicts and severely ill. We tried to become volunteer fighters

Novaya Gazeta Europe

E.N.O.T. CORP and theRusich unit during military training. Photo: enotcorp.org

“Hidden war mobilisation” is in full force in Russia: dozens of entities, including private war companies and volunteer battalions, are recruiting new members by promising a generous salary or, in case of a less desirable outcome, a “casket” payout that will go to the family. The ad campaign has reached federal levels: for example, the Wagner Group places billboards in big cities, urging people to become its new recruits, while the company’s paid advertisements put on the Vkontakte website (the biggest Russian social mediatranslator’s note) have been viewed 13.5 million times.

Novaya Gazeta. Europe has counted 48 regional battalions, each with a unique name, and 11 other groups that are openly recruiting volunteer fighters and are competing among each other for the “manpower”. Our correspondents responded to the advertisements and found out who and how recruits “mercenaries”, who controls the volunteer battalions, and what training is provided for soldiers before they are sent to the frontlines. 

Alexander (name changed) has spent a third of his life behind bars — charged with serious and extremely grave crimes. However this time, a few months after being set free, he became a member of the volunteer battalion Akhmat and ended up in the outskirts of the city Rubizhne, Ukraine’s Luhansk region, being fired at by Ukraine’s Armed Forces. His “assignment” fell on March and April — at that time, one of the bloodiest fights of the war was happening near Sievierodonetsk.

Alexander near Sievierodonetsk

“A person from the Federal Security Service told me about the recruitment for volunteer fighters. I’ve known him since childhood. At some point, we drifted apart, but after I had got out of prison, he sent me the link and was like, look, these people are recruiting volunteers,” Alexander says.

Alexander was put on administrative supervision after prison. It is a system of strict control over ex-convicts. People can be prohibited from leaving their home at night, going outside of their region, or visiting public events. Furthermore, they have to constantly appear at a police station, while policemen can legally put them under surveillance. According to Alexander, because of this supervision, he could not find work or provide for his elderly mother, which is why he decided to go to the town of Gudermes, Chechnya — according to rumours, it was there that one could solve their legal problems in exchange for participating in the war.

A base of the Russian Special Forces University is located in Gudermes; volunteers of the Akhmat regiment are trained there for the war in Ukraine. If a recruit has previously served, then the express-training takes 1-3 days. In case of no experience, recruits are trained from seven to ten days. Requirements for candidates are minimal: age from 20 to 29 and physical training that would allow a recruit to withstand daily forced marches of four miles, while wearing a load bearing vest.

“My main reason [for going to war] was to get rid of the administrative supervision, so I could eventually live in this country peacefully. I was put in an unbearable situation: I couldn’t leave my house at night, they were always trying to detain me “for twenty four hours”, and it was impossible for me to work,” Alexander explains. The Akhmat regiment management assured him that “any problem one has with the government is solvable” — apparently, the Chechen authorities can “erase” somebody’s criminal history upon agreement with law enforcement of other regions.

Our interlocutor spent ten days in Gudermes. At “university” (a private organisation connected to the Foundation named after Akhmad Kadyrov), the recruits get taught how to hold and load rifles, practice shooting positions and urgent changing of the magazine, and are introduced to tactical medicine and cartography. At the same time, the recruits are tested on their “aggressiveness”.

“They measured our aggressiveness in a practical way — inspected the person, how they behaved in a collective, and their reaction to being provoked. If somebody weren’t a fit for war, then they would just send that man home,” Alexander says. Rookies’ state of health was not of much interest to recruiters — our interlocutor was selected even with diagnosed hepatitis C; there was a recruit with epilepsy in his training unit. However, he was “verbally humiliated” and then sent home during the training stage, Alexander adds.

“Graduates” from Gudermes were people with different life stories: there were associates of the Wagner Group, OMON (Russia’s Special Purpose Mobile Unit —translator’s note) members, ex-convicts. Every third volunteer was an ex-convict, some with their criminal records “hanging over them” and some with them erased.

Alexander before the departure for Ukraine. His training took ten days. 

“Ten days later, we were taken to Sievierodonetsk by plane, we passed through DPR. We were given 300,000 rubles (€4,783) each. They gave us camouflage uniforms. If you wanted normal combat boots and bulletproof vests, you had to buy them yourself. Some decided not to spend their money, they later took these things off the bodies of dead Ukrainians, after we had captured their positions.”

“We also had a communication problem — we were given cheap walkie-talkies from AliExpress,” Alexander shares.

This is how much starting mercenaries and volunteers have to pay for their gear*

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