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Convicts in arms

Russian convicts are now used to fuel the war in Ukraine: the military, the PMCs, and the Kremlin all want to deploy them to the frontlines as cannon fodder

Georgy Aleksandrov, Andrey Karev

Photo: EPA / ANATOLY MALTSEV

On 4 November, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that clears the way to officially draft people with outstanding convictions for most of the grave crimes into the army. The upper house of parliament directly suggested sending criminals to the war. Senators want to allow convicts to fight and secure release by showing courage and bravery.

At the commanders’ initiative, courts will be able to clear their criminal records or make their punishments milder for the remaining sentence time. Novaya Gazeta Europe breaks down why these laws are needed at all when Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s hardline ally and confidant, has been openly recruiting prisoners to join his private military company (PMC).

Limbs are cut off

On 4 November, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that clears the way to officially draft people with outstanding convictions for most of the grave crimes into the army. The upper house of parliament directly suggested sending criminals to the war. Senators want to allow convicts to fight and secure release by showing courage and bravery.

At the commanders’ initiative, courts will be able to clear their criminal records or make their punishments milder for the remaining sentence time. Novaya Gazeta Europe breaks down why these laws are needed at all when Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s hardline ally and confidant, has been openly recruiting prisoners to join his private military company (PMC).

“These bills are mainly aimed at legalising the presence of tens of thousands of convicts who have already been sent to take part in the aggression against Ukraine,” Vladimir Osechkin, founder of the Gulagu.net human rights group, which specialises in defending the rights of Russian inmates, tells Novaya Gazeta Europe.

“And they are trying to do it retroactively. I suppose that the authorities are preparing for a future tribunal and trying to cover themselves up with the law. And, of course, to send tens of thousands of criminals to the war.

The human rights activist describes the process: representatives of illegal armed groups such as PMC Wagner and PMC Redoubt as well as the Defence Ministry’s Storm squadron recruit convicts in high-security prisons.

Those who went through the selection process and successfully passed medical tests are transported to Ukraine’s occupied territories without any documents where they are stationed in violation of Russian and international laws.

“Convicts are used as assault squads,” Osechkin continues. “They are sent off to be slaughtered. It is known that the Russian command and Prigozhin use the rules of World War II when penal battalions were piling on the enemy’s positions with their bodies.”

The convicts are stationed near the conflict zone and are sent to the frontline in small batches to attack and assault defence lines as well as to clear up mines for the regular army’s advance.

Novaya Gazeta Europe got in touch with a convict in Russia’s Kirov region. Grigory (name changed) said that PMC Wagner recruiters also travelled to his prison. Grigory disclosed that he is serving time for a grave crime in a high-security prison. He refused to go to Ukraine because his prison sentence is almost over and he is “not in the mood to die”.

“They came here in September. Everyone was rushed outside. Even those in punitive confinement. We were taken to the yard. A man came out to speak to us, said that he has a Hero of Russia title and started talking to us about Wagner fighters…”

“He said that those who agreed to fight with him would be pardoned. If you agree, you are released and taken for training. You spent three weeks training to fight and then are whisked off to the frontline.”

“You fight for six months and then you are clear before law, your conviction is squashed. Desertion or any other act of insolence, and you are getting shot in the head. Looting, alcohol or drugs, and you are getting shot as well. Essentially, you can be shot for anything, really!”

“Around 200 people agreed. They were choosing those sentenced for serious crimes. All those selected were moved to a separate barrack. In a few days’ time, they boarded a bus and were taken away at night…”

“Everyone [prison management and employees] did not care one bit. What difference does it make to them? The fewer people, the better.”

On the left: convict Budaev sentenced to 19 years in a high-security prison, who currently fights for the Storm squadron. Photo: Gulagu.net

The absurdity of the situation, according to Osechkin, is that the criminals use their own legs to clear up the mines laid by Russian military engineers. They planted them often chaotically, in a rush and under stress, and in most cases, there are no minefield maps. Therefore, convicts are literally sent off to die on the mines laid by Russia.

Osechkin says that PMC Wagner employs an inhumane system of torture and humiliation. Convicts are seriously beaten up and shot dead for offences. They are placed in a “torture container”, while some even had their limbs cut off for not obeying orders.

The human rights activist is certain that some convicted people will prefer to serve in the regular Russian army rather than such an organised criminal gang.

“According to my estimates, between 30,000 and 50,000 convicts will agree to sign a contract with the Defence Ministry,” the Gulagu.net founder tells us. “At the same time, the Federation Council (upper house of parliament — translator’s note) is discussing the idea to take some time off their prison sentences. So, those convicts who survived can be brought back into prisons. This will, of course, complicate the recruitment process.”

If we have a general understanding of PMC Wagner, other organisations who recruit prisoners are less known. The Defence Ministry’s Storm squadron mainly conscripts former law enforcement and security officers sent to prisons. Such convicts serve their time in special facilities, away from other convicted criminals.

As for PMC Redoubt, it operates as a protégé of the Defence Ministry, says Denis Korotkov, an expert at the dossier.center investigative project.

PMC Redoubt was involved in fighting near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and near Kharkiv since the war in Ukraine broke out, the expert claims.

Convicts on the frontlines

“It is not a secret that PMC Wagner fighters have not been able to capture Bakhmut from two sides for five months now,” BBC special correspondent Ilya Barabanov says. “It is not clear why this city should be assaulted at all. The losses there have been huge since July. Convicts themselves say that only 12 people remain in the group that had 150 when they left the prison. According to the information I have, the first wave of criminals who were recruited in early summer is almost all dead. However, it is clear that convicts are a resource that can be disposed of to no end.”

And now, after the laws that legalise the use of convicts at war were passed, all questions from relatives whose convicted son, husband, brother or father gets killed in the war will disappear. It is all approved now, there should not be any complaints.

“I know that PMC convicts are heavily used in assaults to reveal the enemy’s gun positions,” a source from a Russian Defence Ministry unit fighting in the so-called Luhansk people’s republic tells Novaya Gazeta Europe. “As live targets. They drop like flies. But it’s easier to lay artillery guns after that.”

A man who looks like head of Wagner PMC Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen recruiting convicts at a prison in Yoshkar-Ola. Screenshot

“In August, the convicts proved themselves well near Bakhmut. They captured an industrial park in the south of the city and held it until the main PMC forces arrived. Well, they were later kicked out of there. They are trying to retake it now.”

“According to our source, convicts are also used to intimidate draftees who refuse to fight. “They guard the deserters who are detained and tortured.” he claims.

Moreover, our source says that convicts were even used to make up for the losses in the regular army when Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region and the frontline collapsed. And convicted members of PMC Wagner also often imposed their rules in such units and practically harassed other servicemembers, clamping down on any dissent.

“Some were allocated to the army, the Defence Ministry was officially documenting them,” the source says. “Just contract soldiers. Our documents say that they are not convicted or serving prison time. Just soldiers and sergeants. The PMC was dumping junk on us, those who did not complete their physical or psychological stability tests. The Wagner people do run these tests, not like us. They sift through people. Well, at least they try to.

“About a half of the contingent that the “chef” (PMC Wagner founder Prigozhin is sometimes referred to as Putin’s chef — translator’s note) picked in prisons, ended up with us. Our people were also recruiting as well. But those were proper dweebs. We used convicts to reinforce trounced squads, convoy brigades, and military engineering units. They tried to make it so there’s less than 10% of them in a unit’s total number of people.”

A Russian serviceman says that many commanders did not want to accept convicts. Therefore, they were primarily assigned to newly-formed units and draftee battalions.

“Their combat value is different,” the source explains. “There are those who fought in the Second Chechen War, there are even a couple of Afghanistan War veterans, they are over 50 now. Convicts get into incidents. They press draftees, there were fights with rear officers. In these cases, violence jumps out. One cocky convict near Svatove was murdered and his stooges were sent to other units. They don’t really add much of a criminal atmosphere en masse, we have our own criminals with clear biographies. Nobody is going to bring them home really.”

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They can get 200,000 more

“The adopted law that allows drafting people with active convictions says nothing about PMCs. So, they still remain completely illegal, as they were before,” Olga Romanova, Russia Behind Bars NGO head, tells Novaya Gazeta Europe.

“This law was anticipated to complete the formation of the Defence Ministry’s Storm squadron which signs up former employees. Meanwhile, Prigozhin honestly says that it’s better to join his PMC now and get money then wait until you are drafted into the army for free. So, for now, everyone volunteers.”

“As of now, we are told that around 30,000 convicts are recruited from prisons,” Romanova says. “They are trained for two weeks and then sent off to the frontlines, the toughest places, practically untrained and haggard after prison. The losses are enormous. We can see it in those who surrender. They are worn out and have nothing to lose. They don’t get any money in their pockets. They are told stories that some relatives will get something. Meanwhile, the relatives are not even told anything.”

PMCs are now mainly recruiting in Ural and Siberia region prisons. Russia Behind Bars says that Kaliningrad recently began to be targeted as well. Moreover, 1,500 people were recruited from three prisons in the Perm region alone. Overall, PMC employees visited fewer than a half of all prisons in Russia. Romanova believes that potentially they can get 200,000 more convicts across the whole country.

Romanova knows nothing about what happened to the convicts who lost their limbs, were decorated with medals and awarded with alleged notes of pardon by Prigozhin. None of them returned home or to their respective prisons.

It seems like losing a limb is not a reason to stop fighting. Otherwise, the disabled war veterans must have stayed on the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia.

Romanova also deeply doubts the legality of Prigozhin’s pardons.

“Nobody changed the pardon law. It sets out a specific and very complicated procedure which involves civic chambers and other agencies. So, no papers granted by Prigozhin have any legal power. What’s also interesting is where are other injured and shell-shocked people? There must be thousands of those in such vicious fighting.

Romanova suspects that they are either treated locally or finished off in case of grave injuries. Some families were lucky enough to receive bodies of their relatives. They have funerals organised for them and get 5 million rubles (€80,000). But many don’t get anything at all.

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No releases. Everyone’s dead

Olga Romanova mentions one case when relatives of 20 convicts, who were selected to join PMCs, gathered at a prison in Russia and organised a protest rally. As a result, the prison chief personally took these 20 people out of quarantine that all future PMC fighters are mandated to go through.

“We have a lot of appeals from relatives of convicted foreigners who were also recruited by PMCs from Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and others. They are promised to get Russian citizenship in a simplified procedure,” Romanova explains.

“The first wave of contracts should expire on 15 January. However, it feels like there will be no releases and atonements. Everyone’s dead. There’s probably no one left in the first 1,000-people recruitments done in summer. Convicts are fighting all along the frontline. They are the first to attack. Draftees follow them. And then contract soldiers. Experienced Wagner fighters form anti-retreat units for convicts.”

Earlier, Ukrainian bloggers published an interview of a PMC trooper who surrendered. This is what he says: “We were given a uniform, arms but no ammo at a training camp in the Luhansk people’s republic. Only instructors and their aides had ammo. And you must do everything you are told…”

“A convict started arguing with an instructor. Just word diarrhoea. And he was shot dead in the evening… One more was killed on the positions. They were at a training ground 24 hours before that, and there was a conflict with an instructor or an aide. A special unit came and he [convict] was shot… It is dangerous to discuss a possible surrender. If you get reported, you’ll be killed. Shot dead.”

Another defector with six separate convictions, Viktor Osadiev, had an interview with Ukrainian blogger Volodymyr Zolkin where he shed light on the rules of service for recruited convicts:

“Those convicted for robberies, murders, stabbings are very welcome… 102 people left our prison. We thought it’d be easier to escape from here [PMC]. They promised us 100,000 rubles [€1,600] per month and a six-month contract. If you survive, you’ll be fully cleared.

All criminal records are expunged… The contract is one-sheet long. You can only get money after the contract expires. There are no monthly payments… Three of us were shot. One for drugs.”

Zolkin himself says that there are already many PMC fighters among captives, and his colleague and he recorded a few interviews with them. They all dreamt of surrendering.

New Cossackdom

A Novaya Gazeta Europe source in the Russian army says that during his trip to Kherson Sergey Kiriyenko, first deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, was proposing to establish a ‘new Cossackdom’. Former convicts who were maimed or simply had enough of fighting and wanted to retire will not be allowed back into Russia. They will be settled in the Luhansk people’s republic, Donetsk people’s republic, and occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.

“I heard that the Wagner fighters with convictions who fought and had enough would stay in the occupied territories,” Romanova confirms. “But no one ever got in touch.”

Romanova is convinced that only rich convicts secure their release through Prigozhin’s scheme and avoid the war. Prison chiefs get a bribe and only need to sign in a couple of people in the total number of recruits. It’s virtually impossible to check anything in the state of lawlessness that Russia finds itself in now.

“I have no doubt that a lot of [Ramzan] Kadyrov’s men could get out like that,” she claims. “Convicts also say that it can also apply to Boris Nemtsov’s killers.” Translator’s note: Boris Nemtsov was a prominent Russian opposition figure shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin in Moscow in 2015.

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Vladimir Osechkin also mentions released Chechens, convicted in high-profile cases, who went straight to Grozny rather than Donbas.

Gulagu.net published an investigation which takes a look at several schemes for convicts who strive to get free but do not want to fight.

“You can pay and sit out your contract in Luhansk or pay more, die fictitiously, and get new documents,” journalists uncovered. “Commander of a PMC Wagner unit stationed in the Luhansk people’s republic says that convicts get two ways to get out of prison:

“A cheaper one: six months in Luhansk’s bars and brothels and then you are out. No fighting. The first release is in January 2023. The average price is $70,000-100,000. As far as I know, there have been more than 100 such clients in three months.

“There’s another option when a client crosses the republic’s border under the PMC contract and dies officially. He later gets LPR citizenship under the name of a fighter who really died. He then applies for a Russian passport. He then is free to go anywhere without a criminal record, life starts anew. The price starts at $300,000. I don’t know how many clients opted for it, but rumour has it that there is at least a dozen of those, hard-core criminals. I think that Prigozhin is only starting to apply this scheme.”

It seems that convicts who choose the second option are released and move abroad with their new documents.

The investigation also mentions Igor Kusk, leader of an organised crime gang, who allegedly died in the Donetsk people’s republic on 6 September. In 2015, he was sentenced to 23 years behind bars. In July, he was recruited by a PMC to fight in the war. He was buried in a closed coffin. Cause of death: shell fragment in the head. So, it’s impossible now to verify who is in the grave under Kusk’s name without forensic tests. No one will be really surprised if it turns out that the real Kusk is actually alive and is enjoying himself somewhere warm instead of lying in his coffin.

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