Over 100,000 Russian convicts recruited for war in Ukraine

Written by Jeppe W

Dec.05 - 2023 2:54 PM CET

Photo: Shutterstock.com
Photo: Shutterstock.com

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Russia has reportedly recruited over 100,000 convicts from penal colonies to fight in the Ukraine war since February 2022, as per a Newsweek report.

This staggering figure sheds light on what critics describe as President Vladimir Putin's predatory recruitment methods.

The information was provided by Russian dissident-in-exile Vladimir Osechkin, head of the Gulagu.net anti-corruption project and a prisoners' rights group.

Osechkin, believed to have a vast network of informants within Russia's prison system, shared with Newsweek a list of some recruited prisoners and images from security footage within a prison. His figures were corroborated by another group advocating for prisoners' rights in Russia.

This extensive recruitment underscores the acute manpower shortages faced by the Kremlin, experts say. It also indicates Putin's preference for using "disposable" personnel, especially convicts, over mobilizing the young, urban population, to avoid potential political repercussions.

The recruited prisoners include individuals convicted of severe crimes, including murderers and a Satanist convicted of killing four teenagers.

The recruitment began with the Wagner Group, a now-dissolved mercenary unit, in the summer of 2022. However, the Kremlin took over this source of manpower earlier this year.

Olga Romanova, head of Russia Behind Bars, told Newsweek that the Defense Ministry had been recruiting convicts in at least two penal colonies in Russia.

According to Osechkin, the Wagner Group recruited over 49,500 prisoners nationwide in 2022, and in 2023, the Russian Defense Ministry hired more than 52,000 convicts to fight in Ukraine. He also noted that every week more than 1,000 of these prisoners are killed in the war.

The recruitment practices have faced significant backlash. Notably, Putin pardoned Vladislav Kanyus, convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, for fighting in Ukraine.

This action prompted Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, to comment that such individuals "atone with blood for crimes on the battlefield."

Agentstvo, a Russian investigative site, reported that at least 17 high-profile murderers were issued pardons to fight in Ukraine in 2022 and 2023. Some have reportedly committed crimes again upon their return to Russia.

This large-scale recruitment of prisoners for the war effort is seen by some experts as a sign of Putin's view of his people as dispensable in his imperial pursuits.

The use of convicts in warfare is also indicative of a military strategy that has little regard for casualties, relying on Russia's large population.