The paramilitary outfit, founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has claimed credit for Russia’s only battlefield gains since summer 2022.But a rift is growing in its relationship with the Kremlin. An insider tells Newsweek Russia’s defense ministry is taking over Wagner’s role in recruiting from prisons.So, will Vladimir Putin eventually entirely snub the Wagner Group and the man who has “made too many mistakes” in Ukraine?Not long ago, the Wagner Group, founded by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, was viewed by the Kremlin as a key instrument in the war in Ukraine started by Vladimir Putin.
Its fighters, largely Russian convicts, have been the only soldiers to have achieved any notable successes on the battlefield in recent months.
Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 2, 2023. Tensions have been rising between Prigozhin and the Kremlin in recent months.
In January, Prigozhin claimed credit for the capture of Soledar, a small salt-mining town in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region. The Wagner Group, however, has failed to make significant advances in the nearby eastern industrial city of Bakhmut, where it has focused its efforts for half a year.
Beginning in the summer of 2022, Prigozhin is believed to have recruited as many as 50,000 prisoners from Russia’s extensive penitentiary system for Putin’s war, luring them in with pardons from the Kremlin and cash incentives in exchange for six months of service in Ukraine.
But now, his pool of convicts for the war is drying up, as many learn of the high fatality rate among recruited prisoners. Olga Romanova, the head of Russia Behind Bars, a charity advocating prisoners’ rights, said in late January that out of the 50,000 convicts recruited, 40,000 are either dead or missing, and only 10,000 are still fighting in Ukraine.
Recent reports suggest the Wagner Group has been employing more predatory practices to gather convicts, threatening prisoners with new criminal cases and solitary confinement should they refuse to join.
And in a surprise announcement on Thursday, Prigozhin claimed that the paramilitary outfit is no longer recruiting Russian prisoners for the war.
“The recruitment of prisoners by the Wagner private military company has completely stopped,” Prigozhin said on the Telegram account of the company Concord, which he owns. “We are fulfilling all our obligations to those who work for us now.”
Former Russian commander Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, also known as Igor Girkin, quickly responded to that statement, suggesting that the Wagner Group’s days in Ukraine are numbered, and that the order to terminate prisoner recruitment came from the Kremlin itself.
“I believe that the termination of the recruitment was caused by an ‘order from above’. And (after some time) it will seriously affect Wagner’s ability to successfully assault one position after another head-on, as is happening now near Bakhmut,” he said in a statement on his Telegram channel.
Girkin and Prigozhin have had public spats recently as the Wagner Group has failed to make significant advances in eastern Ukraine.
Russian Defense Ministry Recruiting ConvictsPrigozhin’s statement on Thursday came amid recent reports that Russia’s defense ministry is recruiting prisoners.
Romanova told Newsweek that Prigozhin stopped hiring in Russian prisons on February 1, and that representatives of the defense ministry have been recruiting convicts in at least two penal colonies in Russia’s Volgograd and Kemerovo regions.
According to Romanova, who fled to Berlin from Russia in 2017, employees of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, who are compiling lists of potential recruits, say it is now the defense ministry, not the Wagner Group, that is hiring prisoners for the war.
Romanova said the defense ministry has been recruiting prisoners for a long time, but very selectively. It has recently become more active in this recruitment, however, and “we are seeing the dispatch of prisoners from the Ministry of Defense every day,” she explained.
“So far, the number of people recruited by the Ministry of Defense is small, about 500 people. They offer exactly the same conditions that Wagner offered. Except for one thing: the Ministry of Defense emphasizes that there will be no extrajudicial executions,” Romanova said.
The Wagner Group made headlines in November after the execution of Yevgeny Nuzhin, 55, a former Russian convict who was recruited in July and captured by Ukrainian forces in September.
Vladimir Osechkin, a Russian human rights activist and the head of the Gulagu.net anti-corruption project, a prisoners’ rights group, previously told Newsweek that executions and torture are common practices within the Wagner Group, and that many have been killed for refusing to participate in the war.
The Wagner Group’s “extrajudicial executions greatly frightened the prisoners,” Romanova said.
“If the MoD takes over that source of manpower, Wagner’s size and capabilities will be reduced. One way for the MoD to reassert itself and minimize Wagner’s role,” Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Research Policy Institute, tweeted on Thursday.
Is Wagner Hiring Ukrainian Prisoners?Osechkin, who is currently in exile in France, has interviewed former members of the Wagner Group and is believed to have a vast network of informants inside Russia’s prison system.
A whistleblower at Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), dubbed the Wind of Change, has regularly written dispatches to Osechkin, revealing anger and discontent inside the FSB over the Ukraine war.
A recent letter, dated February 4, was translated by Igor Sushko, the executive director of the Wind of Change Research Group, a Washington-based non-profit organization. He told Newsweek the letter reveals that the Wagner Group may be “shifting its focus” to recruiting Ukrainian prisoners in the country’s occupied regions.
Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin signed a decree on January 24 instructing the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service to set up 24 new penal colonies in the four partially occupied regions of Ukraine that were illegally annexed by Putin in September—the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
The letter claims that 23-year-old Russian powerlifter and Kremlin propagandist Maryana Naumova is being trained to work for the Wagner Group to recruit prisoners for the war, as Prigozhin “is objectively exhausted.”
“We have orders in the apparatus of the Ministry of Justice of the DNR [Donetsk] to prepare Naumova’s visit to a number of prisons together with representatives of the Wagner PMC, in particular to prisons in Gorlovskaya and Donetsk,” the letter states.
Rising TensionsTensions have been rising between Prigozhin and the Kremlin as his political ambitions have grown, and as he has become increasingly disgruntled with Putin’s perceived failures in Ukraine.
According to U.S.-based think tank the Institute of War, Wagner Group members are likely being replaced by conventional troops in Bakhmut as the paramilitary outfit fails to make significant advances in the region.
And last month, Putin appeared to snub Prigozhin by not visibly meeting him while on a working trip with St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, who has been described as “one of Prigozhin’s overt enemies.”
Joana de Deus Pereira, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, previously told Newsweek that at the beginning of the war the Wagner Group was initially seen as a “very useful tool” and as “an instrument of war.”
“Now, Prigozhin has become much more dangerous in terms of the political persona he wants to be,” she said, adding that the Wagner Group is now losing its power “because the Kremlin wants also to show that they are the ones in charge.”