The Russian private paramilitary outfit, the Wagner Group, is reportedly employing increasingly predatory recruitment practices in Russia’s prisons as its founder and chief financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, faces difficulties in finding new hires.
The Wagner Group, founded in 2014, has openly been recruiting soldiers from Russia’s extensive penitentiary system for President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Prigozhin, who has himself served years behind bars, was filmed in September 2022 recruiting soldiers from Russian prisons amid reports that the country was facing personnel shortages in Ukraine.
The Russian businessman has for months been spearheading a recruitment drive, offering male prisoners commuted sentences and cash incentives in return for six months of military service in Ukraine. Putin has even secretly pardoned convicts recruited to fight in Ukraine.
In this combination image, an officer of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service stands by the gate of the penal colony in the settlement of Novoye Grishino outside the town of Dmitrov in Moscow and a file photo of Yevgeny Prigozhin (inset).
Now, as reports and data indicate that Prigozhin is struggling to draw in new recruits, Russian prisoners are effectively being forced to join the Wagner Group. Convicts are being threatened with new criminal cases should they refuse, independent Russian news outlet Agentstvo reported on Wednesday.
Lawyer Yana Gelmel told the news outlet that Russian prisoners in colonies located in the Samara and Rostov regions, the Krasnodar Territory, and the regions of the North Caucasus, are being pressured to join the once-shadowy paramilitary unit.
“The operatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the FSB arrive [to these prisons], promise to bring up [cases] that are 10-20 years old, for which the statute of limitations has already passed, [and] they scare that they will initiate cases against those who refuse to go to war,” Gelmel said.
According to Agentstvo, she learned of the new recruitment practice from several of her sources in the penitentiary system across various Russian regions.
“They threaten to initiate cases against those who refuse to go to war,” she said.
Gelmel noted that now, far fewer convicts are voluntarily agreeing to join the Wagner Group compared to the summer and autumn months of 2022 because convicts are learning about the high fatality rate in the war.
The news outlet cited Oksana Asaulenko, a human rights activist and the mother of a prisoner held in Russia’s Perm Territory whose sentence is ending soon. She reportedly told the news outlet that her son was being threatened to join the Wagner Group.
The developments come as Prigozhin’s recruitment drive in Russian prisons appears to be faltering.
The decline in Russia’s inmate population between November 2022 and January 2023 (about 6,000 people) remained largely on trend with previous years, independent Russian news outlet Mediazona reported on January 31, citing statistics from the Federal Penitentiary Service (FPS).
In November 2022, the FPS reported that the male prison population in Russia had decreased by 23,000 in two months against the backdrop of Prigozhin’s ramped-up recruitment drive.
In December, David Whelan, the brother of Paul Whelan, the ex-U.S. Marine jailed in Russia, said he learned that the Wagner Group has been unsuccessfully attempting to recruit more convicts for the war.
“Everyone else has a clear picture of what happens to prisoners who go to fight the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine,” he said in a statement. David Whelan noted that in a previous round of recruitment, the group managed to hire 115 men, but more recently, only eight volunteered.
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 by the Wagner Group, 40,000 are either dead or missing, and only 10,000 are still fighting in Ukraine.
Newsweek contacted Russia’s foreign ministry for comment.