There have been reports of this for some time, but now a video has also appeared. Supporters of the jailed Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny and some Telegram channels on Wednesday circulated a cell phone footage allegedly taken in a penal colony.
On it, a man advertises for use in the Russian Ukraine war. He is bald and wears military fatigues in olive drab. On his uniform jacket are two medals that bear great resemblance to the “Hero of the Russian Federation”, the highest honor that can be awarded in Russia.
The man in the video bears a close resemblance to the notorious businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is said to have close ties to the Kremlin and is reported by the media to maintain Russia’s most famous private army – the “Wagner Group”. She is said to be fighting in Ukraine and Prigozhin received this highest military honor as “Hero of Russia”.
In the video, the man promises the assembled prisoners money and freedom in exchange for six months of military service as part of the Wagner group. According to Prigozhin, the Ukraine war is “tough” and “only needs combat soldiers”. Russian media critical of the Kremlin assess the video as authentic. The statements are not surprising.
Reports that Russia is recruiting prisoners for the Ukraine war have been around for months. “Prigozhin goes to great lengths and personally visits penal colonies,” Olga Romanova, head of the human rights organization Russia behind bars, told DW in August.
According to Romanova, the first fight involving Russian prisoners took place near Luhansk in mid-July. According to their estimates, Prigozhin was able to recruit at least 2,500 prisoners for the war by the beginning of August. According to her, it could be significantly more – up to 60,000, according to Romanowa. That would be every tenth prisoner in Russia.
After Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region, calls for general mobilization have grown louder in Russia. Nationalist bloggers in particular are calling for this measure on social networks. However, the Kremlin is still not talking about a war, sticking to its narrative of a “special operation” in Ukraine.
Therefore, new fighters are sought not only by the Ministry of Defense, but also in a roundabout way. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov proposed decentralized “self-mobilization” on Thursday. Each Russian region can equip and train “at least a thousand volunteer fighters.” The state would then have a force of 85,000 men – “almost an army,” Kadyrov wrote on Telegram.
A representative of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense named a similar number – 90,000 – as a target for a Russian mobilization in a television interview at the end of August. So far, according to Kiev estimates, Russia has sent around 160,000 soldiers into the Ukraine war.
Recruitment of volunteers takes place in various ways, including in the occupied Ukrainian territories. In Russia itself there are more than 40 such regional units, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported in August. The regular army is also being expanded. President Putin ordered at the end of August that the Russian armed forces be increased by more than 130,000 men.
The decree will come into effect on January 1, 2023, but new fighters are urgently needed given the losses at the front. According to current Ukrainian information, more than 50,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the Russian war of aggression in February. US military estimated Russian losses at around 20,000 dead in early August.
Against this background, the prisoners are to be deployed at the forefront. “They are sent into battle first and are very poorly trained,” says Olga Romanova.
The recruits are said to include serious criminals, but also people like Ruslan, a petty criminal in his early 20s. His cousin Svetlana (both names have been changed by the editor) told a DW correspondent that Ruslan’s crime was not serious and that he would get his sentence in about one year would have served. At first he rejected the idea of going to war in Ukraine, says Svetlana.
But at the beginning of July there was a recruitment in prison, around 70 men reported. Among them also Ruslan. She then complained to the public prosecutor’s office – to no avail. In August, her cousin called her from Ukraine and asked her to urgently “get him out”. Svetlana wants to try.
Despite this, many prisoners are willing to go to war, says Olga Romanowa. According to the human rights activist, the background is the lack of prospects: “For the prisoners, it is often the only way to start a new life – by taking the life of others.”
Author: Roman Goncharenko, Sergey Satanovskiy
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The original of this article “Frontline action instead of imprisonment” comes from Deutsche Welle.