Desperate Times…

It’s not news to report that Vladamir Putin’s drive to recruit 300,000 conscripts to serve on the front lines of his special military operation has failed miserably. Some men who answered the call were returned to their families only days later in coffins. However, because of the increasing levels of protest, Putin has turned to one place where it’s difficult for potential recruits to say “no,” prison.

The Kremlin didn’t turn to ordinary military recruiters to try to get prisoners to be soldiers; they tapped the Wagner Group to get the job done. For those not in the know, the Wagner Group are private military contractors (PMC) fighting for Russia. Government officials have denied ties to the paid fighters, but western intelligence says they have direct ties to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. No one seems to be quite sure how they are funded or by whom.

According to an independent Russian Media outlet, Mediazone, Russia may be emptying its prisons to fill Wagner’s and the army’s ranks,

“In September and October 2022, the number of prisoners in Russian correctional colonies decreased by 23 thousand people. There have never been such sharp jumps since 2010: even the most massive amnesty in recent years released a smaller number of Russians in such a short time.”

Since there have been public releases of Wagner recruiting in prison, some of this is probably true.  It is also true that it’s not hard to get thrown into prison in Russia for minor infractions and the average Russian might be minding his Ps and Qs very carefully about not doing anything to get in trouble with the law.  As we understand it, civilian prisons also receive prisoners from the military who are convicted of crimes.  With so many serving in Ukraine right now, and the critical manpower shortages the Russian army is facing, they may not be charging as many of their own soldiers with crimes committed in uniform.  For many soldiers in the Russian army, a year in prison probably looks much better than a year of fighting in Ukraine.

Many interesting euphemisms are used when communicating about recruiting prisoners to fight for the PMC. For example, Wagner Group recruiters are referred to as “musicians,” and they are trying to get prisoners to “join the band.” This is because the Wagner Group is said to be named after Richard Wagner the 18th-century composer.


Russian billionaire Yevgeniy Prigozhin appears in this screenshot, supposedly trying to get Russian convicts to fight with the Wagner group. Screenshot from YouTube and UATV English.

The image above allegedly shows Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian billionaire and owner of Concord catering company (maybe that is why he is nicknamed “Putin’s chef”), speaking with Russian prisoners about why they should join the Wagner group. Many believe that Prigozhin is the man and the money behind the private military contractor (PMC). In the video, he says, “The war is hard. This is not like any Chechen war. The first sin is desertion. No one gives back, no one surrenders.”

This video from UATV English begins with a “shout out” from former prisoners who have joined the Wagner group and are now fighting in Ukraine. They say, “We are fine. Join us; we will fight together.” Courtesy of YouTube and UATV English

In a recorded video message shared on multiple Russian Telegram channels, a man, supposedly Prigozhin, addresses prisoners again. He is ironically standing under a poster that reads, “Choose Life.” Prigozhin says,

“After six months [at war], you receive a pardon, and there is no option for you to return to prison; those who arrive [at the front line] and say on Day 1 it’s not for them get shot.” 

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You’ve got to admire his directness, if nothing else; absolutely no bitching or whining will be tolerated.

This is Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a close comrade of Putin and purported mastermind and leader of the Wagner Group. This is the look of a man who has taken lives. Screenshot from an image taken by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

According to the New York Times (NYT), UN investigators and noted civil rights groups have observed the Wagner Group at work in Libya, Syria, and even the Central African Republic. They have been known to conduct mass executions, target civilians for torture, and loot private homes. In Ukraine, when Russia made progress and the Wagner Group was involved, they demanded top billing, as if they were the only ones responsible for military success.

Russia Behind Bars

Meet Olga Romanova, founder of Russia Behind Bars says the Russian justice system is rife with corruption. He discusses how her organization has a saying,

“One-third of inmates are  serving time for the wrong reason, one-third for no reason at all, and only one-third for the crimes they really did commit.” 

Olga Romanova, founder of Russia Behind Bars and an advocate for Russian Prisoner’s rights. Screenshot from YouTube and DW News.

In an interview with NYT, Romanova talks about how the rumor mill says military recruitment in Russian prisons is not voluntary. She begs to differ. “We have been monitoring the recruitment situation in penal colonies since the beginning of the war. Volunteers abound. Inmates are lining up to go to war. Their friends and relatives write: ‘Where do I apply for him to get recruited sooner?'”

She gets many letters from the families of prisoners, and most are after money. “Will they really be paid?” they ask. “When is payday? Why haven’t they sent the contract? How much will I get if he is wounded?” Questions of that nature.

Many inmates’ wives write directly to Romanova, trying to get their convict husbands back to prison because they realize it is safer there. Some ask her to try to repatriate their bodies if they have been killed in combat. She’ll offer brief condolences and then let her real feelings be known without mincing words. She’ll tell them the repatriating bodies from a war zone is outside her domain, then she’ll say,

“Your husband was a war criminal. He volunteered to take up arms against a neighboring country that did not attack us.”

That may sound a bit harsh, but it is true. Even though they have been recruited, they have volunteered for duty, are being paid, and have signed contracts. They have signed up for an illegal war, and many end up paying with their lives.