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Russian convicts offered freedom if they join war in Ukraine
War

Russian convicts offered freedom if they join war in Ukraine

2 min. 15.09.2022
Deserting and surrender are punishable by death, the recruiter who looks like Yevgeny Prigozhin says in his pitch for Wagner Group
 Ukrainian artillerymen fire a self-propelled 203mm cannon '2s7 Pion' at Russian troops position on the southern frontline of Ukraine on September 14, 2022.
Ukrainian artillerymen fire a self-propelled 203mm cannon '2s7 Pion' at Russian troops position on the southern frontline of Ukraine on September 14, 2022.
Photo credit: AFP

Surrounded by inmates in what appears to be a Russian prison yard, a man who bears a “frightful resemblance” to a sanctioned businessman linked to Russia’s most infamous mercenary group offers an early release for those who survive a six-month stint fighting at the front in Ukraine.

Deserting and surrender are punishable by death, the recruiter who looks like Yevgeny Prigozhin says in his pitch for Wagner Group, a private army the US says the businessman controls. The man is seen speaking in a video released this week by opposition activist Ivan Zhdanov, who said it was sent to his group from a prison, without giving more detail. 

“The person on the video bears a frightful resemblance to Yevgeny Viktorovich,” the press office of Prigozhin’s Concord Group catering company said in a sarcastic post on Russian social media that refers to his patronymic. “The person on the video speaks very well, just like Yevgeny Viktorovich does. And the person who looks like Yevgeny Viktorovich is explaining understandable things in very approachable terms to ordinary folks.”

For months, reports have circulated that Russia was turning to prisoners to shore up its overstretched army in Ukraine. This undated video, which couldn’t be independently confirmed, shows the Wagner military contractor recruiting at a government facility. 

It comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to resort to the politically unpopular step of mass mobilization, even as his forces face a shortage of manpower that was partially to blame for recent setbacks in the war. 

Instead, he is turning to mercenaries and financial incentives for army recruits, many who come from Russia’s poorest regions, to replace soldiers more than half a year into a fight the military initially assumed would be a quick conquest completed in days.

Prigozhin, nicknamed Putin’s “chef” due to his Kremlin catering contracts, is sanctioned for alleged human-rights violations by his mercenaries and meddling in US elections. He has previously denied any connection to Wagner, and the Kremlin says it doesn’t have links to the group. 

Yet Wagner’s role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been highlighted on state television. The role of prisoners on the front has also gotten press. Oscar-winning Russian film maker Nikita Mikhalkov, a nationalist who hosts a weekly show on a state-run news network, in August profiled a convict who died in Ukraine’s Donbas region after being granted an early release to serve. 

Prigozhin is sanctioned by the US, the UK and the European Union, and Wagner has been accused by the United Nations of grave human rights violations in the Central African Republic. Regimes including Libya, Mali and Sudan have sought its mercenaries to prop up their governments, according to the US, and Wagner has also fought in Syria’s civil war in support of its Kremlin-backed president, Bashar al-Assad. 

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.


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