A leading expert in Russia’s prison system, Olga Romanova, says the Kremlin’s latest recruitment tactic in the war on Ukraine is something out of her “worst nightmares.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin—the head of Vladimir Putin’s shadowy private army, Wagner Group—has been taking trips to Russian prison camps in order to enlist convicted criminals to fight in Ukraine, according to accounts from military analysts and videos that have emerged on Telegram from Russian prisons.
And according to Romanova, who has dedicated the past 15 years of her life to monitoring Russia’s prison population as the head of the organization Russia Behind Bars, the recruitment campaign is targeting some of Russia’s “worst criminals.”
“Putin’s plan is to recruit at least 50,000 convicts and Prigozhin, who is an ex-convict himself, has already sent more than 3,000” inmates to Ukraine, including “serial murderers, robbers and at least one cannibal,” Romanova told The Daily Beast.
As part of their work, Russia Behind Bars provides legal and charitable aid to Russia’s half a million prison population, and are often in touch with the families of inmates. Romanova told The Daily Beast that they started hearing reports about prison recruits being deployed to Ukraine as early as June. “If in July and August they were brushing through jails in the central part of Russia, yesterday they traveled to the Urals, [which] has more than 35 prison camps and jails.”
On Sept. 3 Romanova’s team said they were horrified to recognize one prisoner they had worked with in a video released by Ukrainian officials of a captured Russian fighter. According to Romanova, he was still wearing some of the undergarments the organization had provided to him as part of an aid package.
Beaten and bloodied with his hands tied, the man was recorded saying there were “ashniks”—free civilian recruits—and “kashniks”—Russian convicts—fighting in Ukraine. “We are not a battalion, we are just a bunch of people. Wagner took us… showed us what to do but you cannot learn in one week,” the inmate, who Ramonova said had been sentenced to nine years in prison before getting sent to fight in Ukraine, said in the video.
An attorney for Russia Behind Bars, Ruslan Vakhapov, said Wagner Group has visited at least three prisons in Russia’s Yaroslavl region. “Originally, Wagner grabbed mostly those convicted for homicide—Criminal Code Article #105—and robbery—Article 162. But now, their fishing net takes everybody in, including man-eaters. So far we know of one case of recruitment among Russian cannibals,” Vakhapov told The Daily Beast.
“The murkiest characters go to Ukraine,” he added. “I just spoke with the wife of a serial killer convicted in Kostroma. He was supposed to spend five more years behind bars, but Wagner had freed him, so the wife was terrified he might [come back] and attack her for filing for divorce.”
Vakhapova and Romanova told The Daily Beast that since late June, Russia Behind Bars has received a flurry of panicked phone calls from convicts in remote prison camps and their relatives to discuss war recruitment. According to them, Prigozhin, who’s known as “Putin’s chef,” has promised convicts freedom after serving six months on the front lines.
“Pretty much all murderers we have on our watch have been recruited and they die like flies in Ukraine. Out of the first 42 convicts recruited in the first group, only three survived, out of the second group of 66 convicts, only six returned, including one who had lost his arm,” Romanova told The Daily Beast.
In Ukraine, Prigozin’s army is often referred to as an “army of orcs and goblins,” a reference to Lord of the Rings.
“By arming these goblins and sending psychos and maniacs to the front, Putin shows the weakness of his army, which has been badly losing,” Anton Naumlyuk, founder of Ukraine’s Graty media group, told The Daily Beast.
Officially, Russian law bans private military campaigns, but Putin regularly decorates private Wagner Group mercenaries for their secret operations in Africa, the Middle East, and Ukraine. Wagner Group conducted its first operations in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in 2015.
“This phenomenon… should be broadly discussed, since it illustrates the core of Russian power,” a Wagner Group veteran, Marat Gabidullin, told The Daily Beast. “Prigozhin has unlimited authority, he can kick a door to any prison colony open. It’s time to look into this phenomenon now, before they start recruiting in orphanages.”