A leading expert on Russia’s prison system, Olga Romanova, says the Kremlin’s latest recruiting tactic in the war against Ukraine is something from her “worst nightmares.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin – the head of Vladimir Putin’s shadowy private army, the Wagner Group – has made trips to Russian prison camps to recruit convicted criminals to fight in Ukraine, according to reports by military analysts and videos that have appeared on Telegram from Russian prisons.
And according to Romanova, who has devoted the past 15 years of her life to monitoring Russia’s prison population as head of the Russia Behind Bars organization, the recruiting campaign is targeting some of Russia’s “worst criminals.”
“Putin plans to recruit at least 50,000 convicts and Prigozhin, who is himself an ex-con, has already sent more than 3,000” prisoners to Ukraine, including “serial killers, robbers and at least one cannibal,” Romanova told The Daily Beast. .
As part of their work, Russia Behind Bars provides legal and charitable assistance to Russia’s half-million prison populations, and often interacts with the families of inmates. Romanova told The Daily Beast that as early as June they started hearing reports of prison recruits being sent to Ukraine. “Riding through prisons in the central part of Russia in July and August, they traveled to the Urals yesterday, [which] has more than 35 prison camps and prisons.”
On September 3, Romanova’s team said they were shocked to recognize a 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 that the organization had provided him as part of an aid package.
Beaten and bloodied with his hands tied, the man was picked up and said there were “ashniks” – free civilian recruits – and “kashniks” – Russian convicts – fighting in Ukraine. “We’re not a battalion, we’re just a bunch of people. Wagner took us… showed us what to do, but you can’t learn it in a week,” said the prisoner, who Ramonova said was sentenced to nine years in prison before being sent to Ukraine to fight in the video.
A lawyer for Russia Behind Bars, Ruslan Vakhapov, said the Wagner Group has visited at least three prisons in Russia’s Yaroslavl region. “Originally, Wagner mainly grabbed those convicted of manslaughter – Penal Code Article #105 – and theft – Article 162. But now their fishing net takes everyone, including man-eaters. So far, we know of one case of recruitment among Russian cannibals,” Vakhapov told The Daily Beast.
“It’s time to investigate this phenomenon now, before recruiting in orphanages.”
“The darkest characters go to Ukraine,” he added. “I just spoke to the wife of a serial killer who was convicted in Kostroma. He was supposed to spend another five years behind bars, but Wagner had released him, so the woman was terrified that he [come back] and attack her because she filed for divorce.”
Vakhapova and Romanova told The Daily Beast that since late June, Russia Behind Bars has received a torrent of panicked calls from convicts in remote prison camps and their relatives discussing war recruitment. According to them, Prigozhin, known as ‘Putin’s chief’, has promised freedom to the convicts after serving on the front lines for six months.
“Virtually all the killers we have have been recruited and they are dying like flies in Ukraine. Of the first 42 convicts recruited into the first group, only three survived, 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 is showing the weakness of his army, which is losing heavily,” Anton Naumlyuk, founder of Ukrainian media group Graty, told The Daily Beast.
Officially, Russian law prohibits private military campaigns, but Putin regularly seduces private mercenaries from the Wagner Group for their covert 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 … needs to be discussed widely, as it illustrates the core of Russian power,” a veteran of the Wagner Group, Marat Gabidullin, told The Daily Beast. “Prigozhin has unlimited authority, he can kick open a door to any prison colony. It is time to investigate this phenomenon now, before they start recruiting in orphanages.”