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‘Less charismatic than Prigozhin’ Wagner Group recruiters seek new fighters, but Russian prisoners are no longer interested
Story by Mediazona’s Anna Pavlova. Abridged English-language version by Sam Breazeale.
It’s a well-known story by now: during the summer of 2022, representatives from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, including the outfit’s founder, Evgeny Prigozhin, began traveling to prisons around the country to try to persuade convicts to fight in Ukraine in exchange for freedom and money. Tens of thousands of prisoners took the deal, and most of them didn’t survive to enjoy their post-combat glory. What’s less well-known is that late last year, according to the independent Russian outlet Mediazona, Wagner recruiters began traveling the prison circuit again — and this time, thanks to the “inmate grapevine,” they’ve had much less success. In response, Prigozhin’s other private army — his network of pro-Kremlin media outlets — have launched a PR campaign in a bid to put the focus back on Wagner’s “success stories.” Meduza summarizes Mediazona’s report on the challenges facing Wagner Group.
“The first time, [Wagner recruiters] came in early October. [The convicts they recruited] left on October 23 — more than 300 people. The second time they came was in late December, and the second group of recruits left on January 6, but this time it was only about 20 people,” a prisoner in the Urals told Mediazona.
According to the source, Wagner Group’s first recruiting trip to his prison was headed by Evgeny Prigozhin himself, who arrived by helicopter. For that first visit, he said, all of the prisoners were assembled on the prison’s parade ground to hear Prigozhin speak, and even the head of the Federal Prison Service’s regional office made an appearance.
“[Prigozhin] said that the Russian army had shat the bed, that they’d all lost, and that they were worthless. And that Putin had put his hope in us to win the war,” the prisoner told Mediazona. The catering tycoon, he said, described the ideal Wagner Group candidate as a convict who has “10 years ahead of him and 10 years behind him” and assured the prisoners that only 15 percent of fighters are killed on the battlefield.
In December, Wagner Group returned to the prison. This time, the source said, prisoners were allowed to choose for themselves whether to attend the recruitment meeting, and the recruiter who addressed the men was “less charismatic than Prigozhin”:
He wasn’t a psychologist; he didn’t know how to work a room. And when he began to say that our guys were starting to get released and needed to be replaced, a discussion broke out between him and the prisoners. One specific prisoner struck the final blow with a question: “What percentage of our guys who went [to Ukraine] are still alive?” At that point, [the recruiter] started to stammer; he couldn’t give an answer, and he ended his speech there.
According to the prisoner, while more than 1,000 convicts accepted Wagner Group’s offer after Prigozhin’s personal pitch in October, only 340 enlisted after the December visit. He said that while many prisoners signed up voluntarily, there were instances where prison administrators used threats of solitary confinement or transfers to higher-security prisons to pressure inmates they “didn’t like” into enlisting.
Sources from other prisons told Mediazona that convicts at their facilities joined Wagner Group “exclusively voluntarily.” A prisoner in Russia’s Tula region said he had only heard about forced enlistment “on the level of rumors” from other prisons, and that he doubts the reports are true.
“Wagner rejects half of the people who want to join for various reasons, and now they’re suddenly taking people forcibly. It seems to me that if they need people so badly, they would take all the volunteers,” he told Mediazona.
Wagner Group made its second recruiting trip to the Tula prison in November. “One of the prisoners who left [with Wagner Group] told me that after he asked [Wagner] representatives how much training there would be, [they told him], ‘The battlefield will be your training.’ It’s quite possible that they’re already directly participating [in combat],” said Mediazona’s source, adding that roughly 300 people signed up when Wagner recruiters first visited the prison and maybe half of these applicants were accepted. The second time, he said, only about 150 people signed up, and only about 50 were accepted.
The same source also said that administrators at his prison have “grown very cold” towards the mercenary group’s recruitment efforts, and that inmates themselves no longer want “even to discuss the possibility” of joining the war in Ukraine.
“[The prison’s] administration is holding onto convicts; since they work, [administrators] don’t want them to leave,” he said. “I suspect that [when Wagner recruiters made their second visit, some] convicts weren’t allowed to go for this very reason: [prison officials needed their labor]. There were people who wanted to go, but they’re very important in the prison.”
This stands in contrast to the recruiters’ first visit, he said, when prison administrators didn’t do anything to stop inmates from going to war because “nobody understood anything, [and] everybody was intimidated by the serious guys” from Wagner Group.
According to human rights activist Ivan Astashin, Wagner recruiters began making follow-up visits to prisons in Russia’s Mordovia Republic in late November, while the Telegram channel Prison Resident reported in December that Wagner had conducted “new recruitment drives” in Smolensk, Karelia, and Chelyabinsk. The channel’s creator told Mediazona that recruiters also made a second visit to a prison in Voronezh, where they recruited 40 people (compared to the 107 who enlisted in an earlier recruitment drive).
“The bottom line is that there are still some potential recruits left, but there are more skeptics [than volunteers] at this point,” said the channel’s administrator, attributing the change to the “inmate grapevine.” Prison rumor, he says, is that half of the convicts who joined Wagner Group have been killed. “But once again, we don’t have exact figures, because all the prisoners they took have been divided into small groups and scattered across the front,” he said.
‘New covers for our sledgehammers’
According to an inmate at a Yaroslavl prison who spoke to Mediazona, prisoners who were interested in going to Ukraine were told to sign up with prison administrators in advance — before Wagner recruiters made a second visit to his facility late last year. The administrator of the Prison Resident Telegram channel also told Mediazona that Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service workers have taken over the task of signing up new Wagner recruits in some prisons.
According to the Yaroslavl inmate who spoke to Mediazona, Wagner representatives offered the same deal in their second pitch as they had the first time around: six months in Ukraine in exchange for freedom and a soldier’s salary. But this time, he said, they “asked foreign citizens not to sign up,” citing the risk of prosecution from those prisoners’ home countries. “Previously, they had promised Russian passports,” he said.
In addition, the inmate told Mediazona, the recruiters’ second pitch included stricter physical training requirements. “Physical fitness tests: 40 pushups and 40 squats, and they might ask you to run. [They said they’d had] negative experiences, like, ‘some people arrive and immediately start complaining about their health and refusing to work, and they have to be eliminated,’” said the inmate. “They very heavily implied [execution], at the very least. Speaking verbatim, they said, ‘Those people had to be left there, and five million [rubles], of course, was not given to their families, because they broke the contract themselves.’”
The inmate also said the recruiter alluded to “sledgehammers,” which Wagner Group made into a symbol of its own brutality after a video that surfaced in November showing the brutal execution of a former Wagner mercenary who surrendered to Ukraine and was subsequently traded back to Russia:
He said (not quite word-for-word): “If anybody surrenders, he’ll be exchanged for 15 [Ukrainian POWs], for 20, for however many it takes, and we’ll make an example out of him by shooting him in front of his unit. I’m sure you’ve heard about this already. And yes, we’ve ordered new cases for our sledgehammers for the new year.”
The recruiter promised that someone from Wagner will return to the prison in February to enlist more fighters, and that former prisoners who have already served out their contracts may come as well. “They said that maybe they’ll bring some of our free and happy former prisonmates to […] show us it’s possible to survive and win your freedom,” the inmate told Mediazona.
Life after Wagner
Against the backdrop of Wagner Group’s less-than-effective bid to recruit new mercenaries from Russia’s prisons, both Prigozhin-linked media outlets and Russian state news agencies have begun reporting more frequently on prison recruits who have purportedly fulfilled their agreements and are now living as free men.
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At the same time, the legality of sending convicts who haven’t finished their prison sentences to fight in a war is murky. Sources from Russian prisons told Mediazona that the recruits write pardon requests, and it’s possible that Vladimir Putin issues confidential decrees granting those requests (Putin has issued a record number of secret decrees since the war began). But the Russian authorities have given no credible evidence that any prisoners recruited by Wagner have received amnesty.
We also don’t know whether the recruited prisoners who return to Russia after six months with Wagner Group remain under any restrictions. One ex-con who was identified by the Telegram channel Rotonda as a former Wagner fighter, for example, posted a document on social media that indicated he was “banned from committing any unlawful activities or leading an immoral lifestyle” while on “vacation.”
In early January, Russian Presidential Human Rights Council member Eva Merkacheva said that convicts who join Wagner are officially pardoned before they leave prison, but that “the decrees themselves are classified because [they are] state secrets.”
Nikolay Troshkin, a former prisoner who told Mediazona that he joined Wagner Group from prison but then fled his unit, said that he later reached out to an “officer [he] knew,” and that the man assured him that his criminal record has been expunged.
Abridged English-language version by Sam Breazeale
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