Skip to main content
  • Share to or
Russian engineer troops in the city of Siversk in Russia’s Donetsk region. March 20, 2024.

‘They threatened to beat me unconscious and throw me into an assault unit’ Russia is coercing prisoners recruited from occupied Ukraine into signing indefinite military contracts

Source: iStories
Russian engineer troops in the city of Siversk in Russia’s Donetsk region. March 20, 2024.
Russian engineer troops in the city of Siversk in Russia’s Donetsk region. March 20, 2024.
Alexander Reka / TASS / Profimedia

Hundreds of former prisoners who were recruited by the Cascade unit, a military formation affiliated with the Russian occupation administration in the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” have been forced to continue fighting long beyond the six-month service periods they were promised and are now being coerced into signing indefinite contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry, according to new reporting from iStories. Meduza shares an English-language translation of the story.

Convicts and criminal suspects recruited by Russian paramilitary forces from prisons in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) are not receiving the amnesty they were promised. Instead, they’re being coerced into signing indefinite service contracts with the Russian military, iStories reports, citing one of the recruits and a written complaint to the Putin administration from a group of former prisoners.

The ex-prisoners who wrote the complaint were recruited in fall 2022 into the Cascade unit, a tactical formation that was led by DNR “police chief” Alexey Dikiy and received DNR resources until its dissolution earlier this year. Upon joining Cascade, the men were promised that they would be amnestied and have their criminal records expunged after six months of service. When they arrived at their training center, however, they were assigned to assault units and informed that they wouldn’t be discharged until the end of the war.

“If you want a day of leave, [you have to] join an assault unit! Don’t want to join an assault unit? Then no time off!” one of the recruits told iStories. This policy caused the unit to rapidly lose soldiers; to replace them, wounded and sick people were brought in from the city. Anyone who defied their commanders was punished with electric shocks. Those who tried to escape were beaten and put back into assault units.

In January 2024, Cascade’s fighters stopped getting paid, and in April 2024, both Cascade and the DNR’s “internal troops” were disbanded. Even now, however, the former prisoners have not been granted amnesty — instead, they’re being forced to stay in their unit and getting pressured into signing indefinite contracts with the Russian Defense Ministry.

“I want to be pardoned and allowed to return to civilian life. I don’t want to sign this fucking contract. They’ve threatened to put me on the wanted list, send me back to remand prison, beat me unconscious, and then throw me into an assault unit,” said a former inmate from Donetsk who’s been fighting in the war since November 2022. According to him, about 500 people are in the same situation.

Forced to fight

‘They knock you out and put you on the plane’ To keep its ranks filled, Russia is imprisoning objectors and sending them to war at gunpoint 

Forced to fight

‘They knock you out and put you on the plane’ To keep its ranks filled, Russia is imprisoning objectors and sending them to war at gunpoint 

Because Cascade was not officially part of the Russian military, its fighters don’t receive any government benefits or social protections. ‘The responsibility lies with the party with whom the fighter signed the contract — in this case, the DNR Interior Ministry,” wrote Kashevarova.

“The military ranks in the DNR Interior Ministry’s internal troops are being reset. […] According to the enlistment office, if you resign as an officer of the DNR Interior Ministry’s internal troops, your personal file goes into the archive, and you start a new one from scratch as a soldier of the Russian Federation,” added pro-Kremlin “war correspondent” Vlad Filin.

DNR “police chief” Alexey Dikiy founded Cascade in 2017. In 2022, it took part in Russia’s offensives on Vuhledar and Mariupol, including the siege of Azovstal. Dikiy himself, according to the U.S. State Department, oversees “filtration camps” in the Donetsk region. In February 2023, Putin awarded him the rank of Police Colonel-General, and in May 2024, he named Dikiy a Hero of Russia.

Meduza has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the very start, and we are committed to reporting objectively on a war we firmly oppose. Join Meduza in its mission to challenge the Kremlin’s censorship with the truth. Donate today

Soldiers were enticed to join Cascade with promises of “amazing adventures” and a “luxury-style war.” In practice, however, the formation’s fighters often complained about poor conditions; among other things, their command did not provide them with clothing or gear, so they took to wearing equipment, body armor, and boots taken from dead Ukrainian soldiers.

The soldiers have also announced plans to file a lawsuit with the “Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic” against their commanders. One Cascade member quoted a Moscow lawmaker as saying that the suit “concerns the theft of a considerable amount of money.”

After Cascade’s disbandment, foreign fighters that had belonged to the group said they were at risk of deportation to their home countries, where they could face prosecution for fighting on the side of Russia. “They […] repeatedly applied [for Russian citizenship], but they were refused, since their contracts were signed with the DNR Interior Ministry, not the Russian Armed Forces,” wrote Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan.

Sign up for Meduza’s daily newsletter

A digest of Russia’s investigative reports and news analysis. If it matters, we summarize it.

Protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Reporting by Alisa Kuznetsova. Translation by Sam Breazeale.

  • Share to or