Some Wagner Convict Fighters in Ukraine Are Returning to Russia
He was released from prison in Russia and thrown into battle in Ukraine with promises of freedom, redemption, and money. Now, Andrei Yastrebov, one of tens of thousands of conscripted soldiers, is part of a return trip from the battlefield with potentially serious implications for Russian society.
Mr. Yastrebov, 22, who had already served a sentence for theft, returned home to a changed man. “We all felt like he was in some kind of hypnosis, like he was a different person,” one of his relatives said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. He doesn’t have any emotions.
Thousands of prisoners were killed, many within days or even hours of arriving at the front, Russian human rights advocates and Ukrainian officials said. Those who lived and returned home remained largely silent, wary of retribution if they spoke out.
Human rights activists and legal experts say President Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to allow a group of mercenaries to recruit Russian convicts to aid in the war effort is being marked. he marked a turning point in his 23 years in power. This policy breaks with Russia’s legal precedent, and by pardoning some brutally tortured criminals back home, risks triggering greater violence throughout society, underscoring the price he paid. Putin is willing to pay to avoid defeat.
Since July, about 40,000 prisoners have joined Russian forces, according to Western intelligence agencies, the Ukrainian government and the prisoner’s rights association, Russia Behind Bars, which compiles reports from the people. informants in Russian prisons. Ukraine claims that nearly 30,000 people have deserted or been killed or wounded, although this number cannot be independently verified.
Most of the men who enlisted are serving sentences for petty crimes such as robbery and burglary, but records from one criminal colony seen by The New York Times show that those recruited also included men men convicted of aggravated rape and multiple murders.
Olga Romanova, head of Russia Behind Bars said: “There is no more crime and no more punishment. “Everything is allowed now and this has very far-reaching consequences for any country.”
More than six months ago, Russia’s largest private military company, Wagner, and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, started systematically recruiting prisoners on a scale not seen since World War II to consolidate bloody attack in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. However, this activity remains largely shrouded in secrecy and propaganda.
Human rights activists and lawyers say Wagner was able to avoid scrutiny by exploiting the most marginalized Russian citizens, the 350,000 male prisoners of its harsh punishment colonies.
Dozens of survivors from the first prisoner assault units start going back to Russia this month with medals, big payouts, and documents that Wagner claims will set them free. The release is likely to accelerate as Wagner’s six-month service contract expires, potentially exposing Russian society to the challenge of reintegrating thousands of men traumatized by military training, criminal history and low employment prospects.
Yana Gelmel, a Russian prisoner’s rights lawyer who works with conscripted prisoners, said: “These are traumatized people who are returning to a sense of right, a belief that they are. Killed people to protect the country. “These can be very dangerous people.”
Neither Mr. Prigozhin, through his press office, nor Russia’s criminal agency could be reached for comment.
To document the recruitment process, The Times interviewed human rights activists, lawyers, legal staff, relatives of recruited prisoners, deserters, and prisoners who decided to stay. bars but maintained contact with his companions on the front lines.
They describe a sophisticated system of incentives and brutality built by Wagner, with the support of the Kremlin, to replenish Russia’s dwindling military force by questionable and possibly arbitrary methods. legal.
Andrei Medvedev said he joined Wagner just days after serving his prison term for theft in southern Russia. A former prisoner with military experience, he said he was put in charge of a team of prisoners sent on near-suicide missions around Bakhmut.
Mr. Medvedev said in a phone interview from Russia after defecting in November: “We were told: ‘Keep going until you are killed’. He fled to Norway and applied for political asylum.
The campaign to recruit prisoners began in early July, when Mr. Prigozhin began showing up in prisons around his hometown of St. Petersburg with a radical proposal for prisoners: repay society by joining his own army in Ukraine.
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In video published on social mediaPrigozhin promised the prisoners that they would receive 100,000 rubles a month — the equivalent of $1,700 at the time, and almost double the average Russian monthly salary. He also offered gallantry bonuses, $80,000 in death penalty, and if they survived the six-month contract, they would be set free in the form of a presidential pardon.
He warned that those who run away, use drugs, alcohol or have sex will be killed.
“No chance of going back to the colony,” Mr. Prigozhin said in a speech to the prisoners published in September. “Those who go there and say ‘I think I’ve come to the wrong place’ will be marked as deserters and shot.”
One the ex-prisoner himself, Mr. Prigozhin, understanding prison culture, skillfully combines threats of punishment with promises a new, decent lifeaccording to human rights activists and families.
“He didn’t go for the money, he was too proud of it,” Anastasia said of a relative who enlisted with Wagner as a prisoner. “He left because he was embarrassed in front of his mother, he wanted to justify his reputation.”
Prigozhin’s prison visits immediately raised legal questions. Recruiting mercenaries is illegal in Russia, and until last year Prigozhin denied Wagner’s existence.
On paper, the prisoners never went to war, but were only transferred to Russian prisons near the Ukrainian border, upon requests for information from their relatives.
When Anastasia, who asked not to use her last name, tried to track down her enlisted relative at his prison, she said the guards only told her he wasn’t present.
Igor Matyukhin is a convicted thief who decided to participate.
Mr. Matyukhin, a 26-year-old orphan in Siberia, said he was serving his third sentence in the remote Krasnoyarsk region when Mr. Prigozhin arrived by helicopter in November, offering his final freedom in exchange for enlistment. .
Motivated by the chance to have a new life, Mr. Matyukhin immediately signed up. A few days later, he was at a training camp near the occupied Ukrainian city of Luhansk. What he found there, he said, was very different from the group of patriotic brothers he had been led to expect.
Mr. Matyukhin described the atmosphere of fear instilled by Wagner to keep convicts from fighting. He said they were threatened with immediate execution, and that at least one man in his unit was taken away after disobeying orders and never returned.
When his training camp was suddenly attacked by Ukrainian troops, Matyukhin took the opportunity to escape in the chaos. He said he tried to return to his prison from a hideout in Russia.
A relative of Mr. Matyukhin confirmed that he had enlisted in Wagner, but other aspects of his war narrative could not be independently verified.
To raise the bar for declining recruitment numbers, Wagner recently increased the rewards for survivors, video release of returning prisoners are released.
“I need your criminal talent to destroy the enemy in war,” Mr. Prigozhin said in a video. “Those who want to return, we are waiting for you to return. Those who want to get married, be baptized, study – go ahead with a blessing.”
In some videos, inmates are presented with papers described as pardon or annulment of their sentences. However, none of these documents have been made public, raising questions about their legitimacy. Human rights advocates say amnesty is a rare, time-consuming and complex legal procedure that has never been enacted in Russia anywhere near the scale Wagner advertises.
Under the Russian constitution, only Putin can issue pardons, and the Kremlin has not published such decrees since 2020. In 2021, Putin pardons only six people, according to the Kremlin.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri S. Peskov, on Friday told reporters that Wagner’s enlisted convicts are being pardoned “in strict accordance with Russian law.” He declined to comment further, implying that the process is a state secret.
“There are public decrees and decrees with varying degrees of secrecy,” he said.
Under Russian law, all applications for amnesty are evaluated by specialized regional committees before reaching the Kremlin. However, two such committee members said they had not received any petitions from convicts to enlist. One of those officials representing the city of St. Petersburg, the residence of Mr. Yastrebov.
Human rights activists say the ambiguous legal status of returning prisoners undermines Russia’s justice system and ties their fates to Wagner’s.
After being at home for just three weeks, Mr. Yastrebov said he was ready to return to the front, despite the unusual casualty rate his prison unit suffered, according to Russia Behind Bars.
“I want to defend the Fatherland,” he said in a brief interview on Friday. “I like everything there. Ordinary life is boring.”