Russia’s Prison-Recruitment Scheme Descends Into Chaos

Russia’s recruitment of prison inmates to become soldiers in its war against Ukraine is becoming a crisis as military leaders lose control over the situation. 

The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said last week that about 20 armed inmates recently fled from the frontline in occupied Donetsk. Russian forces are now hunting their own men, and Ukrainian authorities report that three of the “fugitives” have been killed in the search.

A few days earlier, a suspected deserter fled the battlefield in occupied Donbas and crossed over to Russia before opening fire at the police and injuring officers. Last month, Yevgeny Nuzhin, a Wagner Group defector was executed by a sledgehammer. 

Nuzhin was a prisoner prior to being recruited by the Wagner Group, the private mercenary force founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-linked oligarch. The mercenary group has been recruiting inmates, including murderers, into the war in exchange for shorter sentences or early release.

The recent events may mean that inmates are coming to realize the brutal reality of the situation — something many experts have warned about Wagner’s prison recruitment scheme — that it’s a way to bolster Russia’s thinning troops using men deemed as “disposable.”

According to ​​Olga Romanova, head of the human rights group Russia Behind Bars, inmates have reported a few dozen extrajudicial killings of prisoners sent into the war. Russian inmates captured by Ukraine have reportedly begun begging not to be handed back over to Russia as part of any prisoner swaps.

The situation has caused alarm among experts, who warn that the prison recruiting could prove to be a “catastrophe” for ordinary Russians.

Alexander Kovalenko, a Ukrainian military expert, told iStories that “the social situation in the country may seriously suffer after these prisoners return from the war zone and have their sentences reduced or get released for ‘atonement’ of their crimes with blood.” 

He added that returning prisoners could cause social and psychological problems, as they will have not only committed crimes in Russia and Ukraine, but also have post-traumatic stress disorder.

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