Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group private military company, announced that it has ceased recruiting inmates from Russian prisons and penal colonies to fight in Ukraine on the Kremlin’s behalf.
“To those who work for us now, all obligations are fulfilled,” Prigozhin’s press service quoted him as saying in a February 9 Telegram posting.
That is misleading.
The mercenary group is notorious for brutal executions of recruits it deems traitors or disobedient. Less than 10 percent of the felons recruited by Wagner to fight as mercenaries in Ukraine survive, according to media and intelligence reports. A Wagner defector confirmed that reputation in an account describing deception and violence.
Prigozhin, a longtime confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, toured prisons and penal colonies across Russia last summer and recruited some 40,000 inmates, promising clemency after six months of frontline service in Ukraine, Reuters reported in January.
Meduza, the exiled Russian independent news site now based in Latvia, estimated that Prigozhin had enlisted some 50,000 felons, of which 80% perished in the war in Ukraine.
Meduza quoted Olga Romanova, head of the Russia Behind Bars human rights group, as saying:
“Our data shows that, as of late December, 42,000–43,000 inmates had been recruited. By now, this is probably upwards of 50,000. Out of that number, 10,000 are now fighting at the front, because the rest have either been killed or wounded, or went AWOL, or deserted, or surrendered.”
In November, Wagner group-connected Telegram channels published a video of the brutal execution of a mercenary for “treason.” The video showed the victim, Yevgeny Nuzhin, a former inmate who had been serving life in prison, being killed with a sledgehammer blow to his head after confessing that he had surrendered to Ukrainian forces and then returned to Wagner as part of a POW exchange. Execution by sledgehammer has been branded as the Wagner Group’s signature punishment for its stray mercenaries.
In January, a Wagner defector, Andrei Medvedev, told CNN that Prigozhin used prisoners as “cannon fodder” and had lost control of those under his command: “They were in constant circulation. Dead bodies, more prisoners, more dead bodies, more prisoners.”
Ex-felons who refused to fight were rounded up, shot to death in front of new recruits and then buried “right in the trenches that were dug by the trainees,” Medvedev said.
On January 26, the United States designated the Wagner group as a “significant transnational criminal organization,” citing the war crimes its mercenaries allegedly committed in Ukraine, Syria, Central African Republic, Mali and Libya.
“Wagner Group is a Russian private military company led by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Putin crony and the target of multiple U.S. sanctions. Wagner Group has been involved in Kremlin-backed combat operations around the world in support of Putin’s war on Ukraine,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in the statement.
“Wagner personnel have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali.”