Sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in the penal colony IK-7 in St. Petersburg, Andrey Yastrebov could not think of much else than how to get out.
When the recruiters of PMC Wagner—Russia’s notorious private military company—showed up looking for volunteers, he took his chance. He signed up and became part of the first Wagner contingent of prisoners that was sent to the front line in Ukraine in July. A few weeks later, he was the only one of 42 to return alive, albeit with gunshot wounds in his arms and legs. When his mother and sister tried to get in touch with him and went to St. Petersburg, he was nowhere to be found. Maybe they have sent him back to Donbas,” suspects Olga Romanova, the founder of the civil rights organization Russia Behind Bars. “Or he is no more.” On her Signal messenger channel endless conversations pile up with cases like Yastrebov’s. Mothers and wives talk about their children and husbands. Audio messages come in with voices that sound desperate, frantic, hopeless, or resigned. Romanova listens to them all, gives advice, and organizes humanitarian assistance and legal help.
According to Romanova, there are over 500,000 people in Russian prisons. The Russian penal system is notorious for its brutality. “It is designed to break the will of the inmates,” she says. This makes prisons a fertile ground for mercenary organizations like Wagner. “The penal colonies are the most horrible place on earth,” Romanova says. “Every other alternative seems to be better.” Various sources report that the former prisoners are promised 200,000 rubles (around $3,500) for their six months of service. In case of death their family can expect 5 million rubles (over $80,000) in compensation.
According to Russia Behind Bars, now everyone can join, no matter their criminal record. These volunteers are separated from the others and organized into special units.
At the Forefront of Russia’s Troops
So far, Russia Behind Bars has counted approximately 11,000 inmates who joined Wagner, of which 7,500 have been dispatched to Ukraine. In a recent video, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch who heads Wagner, is seen recruiting new members among prisoners. He addresses a large crowd of inmates seemingly gathered in a penal colony’s exercise yard, luring them with the promise to commute their sentences. “After six months serving with Wagner, they are supposed to be free,” says Romanova. “However, we don’t know if this actually will happen since we have not yet arrived at the six-month mark.” In the video Prigozhin, who is believed to be a Putin confidant, makes clear that such a decision cannot be taken back: “If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will execute you.”
While a few months back rapists and pedophiles were not accepted as volunteers, this has changed. According to Russia Behind Bars, now everyone can join, no matter their criminal record. These volunteers are separated from the others and organized into special units.
According to the investigative news outlet istories, the recruits are often told that they will be only used in construction work in Donbas, only to find out later this is a lie. But most volunteers quickly understand that they will be at the forefront of Russia’s troops, with a high likelihood of being killed. Romanova points at the insufficient military training these Wagnerovzy receive. “They usually have a two-week training under extremely harsh conditions,” she says. “Of course, nobody becomes a soldier within two weeks, in particular if you have spent years in a penal colony that weakens you.”
“Little Green Men”
It is unknown how many mercenaries Wagner exactly comprises. It is speculated that outside Ukraine around 5,000 Wagernovzy are active. Members of the group have been active in Libya, Mali, and Syria, among other places. It is believed that they were the “little green men” who occupied Crimea in 2014 ahead of the illegal annexation referendum. Tracey German, professor of conflict and security at King’s College London, in an interview with the author explained the benefit of Wagner for Russia’s leadership: “On the one hand, they can use the unit to exert military influence in various places around the world. At the same time, the Kremlin can always say that it has nothing to do with the group.”
For Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former speechwriter for Russia’s president, Prigozhin clearly seems to have political ambitions too. By releasing the abovementioned video after Russian troops were routed in Ukraine, he “demonstrated how effectively he solves issues,” Gallyamov wrote on his Telegram channel. “It looks like Prigozhin has decided to offer himself to all the lovers of a strong hand who are disappointed with the current government.”
Wagner is not the only Russian paramilitary group that is operating in a legal gray zone. Another, less known one is Redut, which allegedly has close links to the military and the Ministry of Defense. According to research conducted by Meduza, a detachment of Redut mercenaries in Donbas carried out the reconnaissance for the push into Ukraine on February 24. “We fully prepared the first breakthrough. Roughly speaking, we started the war,” a member of Redut is quoted as saying.
Leaving Prison at Any Cost
Olga Romanova points to the case of Vadim Akimov, who has been imprisoned for ten years in the penal colony IK-6, where the prominent opposition figure Alexey Navalny also is. IK-6 has a reputation for torture and abuse. In a video with the human rights group My Russian Rights, his mother told how she and her husband tried to persuade him to not join Wagner: “Vadim has lost touch with reality and what is actually happening in Ukraine.” Inmates get their information from one source only, the state television channel Rossiya-1, which is fully in line with the Kremlin’s propaganda.
“The Wagner people came one day saying that they need help at construction sites in Ukraine. But we told him that this can’t be true. We said to Vadim, turn on your head, use your brains,” His mother recalls one of her visits. His father even told him about his traumatic experiences when serving with the Red Army in Afghanistan, something he has not done in over 30 years. Eventually his parents believed that their son would refuse to join Wagner.
But they have completely lost contact with Akimov since the end of August. “We have tried to locate Vadim, we want to know where he is, whether he is alive or not. We asked the administration. But it was useless, we couldn’t find him.” In the end, he may have signed the contract. And why? “Certainly not for the money, but it may well be that he wanted to leave this camp IK-6 at any cost,” says his mother.