A sanctioned Russian businessman and close Putin ally linked to the infamous The Wagner Group has reportedly been on tour in person Russian prisons and recruiting inmates to join the fight in Ukraine.
This is according to a new report that the independent magazine issued on Saturday Mediazone, who interviewed two inmates held in different facilities in different regions of Russia. Several reports have emerged in recent weeks about Wagner’s alleged new inmate recruitment drive, with the private Russian military apparently trying to shore up Russian forces depleted by heavy losses in the nearly six-month war.
But it appears to be the first time that Yevgeny Prigozhin, commonly known as “Putin’s chef”, is said to have personally appealed to the inmates.
“They are primarily interested in murderers and robbers, they treat drug addicts carefully, the same with rapists. It’s better, he said, that these aren’t ordinary killers, but downright calculating—you’ll like it with us, he said. In general, he gave the impression of a madman,” an unnamed prisoner was quoted as saying to Mediazona.
The inmate went on to note that there appeared to be no compulsion to participate, although “a lot” signed up, he said, estimating that at least 200 inmates eagerly accepted the offer.
Inmates were reportedly offered a free pardon and a paycheck in return for their service, with the man identified as Prigozhin promising that they had only a 15 percent chance of dying, a figure allegedly based on an “experimental” release of inmates earlier in July.
During an alleged visit by Prigozhin to a penal colony in Rybinsk, Yaroslavl Region, on August 1, inmates were told that “World War III” was underway and that they were given the chance to fight for their homeland, according to reports by an inmate to Mediazona.
“My guys are going to African countries, and in two days they will leave nothing alive there, and now they are also destroying enemies in Ukraine. Your decision to serve in [private military company] is a deal with the devil. If you leave here with me, you will either return a free man or you will die. You are asked to kill enemies and follow management’s orders. Those who retreat will be shot on the spot,” one inmate quoted Prigozhin as saying.
A prisoner at a penal colony in Plavsk, Tula region, told Mediazona that inmates received a visit from Prigozhin on July 25, in which he allegedly said: “I have special authority from the president, I don’t care, I need to win this damned war at any cost.”
After the visits, in which Prigozhin is said to have been accompanied by other representatives of Wagner, the inmates were reportedly blocked from using telephones. And according to a friend of one of the inmates in Plavsk, the Wagner representatives said they would be back for another visit in two or three months if they “run out” of inmates from the first recruitment wave.
Several human rights groups have also reported on Wagner’s alleged recruitment drive, including Rus Sidyashaya, which said both inmates and their families have told of overtures from Wagner, and Gulagu.net, a human rights group that monitors the conditions of prisoners in Russian penal colonies.
Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the human rights group Gulagu.net, recently wrote on Facebook that a prisoner at a high-security facility had talked about Putin crony Prigozhin arriving by helicopter in late July and convincing about 150 prisoners to participate in the war.
The man identified by the inmates as Prigozhin reportedly tried to relate to them by noting that he himself had served prison time, according to Mediazona.
So far, according to the independent outlet Worstkawhich has also closely covered the alleged Wagner recruitment, the mercenary group has recruited more than 1,000 prisoners in 17 different penal colonies throughout Russia.
Long accused by Western officials and investigative journalists of funding Wagner, Prigozhin has denied any connection to the paramilitary force, a shadowy group that has left a long trail of war crimes in its wake in Ukraine, Syria and the Central African Republic.
In a statement to Verstka about Wagner’s alleged recruitment efforts for the war in Ukraine, the press service of Prigozhin’s company Concord Management reportedly sent back a comment from the businessman in which he avoided directly answering if he recruited prisoners but admitted that he had “been in [penal] colonies in the 80s.”