The founder of the controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, promises freedom to criminals if they fight for Russia in the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. That’s how thousands of mercenaries were promised pardon if they lasted six months in combat – but is that really true?
In October, a Russian news website published a short film showing for the first time the return of some convicted criminals who had joined Prigozhin’s force to fight in Ukraine. The news agency
analyzed the video and more than a dozen other recordings and identified more than 30 men.
Wagner mercenaries had to take a lie detector test
Reuters was able to speak to five of the prisoners, and their experiences couldn’t be more different: some rave about the battlefield, others describe the war as “absolute hell”. Does Prigozhin keep his promises?
He began recruiting prisoners in Russian prisons for his private army in the summer of 2022. Four of the men Reuters spoke to say they were personally recruited by Prigozhin. He gave the prisoners three days to decide whether they wanted to join the mercenary force. About 40 out of several hundred prisoners reported and went to war after a lie detector test to identify drug addicts.
“I have a small child. I wanted to return to my family”
One of the mercenaries Reuters spoke to was Rustam Borovkov – who was serving six years on manslaughter and theft charges when Prigozhin visited his prison in July. Borovkov played an important role as head of his cell block’s medical department. Although prison officials tried to dissuade him from his mercenary plans, he insisted that he was only interested in a pardon. “I have a small child. I wanted to go back to my family,” stressed Borovkov.
Other prisoners, too, feel driven by patriotic duties and see their participation in acts of war as an opportunity to prove themselves and to defend their country. Yevgeny Kushelev, who was convicted of six larceny charges, has already served most of his sentence and left anyway. If he hadn’t been in prison, he would have volunteered, the 29-year-old stressed.
Short but intensive training
The five former mercenaries tell Reuters that inmates who report as mercenaries are housed in a separate building in the prison. Finally, in the separate accommodation, the prisoners would be treated with respect by the prison officials. There they received a two- to three-week training course, which was led by former members of the Russian special forces. The training is short but intensive, the mercenaries explain. The well-organized training is their life insurance for the mercenaries.
Nevertheless, the number of fatalities among the mercenaries in Ukraine is not low: According to the USA, around 9,000 Wagner mercenaries were killed by mid-February. According to Prigozhin, the number of deaths corresponds to the cases in other Russian units.
Two of the four mercenaries have already received parole
Four of the five mercenaries report that they had to prematurely end their mission in Ukraine due to serious injuries. However, the time spent in the hospital is taken into account, so that they have the right to a pardon after six months even if they are injured. And two of the four mercenaries have already received a waiver, reports Reuters.
Nevertheless, the former mercenaries look back on their time with the Wagner troupe in different ways. One describes the time at the front as “absolute hell”, while another enthuses about the adrenaline: “So much adrenaline. I wish all real men would join the Wagner troupe,” says Andrei Yastrebov, 22, from Saint Petersburg.
Back to the mercenary force
However, the former mercenaries do not report broken promises: Rather, Prigozhin gave them a “fresh start”. “Now I’m clean. I have some money and can think about the future,” says Kuschelev. A highly cynical statement.
Frightening: All five men report that they want to return to the Wagner mercenary group or are at least considering doing so. For financial reasons, Ermakov also hopes to be deployed in Libya, Syria or the Central African Republic. However, the five former mercenaries do not talk about Russian war crimes – they are concerned with their own new beginnings.