The recording, captured on video, surfaced on Russian Telegram channels Monday night, and the man in fatigues making the offer appears to be Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the billionaire nicknamed “Putin’s chief”, who is also the well-known financier of the Wagner’s private military company.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin refusing to announce a national draft, fearing that such a move would be politically toxic, Wagner is playing an increasingly crucial and public role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It’s not clear when the video was shot, but it appears to provide the first on-record evidence of a recruiting strategy that has been circulating for months: asking inmates to swap prison clothes for military uniforms as a way of joining Russian ranks on the battlefield.
The Russian shortage of reinforcements was apparently one of the reasons why Moscow’s troops were unprepared in recent days for a Ukrainian counter-offensive that drove the Russian occupiers from most of the northeastern region of Kharkov. The successful Ukrainian counter-offensive has only added to Russia’s misery, with some analysts saying Russia is no longer capable of offensive operations, but can only defend the territory it now controls.
Prigozhin, whose nickname is the chef because of the lucrative catering contracts awarded him by the Kremlin, has denied any ties to Wagner for years, despite mounting evidence that he is taking advantage of the deployment of mercenaries in the Middle East and Africa to covertly set the agenda. of Moscow.
But in the video, he starts his pitch by openly stating that he represents Wagner and is looking for recruits because the war in Ukraine “is tough and can’t even be compared to the Chechen wars or any other.”
Prigozhin’s catering company, Concord, said in a statement Thursday that it “can confirm that the person in the video bears a huge resemblance to Yevgeny Viktorovich. [Prigozhin].”
“Judging by his rhetoric, somehow he is engaged in performing the tasks of the special operation, and does it successfully … in addition, the person speaking in the video has a great delivery, just like Evgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] does,” the company said in its statement.
Another ambiguous statement from Concord’s press service came from Prigozhin himself: “If I were a prisoner, I would dream of joining this friendly team in order not only to repay my debt to the motherland, but also to to repay interest.”
“Those who don’t want mercenaries or prisoners to fight… who don’t like this topic, send their children to the front,” Prigozhin said. “It’s either her or your kids, decide for yourself.”
Wagner has made a double effort to recruit men across Russia in what the experts called “a shadow mobilization” as Putin has rejected calls for national mobilization from several aggressive Russian officials. Such a design would almost certainly cause a stir among the public who have been told for months that Moscow is conducting only a limited “special military operation” in Ukraine.
In addition to online ads and banners in dozens of cities inviting ordinary Russians to apply, Wagner recruiters have visited prisons looking for men between the ages of 22 and 50, but the recruiters say an exception is possible for older men if they live in prison. a “good physical shape.”
In the video, Prigozhin says the first batch of convicts fought in Ukraine on June 1 when Wagner helped Russia Vuhlehirska . Power Station in the Donetsk region. The mercenaries’ success in capturing the location was paraded on Russian state television in the first public embrace of “the orchestra,” as the private army is often called, in reference to its namesake, right-wing German classical composer Richard Wagner.
“There were 40 people from St. Petersburg, [from a] high security facility, repeat offenders,” Prigozhin said. “They entered the enemy trenches, cut them with knives; there were three dead and seven injured. Of the three dead, one was 52 years old and had already served a 30-year sentence. He died a hero.”
Gulagu Net, a Russian human rights organization that assists convicts, first received calls and letters from prisoners in March about Wagner’s recruiting efforts. The head of Gulagu Net, Vladimir Osechkin, told The Washington Post in an interview last month that the effort was very limited at the time.
“Those were colonies for former law enforcement officers. … They were looking for people with combat experience, who participated in counter-terrorism operations and various hostilities,” Osechkin said.
“We’re talking about special forces here, people who know what a weapon is,” he added. “They were told that they were going to be commanders, that the motherland needs them, but as far as we understand, this campaign failed because they haven’t been able to recruit many of them.”
But as the Russian campaign in Ukraine stalled since the first gains in the spring, the effort to find new reinforcements took on a new urgency.
“From July on, the number of calls we received grew exponentially, informing us that Wagner has launched a massive recruitment campaign in mainstream colonies,” Osechkin said.
The recruitment approach was twofold: some convicts were offered support roles, such as digging trenches and doing various construction work near separatist-controlled areas in the eastern region of Donbas. Others were recruited into 12-person units charged with “special combat missions,” although they often had little military training.
“It all points to the fact that the Russian army has a staff shortage, and they are trying to replenish it with prisoners they don’t care about,” Osechkin said.
Another civil rights organization, Russia Behind Bars, which has long been investigating the horrific conditions in Russian prisons, estimated that about 7,000 to 10,000 convicts have already been sent to fight in Ukraine.
Both organizations have expressed concerns that inmates are being misled into participating in a possible suicide mission without legal guarantees, as well as concerns about the release of potentially violent convicted criminals serving decades in prison for murder or aggravated assault.
“Besides being immoral and very dangerous, it also means that the concept of ‘crime’ no longer exists in Russia; they wiped their feet on the justice system,” Russia Behind Bars head Olga Romanova wrote in a Facebook post.
According to Gulagu Net, Putin awarded at least one Russian convict who fought in Ukraine a medal of bravery: Ivan Neparatov, a member of an organized crime group who served 12 years of his 25-year sentence for murder, theft and kidnapping.
In the video, Prigozhin told the inmates of the penal colony, which according to The Post was located in the tiny Mari El Republic in central Russia, that he was looking for the most brutal “stormtroopers”, willing to be thrown into hot spots like infantry. . .
“You have five minutes to make a decision,” he said. “As for trust and guarantees, do you have anyone who can get you out of prison alive? Allah and God can get you out [dead]. I’ll get you out of here alive. But it’s not always that I bring you back alive.”