With a regular army stretched thin after nearly six months of a disastrously executed invasion of Ukraine, there’s increasing evidence the Kremlin is making some ugly choices.
Promises of freedom and riches are made to convicts in cramped jail cells. Frantic phone calls ensue between relatives and inmates weighing the offer. Then prisoners vanish, leaving their loved ones to sift through reports of the wounded arriving in hospitals.
This scene is playing out in convict communities across Russia.
With a regular army stretched thin after nearly six months of a disastrously executed and bloody invasion of Ukraine, there’s increasing evidence the Kremlin is making ugly choices in its ugly war and recruiting Russia’s prisoners to fight.
Over a month-long investigation, CNN has spoken to inmates caught up in Russia’s newest recruitment scheme, along with their relatives and friends.
Activists believe hundreds of inmates have been approached in dozens of prisons across Russia – from murderers to drug offenders. Some have been taken from the prison where American Paul Whelan is being held. His brother David said in July he had heard 10 volunteers had left IK17 in Mordovia for the frontlines in Ukraine.
Dozens of chat messages between relatives, reviewed by CNN, detail the tempting rewards offered to fight in Ukraine, where the risk of death is high. The latest Western assessments suggest up to 75,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured since the invasion began – a claim the Kremlin has denied.
One prisoner spoke to CNN from his cramped jail cell, as a cat crawled across bunk beds and a fan, clamped on top of an ageing TV, tried to cool the air between heavily barred windows. Imprisoned for multiple years for drug offences, he spoke on condition of anonymity using a contraband smartphone – quite common in Russia’s prison system – to outline the conditions on offer.
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