Russia’s most deranged gambit in its war against Ukraine is rapidly becoming a crisis as military leaders lose control over the prison inmates freed in exchange for a stint on the battlefield.
About 20 armed inmates fled from the frontline in occupied Donetsk in recent days, and the Russian military was forced to launch a manhunt for members of its team, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Thursday. Ukrainian authorities said three of the “fugitives” were killed in the ensuing search, wryly noting: “Beat your own, so that others are afraid, as they say.”
The hunt was reportedly still on for the other fleeing inmates. The news comes just two days after a suspected Russian deserter fleeing the battlefield in Ukraine’s occupied Donbas crossed the border into Russia before opening fire and injuring two police officers. Independent media outlets identified the gunman as a prison inmate recruited to fight in the war.
While many experts saw the prison-recruitment scheme for what it was from the get-go—a convenient way to bolster Russia’s fledgling troops using men deemed easily disposable—it seems many of the inmates are finally coming around to that realization.
The public sledgehammer-execution of Wagner defector Yevgeny Nuzhin last month certainly didn’t help matters, no matter how much Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mastermind behind the prison recruitment scheme, told inmates they’d go down in history as “heroes.”
Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch and close confidant of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin was called “Putin’s chef” because his restaurants and catering businesses hosted dinners which Putin attended with foreign dignitaries.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and a close ally of Vladimir Putin, admitted on Monday that he was behind the Wagner paramilitary group.
Human rights activists have accused the group — a private network of mercenaries — of committing war crimes in Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
Putin has always denied any link between the Kremlin and Wagner. But Prigozhin’s admission finally draws a direct link between Wagner and the Russian government.
Now, Russian inmates say there have been other executions carried out against those perceived to have “betrayed” the mercenary group—and wannabe recruits are shown videos of it.
One inmate at a penal colony in the Far East told the BBC’s Russian service that Wagner recruiters showed execution videos to inmates in the facility’s recreation room.
In one video played for a group of inmates who expressed an interest in joining Wagner, he said a man told the camera, “‘I, such and such, am a traitor and a bitch, I abandoned my own on the frontline,’ and then they shoot him in the back of the head.”
Another inmate in a different colony told the BBC he’d also been shown another video in which a person was hung from an iron beam.
Sources close to Wagner were quoted telling the BBC there have been at least three such executions, with one calling them “training videos.”
Olga Romanova, the head of the human rights group Russia Behind Bars, has said inmates have reported a few dozen extrajudicial killings of prisoners tossed into the war.
Russian inmates captured by Ukraine have now also reportedly begun begging not to be handed back over to Russia as part of any prisoner swaps, fearing they’d be executed just like Nuzhin was.
An inmate who signed up to fight for Wagner in Ukraine and was subsequently captured by the Ukrainian side was seen in a video pleading not to be sent back over the weekend.
Identified by the independent Russian outlet Verstka as Alexander Bolchev, he told a Ukrainian journalist, “I don’t want a swap because they’ll immediately kill me. I know they’ll kill me.”
One of his female relatives told the BBC the same thing: “It’s good that he’s alive, but they’ll hand him over, and he’ll be killed, he’ll definitely be killed.”
Experts also say the prison recruiting could prove to be a “catastrophe” for ordinary Russians.
“The social situation in the country may seriously suffer after these prisoners return from the war zone and have their sentences reduced or get released for ‘atonement’ of their crimes with blood,” Alexander Kovalenko, a Ukrainian military expert, told iStories. “And they will return not just with the baggage of crimes committed in Russia and Ukraine, but also with post-traumatic stress disorder, which no psychologists will treat.”
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