Dmitry Gurin. According to our information, the recruitment started almost immediately after the beginning of the Russian full-scale military invasion in Ukraine, in February 2022. It started as something sporadic and conducted “below the radar”. The recruitment movement then spread like an avalanche, expanding to almost the entire Russian penitentiary, as well as to prisons in the occupied territories of Ukraine.
The scenario is always the same: the recruiters visit a prison facility, sometimes accompanied by senior officers of the penitentiary service. Prisoners are gathered for a presentation of Wagner Group’s activities and the conditions of “service”. Those who wish to volunteer undergo simple physical tests and are briefly interviewed to determine their “loyalty” and “stability”. Volunteers are promised a monthly salary of about 200,000 roubles (around EUR 2,500) and release after six months of service. In case of death, their relatives receive compensation. At first, recruiters were selective: they tried to contract only prisoners with military or law-enforcement experience. Then they turned to those convicted of violent offences. Finally they opened the doors to everyone. The majority are recidivists, which is not surprising given that about 70% of the Russian prison population is composed of repeat offenders. Most of them willingly join the Wagner Group. This averages 20% or 30% of the prisoners of each correctional colony visited by the recruiters.
Several reports indicate that prisoners who had changed their mind and decided not to enrol had been forcibly recruited and pressured. They were threatened with ─ or actually placed ─ in disciplinary wards. They were told that additional charges would be fabricated against them. In some colonies the prisoners were “persistently recommended” to join the Wagner Group ─ this was the case for instance with some of the Ukrainian prisoners who were illegally transferred by Russian forces from Kherson in November and December last year. These cases are however rather exceptional. During the recruiters’ visits and the subsequent transfer of prisoners, communication channels with the facilities (phone calls, visits) are disrupted. No one is allowed to visit the “volunteers”.
The recruitment campaign in Russian prisons was carried out in several waves. The first active phase targeted correctional facilities in Central Russia and took place between June and September 2022. The second phase, more “productive”, focused on the Ural and the Far East and lasted from September to December 2022. At the beginning of January 2023, the Wagner Group started visiting correctional colonies in the Chechen Republic. This set the stage for the third wave of the recruitment campaign.
The Russian authorities, including the penitentiary service, the Ministry of Defence, and the General Prosecutor Office refuse to comment officially on the recruitment campaign. Their silence and occasional hints indicate an implicit tolerance. No criminal investigation has been opened despite numerous complaints. The Chair of the Lower House of Parliament, for example, and a number of MPs openly support the recruitment, claiming that the prisoners are heroes and that all voices criticising them shall be prosecuted. Some of the recruited prisoners have received medals, including from the President himself or have been buried with military honours. Memorial plaques have been erected to commemorate them. Several members of the President’s Human Rights Council tried to get answers from the State bodies, but without success. They were moreover prohibited from raising this issue during their meetings with the President. These members were finally removed from the Council last December. The only public acknowledgment of the recruitment came from a regional ombudsman.
On 9 February, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder and owner of the Wagner Group, announced that they had “fully stopped” their recruitment campaign. This is consistent with what our partners in Russia, in particular the NGO Russia Behind Bars, are currently witnessing in the country’s correctional colonies. It appears however that over the last two weeks prisoners have been reportedly recruited by the Russian Ministry of Defence, allegedly on the same terms as those offered by Wagner.