Without soldiers and facing setbacks on the battlefield, Russia appears to be turning to convicted criminals to fight in Ukraine.
A private military company is recruiting prisoners to send to the front lines in an effort to bolster Russian President Vladimir Putin’s faltering invasion, according to Western military analysts and a new video that appears to make the group’s recruitment pitch.
Images emerged this week of what appears to be Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch and alleged financier of Wagner’s mercenary group. He previously denied links to the group whose mercenaries have been fighting in Ukraine and deployed by the Kremlin to places like Syria and Sudan, analysts say.
Video posted on Russian social media shows a man with Prigozhin’s voice and appearance addressing a large group of prisoners, all dressed in navy blue uniforms and gathered in what appears to be a concrete courtyard. He tells them their sentences would be commuted if they serve in the Ukraine for six months, but anyone who changes their minds will be shot as a deserter.
“You will be no different from us,” the man in the video tells the prisoners, according to a translation for this article. I’ll get you out alive. But they don’t always bring you back alive.”
NBC News’ social newsgathering team geolocated the video to a jail in the city of Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Russia’s central Mari El Republic, about 500 miles east of Moscow. It is unclear when the footage was shot. It first appeared this week on Russian Telegram channels and social media accounts, and was shared by opposition activists.
Ukraine’s armed forces have retook control of large swathes of land in recent weeks, as they advanced with the help of precise Western-supplied artillery against what experts said were thin and disorganized Russian defensive lines.
The counteroffensive led to the discovery of a suspected mass burial site near the crucial city of Izyum, one of many areas where the Russian pullout has left the Kremlin scrambling to respond.
the british ministry of defense said on friday that Wagner had been offering prisoners sentence reductions or cash incentives to sign up for the fight since at least July. The ministry also said Russian military academies were shortening training courses so cadets could deploy earlier. “The impact of Russia’s workforce challenge has become increasingly severe,” he said.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based military think tank, said in a briefing this week that the video showed that “Prigozhin is establishing himself as the face of the Russian ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.”
A Russian military blogger “has pointed out that Prigozhin is introducing a ‘Stalinist’ method that allows the Kremlin to avoid ordering a general mobilization that could ignite social tensions in Russian society,” the institute added, referring to the online community of activists to pro-war activists who have been urging the Kremlin to change its approach in the wake of Ukraine’s advances.
“So far, Putin has not wanted to go into general mobilization, which would be highly unpopular and could have consequences for regime stability,” said John Lough, associate fellow and Russia expert at Chatham House, a London think tank. . . He said the prisoner recruitment “suggests a level of desperation” on the part of the Kremlin.
Russian soldiers sent to the front lines are severely ill-equipped, ill-prepared and lack the motivation to fight, according to Lough.
“Increasingly there are indications that there is a serious morale problem… that is extraordinarily dangerous for the Russians. Some pockets of forces there have clearly chosen to withdraw at speed,” Lough said.
Prigozhin’s company provides catering services to the Kremlin and other Russian state agencies, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef.” Now a wealthy oligarch, Putin’s close ally previously served nine years in prison for robbery when he was 20.
He was barred from entering the United States under Treasury Department sanctions for his alleged involvement in attempts to influence the 2018 election.
Concord Group, Prigozhin’s company, which is the only apparent way to contact him for comment, appeared to confirm it was him in the video in a mildly derisive response to a Russian tabloid reporter on the Russian social media platform VKontakte.
“In fact, we can confirm that the man in the video bears a monstrous resemblance to Yevgeny Viktorovich,” he said, using the patronymic version of Prigozhin’s name.
Addressing criticism of the plan to hire prisoners as soldiers, the company posted a response on its VKontakte page and said it was from Prigozhin himself read, using an acronym for private military companies: “Either PMCs and prisoners, or their children, decide for themselves. yourselves. ”
In the video, the man who appears to be Prigozhin warned prisoners about the dangers of indulging in alcohol and drugs at the front, and what he called “loitering.”
“That includes sexual contacts with local women, men, flora, fauna, anyone,” he said.
The Wagner Group would be careful, he continued, with the recruitment of sex offenders, before adding: “But we understand there can be mistakes.”
The man said in the video that he was looking for “stormtroopers” to join raiding missions. He also revealed that he had previously used 40 prisoners from the Russian city of St. Petersburg in an assault on a power plant in the Donetsk region of Ukraine in June.
Russia has consistently denied involvement of the Wagner Group in its official military operations. NBC News has contacted the Kremlin for comment.
NBC News asked the Concord Group if he was Prigozhin in the video and if he was clarifying his relationship with Wagner. “Gentlemen, you are getting more and more boring,” the company’s VKontakte page. responded publiclyreferring to previous media responses and not responding to questions.