TOfficials were expected to inspect the St. Petersburg penal colony. Instead, men in uniform arrived and offered them amnesty — if they agreed to fight alongside the Russian army in Ukraine.
According to the woman who is the boyfriend of the man serving the sentence, around a dozen people left prison over the next days. Speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals, she said her boyfriend wasn’t among the volunteers, although with years left on his sentence, he “couldn’t not think about it.”
As Russia continues to suffer losses in its invasion of Ukraine, now nearing its sixth month, the Kremlin has refused to announce a full-blown mobilization — a move that could be very unpopular for President Vladimir Putin. This has resulted in a covert recruitment campaign that uses prisoners to compensate for the lack of human resources.
This happens amid reports that many Russian soldiers refuse to fight, and are trying to leave the military.
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“We’re seeing a huge outflow of people who want to leave the war zone — those who have been serving for a long time and those who have signed a contract just recently,” said Alexei Tabalov, a lawyer who runs the Conscript’s School legal aid group.
The group has seen an influx of requests from men who want to terminate their contracts, “and I personally get the impression that everyone who can is ready to run away,” Tabalov said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And the Defense Ministry is digging deep to find those it can persuade to serve.”
Although the Defense Ministry denies that any “mobilization activities” are taking place, authorities seem to be pulling out all the stops to bolster enlistment. Billboards and public transit ads in various regions proclaim, “This is The Job,” urging men to join the professional army. Some cities have mobile recruitment centers, one of which is located near the Siberian half-marathon in May.
Regional administrations are forming “volunteer battalions” that are promoted on state television. Kommersant, a business newspaper, reported that there were at most 40 of these entities across 20 regions. Officials promised volunteers monthly salaries between $2,150 and $5,500 plus bonus payments.
Russian soldiers patrol a destroyed part of the Illich Iron & Steel Works Metallurgical Plant in Mariupol, in territory under the control of the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
AP Photo. File
The AP saw many openings via job sites for military specialists.
The British military said this week that Russia had formed a major new ground force called the 3rd Army Corps from “volunteer battalions,” seeking men up to age 50 and requiring only a middle-school education, while offering “lucrative cash bonuses” once they are deployed to Ukraine.
But complaints also are surfacing in the media that some aren’t getting their promised payments, although those reports can’t be independently verified.
Tabalov stated that he started receiving numerous requests for legal assistance from the reservists, who were ordered to participate in two months of training near Ukraine’s border.
Vladimir Osechkin of Gulagu.net said that the recent recruitment of prison inmates has taken place in at least seven different regions. This was citing relatives and inmates that his group had spoken to.
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It’s not the first time that authorities have used such a tactic, with the Soviet Union employing “prisoner battalions” during World War II.
Russia is not the only one. The Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky offered amnesty for military veterans in prison if they were willing to fight. However, it is not clear if it was implemented.
In the current circumstances, Osechkin said, it isn’t the Defense Ministry that’s recruiting prisoners — instead, it was Russia’s shadowy private military force, the Wagner Group.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, an entrepreneur known as “Putin’s chef” because of his catering contracts with the Kremlin and reportedly Wagner’s manager and financier, brushed aside reports that he personally visited prisons to recruit convicts, in a written statement released by his representatives this month. Prigozhin actually denies that he is connected to Wagner. Wagner reportedly sent military contractors to countries like Syria, sub-Saharan Africa.
Russian soldiers guard an area next to a field of wheat in the Zaporizhzhia region—an area under Russian military control in southeastern Ukraine, on Tuesday, June 14, 2022.
(AP Photo, File)
Osechkin stated that prisoners with law enforcement or military experience were first offered to move to Ukraine. But, the offer was eventually extended to those with different backgrounds. According to Osechkin, around 1,500 prisoners might have been interested in going to Ukraine as per late July. They were lured by the promise of high salaries or pardons.
Now, he added, many of those volunteers — or their families — are contacting him and seeking to get out of their commitments, telling him: “I really don’t want to go.”
According to the woman whose boyfriend is serving his sentence at the penal colony in St. Petersburg, the offers to leave the prison are “a glimmer of hope” for freedom. She said that he had told her that eight of the 11 volunteers died in Ukraine. She added that one of the volunteers expressed regret for his decision and doesn’t believe he will return alive.
Her account couldn’t be independently verified, but was in line with multiple reports by independent Russian media and human rights groups.
These groups, military lawyers and others claim that some soldiers and law enforcers have not been deployed to Ukraine and are trying to return to their homeland after weeks and months of fighting.
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Reports about troops refusing combat in Ukraine began to surface in spring. But lawyers and rights groups only started talking about how many refusals reached the hundreds in last month.
Mid-July saw the Free Buryatia Foundation report that around 150 people were able end their Defense Ministry contracts, and they returned to Ukraine from Buryatia in Eastern Siberia, which borders Mongolia.
Some servicemen face repercussions. According to relatives, Tabalov the lawyer for legal aid said that around 80 soldiers had attempted to cancel their contracts and were held in Bryanka, a Russian-controlled city in eastern Ukraine. According to Tabalov, the Bryanka detention centre was closed due to the attention of the media.
As she guards a group foreign journalists, a Russian Army soldier inspects a scope on her sniper rifle as other soldiers watch. The checkpoint is located near Schastia and was captured by the Ukrainian government. This happened Saturday, June 11, 2022.
AP Photo. File
The parent of one of these officers was taken into custody after he tried to get out his contract. However, the AP learned this week from the parent that other officers are being held elsewhere in the area. Out of safety reasons, the parent requested not to be identified.
Tabalov said a serviceman can terminate his contract for a compelling reason — normally not difficult — although the decision is usually up to his commander. But he added: “In the conditions of hostilities, not a single commander would acknowledge anything like that, because where would they find people to fight?”
Alexandra Garmazhapova, head of the Free Buryatia Foundation, told the AP that soldiers and their relatives complain of commanders tearing up termination notices and threatening “refuseniks” with prosecution. According to the Free Buryatia Foundation, hundreds of soldiers had made requests for termination of their contracts by late July.
“I’m getting messages every day,” Garmazhapova said.
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Tabalov said some soldiers complain that they were deceived about where they were going and didn’t expect to end up in a war zone, while others are exhausted from fighting and unable to continue.
The lawyer stated that they rarely, if ever, appeared motivated by antiwar convictions.
Russia will continue to face problems with soldiers refusing to fight, military analyst Michael Kofman said, but one shouldn’t underestimate Russia’s ability to “muddle through … with half-measures.”
“They’re going to have a lot of people who are quitting or have people who basically don’t want to deploy,” said Kofman, director of the Virginia-based Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, on a recent podcast. “And they’ve employed a lot of measures to try to keep people in line. But ultimately, there’s not that much that they can do.”
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