He was released from a Russian prison and sent to the Ukrainian War with the promise of freedom, redemption and money. Now Andrei Iastrebov, one of tens of thousands of soldiers convicted of crimes, is one of many fighters returning from the battlefield in a move that has potentially serious consequences for Russian society.
Iastrebov, 22, had been serving time for shoplifting. He returned home transformed. A relative who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals, said: “It’s like he’s hypnotized. No emotion at all.”
Russian human rights defenders and Ukrainian officials say thousands of former detainees have been killed, many within days or even hours of arriving at the front. Among those who survive and return home, most remain silent, fearing reprisals if they speak out.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to authorize a mercenary group to recruit Russian detainees to bolster his faltering war effort marks a watershed in his 23-year rule, human rights activists and legal experts say.
The policy is at odds with Russia’s legal precedent, and by sending some brutal criminals home on pardons, it risks unleashing even greater violence in society. All of this clearly highlights the cost Putin is willing to pay to avoid defeat.
Since July, some 40,000 detainees have joined the Russian armed forces, according to Western intelligence agencies, the Ukrainian government and the NGO defending the rights of detainees Russia Behind Bars, which compiles data on informants in prisons. Ukraine says nearly 30,000 of them have defected or been killed or wounded, but that number could not be independently confirmed.
Most of those recruited are men who were serving time for minor crimes, such as theft or assault, but documents from a penal colony that the New York Times had access to show that among them there were also men convicted of aggravated rape and multiple homicides.
“There are no more crimes and no more punishments,” said Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars. “Today anything is permissible, and that has far-reaching consequences for any country.”
More than six months ago Russia’s largest private military company, the Wagner Group, and its founder, Ievgeni Prigozhin, began systematically recruiting detainees on a scale not seen since World War II, to reinforce the bloodthirsty assault on the city of Bakhmut. , in Ukraine. But the operation is still largely shrouded in secrecy and political propaganda.
According to lawyers and human rights activists, the Wagner Group has managed to avoid oversight by exploiting the most marginalized Russians: the 350,000 male detainees in its brutal penal colonies.
Dozens of survivors from the first prison units began returning to Russia this month armed with medals, substantial payments and documents that the Wagner Group says give them freedom. The number of releases is expected to rise as the six-month service contracts expire. Thus, Russian society may face the challenge of reintegrating thousands of traumatized men with military training, criminal backgrounds and poor job prospects.
“These are psychologically traumatized people coming home with a feeling that they were right, with the idea that they killed to defend the homeland,” said Yana Gelmel, a lawyer who defends the rights of Russian prisoners and works with conscripted detainees. “They can be very dangerous.”
Neither Prigozhin, via the press office, nor the Russian prison service made any statements.
To document the recruitment drive, The New York Times interviewed human rights activists, lawyers, court officials, family members of recruited detainees, deserters, and inmates who chose to remain behind bars but maintain contact with comrades on the front lines.
They described a sophisticated system of incentives and brutality by the Wagner Group, with Kremlin backing, to fill depleted Russian ranks with questionable and possibly illegal methods.
Andrei Medvedev said he joined the militia days after he finished serving his prison sentence for shoplifting in southern Russia. A former detainee with military experience, he was reportedly placed in charge of a detachment of prisoners sent on near-suicide missions in the Bakhmut region.
In a telephone interview from Russia after defecting in November, Medvedev reported: “They said, ‘Keep going until you’re killed.’ He has since fled to Norway, where he has sought political asylum.
The campaign to recruit detainees began in early July, when Prigozhin began showing up at prisons near St. Petersburg, his hometown, with a radical proposal for the detainees: to pay his debt to society by joining his private army in Ukraine. A former prisoner himself, Prigozhin understands prison culture. He deftly combined a threat of punishment with the promise of a new life with dignity, human rights activists and relatives of prisoners said.
“He didn’t go for the money – he had too much pride for that,” said Anastasia, of a detainee family member recruited by the Wagner Group. “It was because he was ashamed of his mother and wanted to clear her name.”
Prigozhin’s prison visits immediately raised legal questions. Recruiting mercenaries is illegal in Russia, and until last year he denied the very existence of the Wagner Group.
According to requests for information registered by relatives of detainees, officially the prisoners never went to war – they were just transferred to prisons close to the border with Ukraine.
When Anastasia, who asked that her last name not be used, went to her recruited relative’s prison to try to discover her whereabouts, the guards allegedly told her only that the relative was unavailable.
Recently, to increase the number of recruitments, which have been falling, the Wagner Group advertised the advantages for surviving combatants, releasing videos of prisoners who returned from the front being released. Under the Russian Constitution, only Putin can grant a pardon, and the Kremlin has not issued such decrees since 2020. In 2021, Putin granted pardons to six people.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters on Friday that detainees recruited by the Wagner Group were being pardoned “in strict accordance with Russian law”. He refused to say anything else, implying that the procedure is a state secret.
“There are open decrees and decrees with varying degrees of secrecy,” he said.
Under Russian law, all pardon requests are evaluated by specialized regional committees before they reach the Kremlin. But two members of those commissions said they had not received any petitions from recruited detainees. One of these officials represents St. Petersburg, where Andrei Iastrebov lives.
Human rights activists say the ambiguous legal status of convicts returning home weakens the Russian justice system and locks the future of these fighters into the Wagner Group.
After spending three weeks at home, Iastrebov said he was already preparing to return to the front, despite the very high rates of deaths and injuries in the unit of fighters in his prison, according to Russia Behind Bars. “I want to defend the homeland,” he said. “I liked everything there. Civilian life is boring.”
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