Russia dangles freedom if prisoners fight in Ukraine. Many are taking a deadly gamble.



In a month-long investigation, CNN spoke with relatives and friends of prisoners caught up in Russia’s new recruitment scheme. Activists believe hundreds of people – from murderers to drug offenders – have been contacted in dozens of prisons across Russia. Some have been taken from the prison where Paul Whelan, a high-ranking American, is imprisoned in Russia. His brother David said in a statement in July that he had heard that ten volunteers had left an IK-17 in Mordovia on the front line in Ukraine.

Dozens of chat messages between relatives reviewed by CNN describe the tempting rewards of fighting in Ukraine, where the risk of death is high. Recent Western assessments suggest that around 75,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded since the offensive began (which the Kremlin denies).

One inmate spoke to CNN from his cramped prison cell, where a cat crawled across the bunk beds and a fan strapped to an aging television tried to cool the air between the heavily barred windows. Having spent years in prison for drug offences, he spoke on condition of anonymity using a contraband smartphone — quite common in the Russian prison system.

“They accept murderers, but not rapists, pedophiles, extremists or terrorists,” he said. “Amnesty or pardon will be granted in six months. Someone talks about 100,000 rubles a month, another 200,000. Everything is different.” The offer was made when the unidentified men, believed to be part of a private military contractor firm, arrived at the prison in the first half of July, and acceptance into the program would lead to two weeks of training in the Rostov region, he said. South Russia. Although he has two years of service in the military, he said recruiters don’t seem to insist on military experience.

“As for me, if it’s true, I’m all for it,” said the prisoner. “It could make a real difference to me: almost a decade in prison, or get out in six months if you’re lucky. But if you’re lucky, that is. I want to go to a children’s home as soon as possible. . . If this option is available, then why not?”

The prisoner said 50 inmates have already been selected for recruitment and are being quarantined in the jail, but he has heard that 400 have applied. Rights activists working in Russia’s prison system said they had been inundated with reports from across Russia from relatives worried about the fate of their prisoners since early July.

“In the last three weeks [in July]”There is a huge wave of this plan to recruit thousands of Russian prisoners and send them to war,” said Vladimir Osechkin, head of prisoner advocacy group Gulagu.net.

Osechkin was promised five million rubles ($82,000) to his family if he died, but all financial rewards were never honored. “There is no guarantee, no real contract. It is illegal”, he said.

“It could make a real difference to me: be in prison for about a decade, or get out in six months if you’re lucky. But if you’re lucky.”

The inmate spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity

Osechkin said some inmates and their family members are eager for recruitment to continue, echoing the reactions of some inmate families seen by CNN.

Osechkin hypothesized that the prisoners were effectively used as bait to attract the fire of Ukrainian positions and accurately repel the regular Russian military. “They go first, and when the Ukrainian army sees them and they hit. Then the Russian soldiers see where the Ukrainians are and bomb the place”.

CNN reached out to Russia’s Ministry of Defense and the Penitentiary Service (FSIN) for comment on allegations that prisoners are being recruited to fight in Ukraine. Neither responded.

While recruitment is in its early days, the first reports have emerged among family members of wounded prisoners hospitalized in the Russian-backed separatist region of Luhansk.

CNN has already sent the chat messages exchanged between relatives of the prisoners to the frontline. A wife describes how she contacted her husband, who was lying wounded in a Luhansk hospital. The wife said only three inmates from her husband’s unit of ten were still alive. CNN knows the identity of the injured prisoner, but could not confirm his hospitalization because separatist medical facilities are shrouded in secrecy.

Other messages between relatives describe the quiet frustration of prisoners caught up in Russia’s justice system, where 99% of cases are prosecuted, and corruption looms large in an overburdened penal system. This month, an inmate sent his brother a message on WhatsApp about his decision to go.

a prisoner

i am going But don’t tell mother in any way. That way is better. Otherwise she gets very worried and reacts to every news.

brother

That’s it, we respond to every news. If you tell us where you are, what you are doing, we will be calm because we know where to look.

a prisoner

I don’t know either. Everything is determined by facts.

a prisoner

I know that we are going to the 12th prison and once gathered for 2 weeks to Rostov, where the center is, and then to the region.

a prisoner

I’m ready to go. Lots of options [in life], but now there is only one. That’s why I agreed.

brother

You can work in a prison, read books, get qualifications in IT or languages.

a prisoner

I am already too old for that.

Moscow’s manpower options have lost five-plus months of clumsy and brutal aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin initially said no troops had been deployed in the war, before his defense ministry admitted it had withdrawn some from the front lines after their deployment in an apparent error. The Kremlin has said there will be no general demobilization in Russia, a policy likely to prove unpopular, especially if losses spread across the population do not significantly change battlefield dynamics.

Prison recruits, activists and inmates, Wagner said, are not subject to the Russian military’s ban on hiring criminals, under the auspices of private military contractors. The prisoners have not shared any copies of their contracts with their relatives or activists, so the exact terms or employers remain unclear. Wagner — which operates globally and is run by Yevgeny Prigogine, known as Putin’s chef — is Russia’s most ubiquitous military contractor. Prigogine denies an affair with Wagner.

The lack of clarity coupled with the silence of their loved ones increases the anxieties of relatives. Oksana, the half-sister of the Russian prisoner who was given the assignment, said his mother was initially excited to receive a salary from her son’s service, but, since he disappeared from her messaging apps, was beside herself with worry.

“These are the least protected part of the population. Putin said no conscripts would be sent, but they were. With criminals, it would be very difficult to reveal that they were sent.”

Oksana, the half-sister of the prisoner who was given the assignment

“We know he is in Rostov Oblast,” said Oksana, adding that he is in another prison factory. “He called her on July 10 on a new WhatsApp number and asked her to send a copy of her passport so that she can get his salary,” she said. This means they are less likely to be incarcerated, he said, adding that an inmate’s wages are usually paid into his own account by prison workers.

“I have been in touch with many relatives and they all have the same scenario: send passport details. No contact,” he said. “These are the least protected part of the population. Putin said no conscripts would be sent, but they were. With criminals, it would be very difficult to reveal that they were sent.” Oksana’s name has been changed for security reasons.

In late July, the mother received a message from another new number familiar with her son’s broken Russian. It insisted he was safe and sound, but gave no details on his whereabouts. “There is still a little time left but it will go quickly,” he wrote. “I’ll call you when I can.”

Then a man introduced himself as an “accountant” and phoned the mother, who promised to bring her son’s salary in cash after a week.



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