On Jan. 3, Russia and Ukraine made the first prisoner exchange for six months, returning 248 POWs to Russia.

However, findings published by the Our Way Out project, working with the state-owned Ukrainian platform “I Want to Find,” revealed that 180 or 73% of those released had been recruited by the Russian Ministry of Defense while serving prison sentences.

Although Ukraine had initially prepared a larger list of Russian servicemen for exchange, the final numbers requested by Russia primarily consisted of former prisoners.

Our Way Out published a list of those Russian prisoners exchanged, which the independent news site “Important Stories” cross-verified. Those released included individuals convicted of serious crimes such as murder, kidnapping, robbery and extortion.


Among those exchanged was Anton Meshcheryakov, a former prisoner from the Leningrad region who had been recruited into a Storm - Z detachment.

Meshcheryakov was serving a five-year term in a correctional facility near the town of Fornosovo for drugs offenses before signing a contract with the Ministry of Defense. He is currently stationed in a military unit in the Moscow region, where he and others were informed that they would stay for a month, during which time the FSB would “work with them.”

His relative explained that Meshcheryakov had opted for military service because he still had two years left to serve and had little prospect of being paroled. His family are worried that a video in which he criticized the Russian command while in captivity might cause problems for him.

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Another released POW was Oleg Shunin, who had been sentenced to 11 years in a high security prison in January 2023 for murder. Although it is known he had undergone a medical examination and FSB interviews somewhere in the Moscow region, there is limited information about his current status.

Our Way Out speculated that Moscow preferred to include former inmates for inclusion in the exchange program as it was likely that they could be easily manipulated to return to the front.


Russia’s Defense Ministry and the Wagner mercenary group recruited heavily from Russian prisons in late 2022 and throughout 2023 to make up for manpower losses during the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. Convicts were promised pardons in exchange for as little as six months of military service. This has led to some worrying cases

In November of 2023, the self-confessed member of a Satanic sect, who had been sentenced in 2010 to 20 years in prison for murder, cannibalism and the violation of dead bodies, had been freed after completing six months of military service fighting in Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

The practice of pardoning convicts in exchange for enlisting for the fighting in Ukraine was only taken into legislation and approved by Russian lawmakers in June 2023, nearly 16 months into the war and almost a year after the first reports that Wagner was recruiting convicts were made.

The Moscow Times cited a leading Russian prisoner’s rights activist, Olga Romanova, who said in August that as many as 80,000 convicts had been recruited, with at least 20,000 being released after fighting. It is believed that recruitment efforts are continuing.


As previously reported by Kyiv Post a number of those pardoned and released have gone on to commit further crimes after returning from Ukraine. It was reported in early October that almost 30 murders had been committed by returnees, many of which were frightening in their savagery.

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