Convicted criminals released by President Putin to fight in his invasion of Ukraine have deserted and are now resorting to armed crime on the streets of Russia.
Last month, in a desperate move by Moscow, convicts from numerous penal colonies were given the “opportunity” to have their jail sentences quashed in exchange for serving in the Russian army. In a video widely circulated on social media, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a member of Putin’s inner circle and the head of the Wagner private militia, was seen recruiting inmates.
Filmed on a mobile phone, the footage was first released on Sept. 15 on the Telegram channel of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and showed Prigozhin giving a bizarre recruitment speech to lines of convicts.
Prigozhin promised to pardon any convict who agreed to take part in the ongoing illegal invasion of Ukraine for at least six months, warning that retreating or surrendering was prohibited, and that deserters would be executed.
Prisoners who chose to take up the offer, and who were still alive after six months, would be pardoned, or could continue their service in the Wagner group.
However, many convicts who took up the offer have since deserted and are allegedly now roaming the streets of Russia, armed, and engaging in crime sprees, British newspaper The Daily Express reported on Monday, Oct. 17.
Some of the deserters have reportedly also formed “street gangs.”
“A Ukrainian military officer says hundreds of Russian convicts offered pardons for combat have already showed up on the battlefield in Ukraine,” NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel wrote on Twitter on Monday.
“Some have gone AWOL with their weapons to carry out crimes back in Russia,” he added.
On Sunday evening, Prominent anti-Putin Twitter account @turkmendagz tweeted that, “The criminals mobilised by Prigozhin, having received weapons, began to run away from their units and created armed gangs.”
“There is nothing unexpected in this,” the tweet added. “Now the lads have something to go to rob citizens and banks.”
In a statement released on Sept. 19, a senior U.S. defense official who chose to remain anonymous, said: “Our information indicates that Wagner has been suffering high losses in Ukraine, especially and unsurprisingly among young and inexperienced fighters.”
Speaking to The Guardian in September, several prisoners from different penal colonies in Russia, and their family members, confirmed that the Wagner group were recruiting convicts from prisons with the promise of a pardon and financial compensation.
One of the inmates, whom The Guardian named simply as “Ivan,” said that around 120 inmates from his penal colony had joined the group, while all prisoners interviewed by the newspaper said they had been promised a salary of 100,000 rubles a month and a presidential pardon.
Meanwhile, thousands of Russians continue with their attempts to evade conscription.
Since Putin’s announcement in September that around 300,000 reservists would be conscripted to fight in Ukraine, neighboring countries have seen their borders swell with long lines of Russians seeking to flee.
Writing for Euractiv on Oct. 6, MEP Urmas Paet, Vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, warned EU nations against granting Russian deserters asylum.
“I firmly believe that giving asylum to the men currently leaving Russia would be too risky for the EU and, therefore, should not be done,” he wrote.
“There is no reason to assume that the men currently leaving Russia would automatically be against Russia’s war against Ukraine or the Putin regime.”
He added, “Suppose the war in Ukraine was to expand into a conflict between the Western world and Russia. In that case, Europe could find itself in a situation where there are already hundreds of thousands or millions of young Russian men in the Member States. What will be their loyalty and behavior if there should be a direct conflict with their home country?”
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