Wagner PMC Recruits Russian Criminals and Convicts for War in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 127

Russian soldiers are pictured at the Wagner military base in Popasna, Ukraine, with the address clearly visible on a plaque in the top left corner, resulting in a deadly mid-August attack (Source: Sergey Sreda)

On August 14, the Ukrainian town of Popasna (Luhansk Oblast) was hit by US-produced and Ukraine-operated M142 HIMARS complexes, reportedly causing severe damage to the locally headquartered private military company (PMC), the Wagner Group (Mil.in.ua, August 14). As a result of the attack, more than 100 Russian mercenaries were reportedly eliminated (UNIAN, August 15). The Ukrainians targeted Popasna after Russian military propagandists (specifically, Voyenkor Sergey Sreda) posted a video and pictures on Telegram, de-facto revealing the location of Wagner forces. In one picture, Sreda was allegedly greeting Yevgeny Prigozhin, the primary sponsor of the Wagner Group (Sila-rf.ru, August 9). Having suffered significant losses, the Wagner PMC will need more fighters, who, among others, will be recruited from prisoners, convicts and open criminals in Russia.

The Wagner Group, which emerged in 2014, has been involved in Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine (started on February 24) almost from its outset. On February 28, information about Wagner efforts to recruit new personnel for Ukraine started to circulate. Unlike before—when entrance criteria were tougher—Wagner recruiters are now taking a much more relaxed approach. As stated by one mercenary (whose identity was not revealed), for the Ukrainian campaign, Wagner emphasizes the recruitment of fighters with a criminal record (Bbc.com/russian, March 11).

To find out the main recruitment criteria for admittance into the Wager Group, authoritative Russian business news outlet RBC conducted its own investigation. Among the myriad requirements discovered by the RBC examination, two major factors should be highlighted (Rbc.ru, July 9). First, in terms of staffing, holders of any foreign passport (except for European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, as well as Ukraine) are fully eligible to join the group. Any new candidate—without functioning profiles on any social network site—wishing to join the formation has to be at least 22 years old (significantly lower than the original entry age) and can be as old as 50 (much higher than the previous limit). For mature candidates (if they demonstrate excellent health indicators) to join Wagner, an impressive military resume must be provided. When it comes to payroll, the standard compensation rate is 240,000 rubles ($3,840) per month. In addition to basic salary, mercenaries are eligible for additional performance-based compensation that reportedly ranges from 150,000 rubles ($2,400) to 700,000 rubles ($11,200), which, in reality, seems a bit exaggerated. Importantly, both the salary and extra compensation are provided in cash, and no formal bank transactions occur. Another curious detail, which sharply contrasts with previous “adventures” of the Wagner group, is the new rule about criminal records: RBC (as well as other sources) stated that the eligibility to join Wagner with a criminal past is “decided on an individual basis, based on results of the personal interview.”

Secondly, in terms of training and preparation, some rules have dramatically changed. For instance, if a candidate complies with the aforementioned criteria, he then needs to travel to the Molkino training ground (Krasnodar Krai) for so-called “filtration” procedures (which typically take between two and three days), where a more detailed, personalized assessment is taken. If successful, the recruit is hired by Wagner and assigned a specialization (based on previously demonstrated skills and track record) and begins training. Interestingly, unlike before (when exercises could last up to two months), training is said to occur over one week, after which a mercenary is then sent to Ukraine.

This means that the Wagner Group—which played a notable role in the fights for Popasna and Lysychansk (both in Luhansk Oblast), for which Prigozhin was reportedly decorated with the title Hero of the Russian Federation—must have suffered severe losses (Zavtra.ru, June 27). As a result, the Wagner PMC has had to change its recruitment strategy, lifting some of the previously maintained rules in an effort to send as many newly recruited mercenaries to the front lines as expeditiously as possible. As noted by Ukrainian sources, this approach—perhaps effective in the short run—will eventually lead to an aggravation of operational effectiveness and decrease the overall impact of Wagner mercenaries for Russian forces (UNIAN, July 18).

Ukrainian sources stipulate that, by early August 2022, Russia had already recruited more than 1,000 convicts and criminals (coming from 17 prisons in nine different Russian regions) to “volunteer” to fight in Ukraine with the Wagner Group (News.liga.net, August 7). According to some Ukrainian sources, the majority of convicts have been recruited from penitentiaries in Yaroslavl, Ryazan, Tula, Komi, Pskov, Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg (Myc.news, August 5). This trend will most likely continue, and Wagner recruiters will increase their search in economically depressed areas and regions with higher levels of criminality.

According to Ukraine, paramilitary operations have not been the only tasks performed by Wagner mercenaries. For instance, Ukrainian intelligence has argued that the massive assassination of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) in Olenivka (temporarily occupied Donetsk Oblast)—no less than 50 POWs were killed and another 130 injured—on July 28 was also carried out by Wagner forces (Ukrinform, July 29). In effect, this confirms previously circulated information (considered rumors at the time) about the Wagner Group executing missions aimed at terrorizing local populations—not only in Ukraine but also in Syria—and to break local resistance.

In sum, two concluding observations should be emphasized. First, the fact that the Wagner Group has significantly relaxed its rules pertaining to both recruitment and training demonstrates that the group—and Russian forces operating in Ukraine—are running out of personnel due to high casualty rates. Meanwhile, the employment of known criminals and convicts suggests that, in its war against Ukraine, Russia will accentuate terror as a means to destroy local morale and break Ukrainians’ will to fight.

Second, the fact that Russia is increasingly reliant on the integration of convicts and criminals into various spheres of its economy—Moscow is already using convicts for Arctic-related projects—clearly draws on the Kremlin’s readiness to utilize certain Soviet practices in the realm of economics, as prisoner labor (lagernaya ekonomika) played a central role in the Soviet economy (Ria.ru, March 12, 2021). However, this approach turned out to be a major factor in the eventual crumbling of the cumbersome and ineffective Soviet economy—and could produce the same result for the modern Russian economy.