The mercenary army known as PMC Wagner, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been a significant piece of the Russian force used to invade Ukraine. Now it seems that the company, long favored by Russian President Vladimir Putin, could be falling into disfavor. Putin has taken away Wagner’s ability to recruit new personnel from Russia’s prison system. Instead, that power will now be given to Russia’s regular army. The move could be a sign of Putin’s impatience with PMC Wagner and Prigozhin, which have failed to make significant headway in Ukraine. Anna Nemtsova reports in The Daily Beast:
Russia’s Ministry of Defense has taken over the recruitment of convicts to send to the frontlines, wresting control of the enterprise from the Wagner Group, according to the country’s leading prison NGO.
Olga Romanova, the founder of Russia Behind Bars, told The Daily Beast that the Kremlin has sanctioned the recruitment of prisoners into the army for the first time since the Second World War.
On Thursday morning, the Wagner Group boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced that his mercenaries would no longer sign up convicts, which has become a signature move as the group sometimes known as “Putin’s private army” plays a key role in Ukraine. “The recruitment of prisoners by the Wagner private military company has completely stopped,” he said on social media.
Usurping Wagner could be a sign that the Kremlin is keen to clip Prigozhin’s wings amid increasing signs of tensions between the men who could one day replace Putin. Wagner will continue to play a key role, but stripping them of the ability to use prison recruits removes one of their greatest strengths.
The move to officially allow convicts into the army also shows the problems the Kremlin is having with its recruitment drive almost one year into the increasingly unpopular war in Ukraine. Romanova said prisoners, who started signing up on Sunday, have been told they will be freed after six months of fighting.
“It looks like Putin’s goal is to fill up Ukraine’s trenches with dead Russians, so he tries to recruit thousands of his prisoners—there are more than 400,000 Russians behind bars,” she said. “But it does not look like the mobilization is not going as well as Putin expected.”
Saint Petersburg local deputy Boris Vishnevsky said the move was another step towards creating a dehumanized and violent Russia.
“A human life is not worth anything in Russia today; and criminals can go free unpunished if they go to war—a murderer knows he can kill and then just go to war and be freed six months later,” he told The Daily Beast. Vishnevsky is a mathematician and he also taught Russian history at the Free University in Moscow. “The difference between the World War II recruitment and Putin era is that back then even prisoners were eager to defend their motherland for free.”
Vishnevsky said the authorities have promised citizens more than $2,000 in monthly wages to go to war, but still many have hesitated. “Russians evaluate their own lives more expensively than at $2,000, so they are not running to the front,” Vishnevsky said. “So, to find some new motivation to fight in Ukraine other than money, Russian Armed Forces begin to recruit criminals, whose motivation is to get out of jail.”
With one year anniversary of Putin’s war approaching, Russian aftermath looks grimmer and grimmer: at least 200,000 Russian soldiers have reportedly been killed, wounded or gone missing. Thousands of Russian convicts have been killed in combat zones along more than 2,000-mile-long Ukraine front.
The Wagner Group has been using the convicts to smoke out Ukrainian positions in wave after wave of suicide missions into no man’s land between the two frontlines around the city of Bakhmut, which has become the focus of fighting in recent months. Prigozhin claimed victory in seizing the satellite town of Soledar last month earning him a rebuke from Moscow.
Gennady Gudkov, an exiled former Russian parliamentarian, told The Daily Beast that the rivalry between Prigozhin and the regular army was playing into this new strategy. “Putin wants the army to recruit convicts, so Prigozhin would not think he is bigger than an insect. There is no limit of people Putin is happy to throw into prisons and no limit of people he is ready to mobilize but only some fools from provinces go to war, those who need cash and do not really understand anything about the war in Ukraine,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “My prognosis is that Putin will push to recruit more and more of the fools, endlessly.”
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