December 1, 2023

A sanctioned Russian businessman and close ally of Putin linked to the infamous Wagner Group is reportedly personally touring Russian prisons and recruiting inmates to join the fight in Ukraine.

This is according to the new report of the independent magazine on Saturday Mediazone, which interviewed two prisoners held in different facilities in different regions of Russia. Many reports have emerged in recent weeks about Wagner’s alleged new recruitment among the prisoners, with the private Russian military force apparently trying to shore up Russian forces depleted by heavy losses in the nearly six-month war.

But this appears to be the first time Yevgeny Prigozhin, commonly known as “Putin’s chef”, is said to have personally addressed prisoners.

“They are primarily interested in murderers and robbers, they are wary of drug addicts, the same with rapists. It is better, he said, that they are not common killers, but straight calculations – you will like us, he said. In general, he gave the impression of a maniac,” an unnamed inmate was quoted as saying by Mediazona.

The inmate went on to note that there appeared to be no compulsion to participate, although “many” signed up, he said, estimating that at least 200 inmates eagerly accepted the offer.

The prisoners were reportedly offered a free pardon and a salary in exchange for their service, with the man named Prigozhin promising that they had only a 15 percent chance of dying, a figure allegedly based on an “experimental” shipment of prisoners earlier in July.

During an alleged visit by Prigozhin to a penal colony in Rybinsk, Yaroslavl region, on August 1, prisoners were told that “World War III” was underway and that they were given the opportunity to fight for their homeland. account told by an inmate to Mediazona.

“My children go to African countries and in two days they leave nothing alive there, and now they are also destroying enemies in Ukraine. Your decision to serve at [private military company] it’s a deal with the devil. If you leave here with me, you will either return free or die. You will be asked to kill enemies and follow the orders of the leadership. Those who retreat will be shot on the spot,” one inmate said according to Prigozhin.

Russian billionaire and businessman, owner of Concord catering company Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2016.

Mikhail Svetlov

An inmate at a penal colony in Plavsk, Tula region, said that Mediazona inmates received a visit from Prigozhin on July 25, in which he allegedly said: “I have special authority from the president, I don’t give a damn, I need to win this damn war at any cost.”

After the visits, during which Prigozhin was said to be accompanied by other Wagner representatives, the prisoners were reportedly prevented from using telephones. And according to a friend of one of the prisoners in Plavsk, Wagner’s representatives said they would return for another visit in two or three months if they “run out” of prisoners from the first wave of recruitment.

Several human rights groups have also reported on Wagner’s alleged recruitment effort, including Rus Sidyashaya, who said both detainees and their families have spoken of being recruited by Wagner, and, a human rights group that monitors conditions for prisoners in Russian penal colonies.

Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the human rights group, recently wrote on Facebook that a prisoner in a maximum security facility had spoken out about Putin’s comrade Prigozhin who arrived by helicopter in late July and persuaded about 150 prisoners to join the war.

The man, identified by the inmates as Prigozhin, reportedly tried to socialize with them, noting that he had served a prison sentence himself, according to Mediazona.

So far, according to the independent source Verstkawhich has also closely covered the alleged Wagner recruitment effort, the mercenary group has recruited more than 1,000 prisoners in 17 different penal colonies across Russia.

Long accused by Western officials and investigative journalists of funding Wagner, Prigozhin has denied any ties to the paramilitary force, a shadowy group that has left a long trail of alleged war crimes in Ukraine, Syria and the Central African Republic.

In a statement to Verstka about the alleged attempt to recruit Wagner for the war in Ukraine, the press service of Prigozhin’s company Concord Management allegedly sent a comment from the businessman in which he refrained from directly answering whether he was recruiting prisoners, but admitted that “it was in [penal] colonies in the 80s”.

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