A few weeks ago, the irreverent Russian news website TJournal – another platform that was recently forced to close – published a satirical story about Russia recruiting patients from psychiatric hospitals and forcing them to the frontlines in Ukraine.
It took a few moments to realize the post was a joke — Vladimir Putin’s Russia is too often the point at which real life and satire collide.
Because it was entirely believable. Psychiatric patients have been forcibly sterilized in the past. Even prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government mulled the possibility of conscripting Russian convicts to work on the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway (BAM) railway project amid a personnel shortage. Since the full-scale invasion began, there have been persistent accounts of Russian attempts to recruit prisoners, and a charity has reported officials were attempting to enlist homeless people from its shelter.
Now, a new video has emerged of Evgeny Prigozhin, 61, known as Putin’s chef for a past catering contract, but who now runs the notorious Wagner private military company, apparently standing in a prison yard offering men freedom or death. Anyone surviving six months on the Ukrainian frontlines would be freed, he said, but anyone deserting would be executed. The footage was posted by incarcerated opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s team.
Prigozhin’s US-sanctioned management and consulting company Concord appeared to recognize the speaker as Prigozhin. “We can confirm that the man in the video bears a startling resemblance to Yevgeny Viktorovich,” it noted.
Prigozhin, a convicted petty criminal in Soviet times, has previously denied links to Wagner but now appears to accept he is closely tied to the group and its notorious mercenary operations in Africa (his face has suddenly become a prominent part of the company’s recruitment drive.) And despite Putin’s past denials of links to the Kremlin, it is hard to imagine him entering a penal colony without approval at a senior level.
Wagner has long been accused of acting as a proxy for the Russian state. Its activities in Libya, the Central African Republic, Syria, and Mali have chimed with Kremlin political and economic goals including the exploitation of raw materials. As part of these operations, it stands accused by the US, UK, and United Nations of grievous human rights violations, as well as disinformation campaigns.
As casualties rose in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, Putin first looked to the regional warlord, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who claimed to have played a key role in early Russian operations in Ukraine, but whose men often seem to act as battle police and occupation enforcers.
Since that time, Wagner has played an increasingly important role, taking men from anywhere and offering large sums of cash for their lives, so-called coffin money.
In July the UK’s Ministry of Defence noted that Wagner “almost certainly played a central role in recent fighting, including the capture of Popasna and Lysyschansk” and that it was lowering its recruitment standards to include convicts.
Wagner is brutal, but not always competent. A group base in eastern Ukraine was reportedly obliterated in August after it accidentally gave away its exact address online, something rapidly seen and exploited by the Ukrainian military.
But the need for new men is acute; according to US estimates in August, as many as 80,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded, many from elite units. Ukraine’s offensives in the east and south have only added to the toll.
Putin’s other option is to announce a general mobilization, but even Kremlin friendly advisers and sociologists have suggested this is unwise.
Given Wagner’s terrible history, it says something that the Kremlin now has to unleash the company and its criminal-mercenary units on Ukraine. Wagner fighters have been connected with rapes — of children, women and men — and of theft and torture. In 2018, three Russian journalists were murdered while in the Central African Republic to investigate Prigozhin’s business deals.
The man in the leaked footage tells the prisoners that they are not to rape local people – something that Russian soldiers in Ukraine have thus far been unable to restrain themselves from doing. And just in case that sounded too high-minded, Prigozhin then told inmates they had just five minutes to make up their minds — aside from Wagner, he said, “only Allah or God” could get them out “in a wooden box”.
The competence of prisoners for military operations have been thrown into question too – by their own admission, they are not capable of conducting the operations required of them. Prisoner NGO Gulagu.net published the transcript of a hotline call Monday during which the speaker said even “old people” who could not even do 10 pull ups were being siphoned into the “special military operation.” “You are just cannon fodder,” they said.
Navalny, who himself is currently incarcerated, said via Twitter on September 20 that these prisoners generally have “big problems with discipline and even bigger problems with alcohol and substances” – which is why former convicts are not usually accepted into the army.
“Those who are in for grievous bodily harm got into a drunken brawl where they hit someone in the head with a club or a stone. What could such an army even accomplish in combat?” he asked.
As for the TJournal story about the mentally ill, that turned out to be semi-prophetic. At the beginning of September, Psychoneurological Dispensary No. 2 in St. Petersburg started trying to recruit war volunteers on its website.
Aliide Naylor is the author of ‘The Shadow in the East’ (Bloomsbury, 2020). She lived in Russia for several years and is now based between London and the Baltic states, working as a journalist, editor and translator.