More than 28,000 prisoners including murderers, rapists and those guilty of grievous bodily harm have been freed from jails to fight for Vladimir Putin in his war in Ukraine, it is claimed.
The scheme has so far led to the release of more than five percent of the entire male jail population in Russia as the Kremlin steps up recruitment of inmates after suffering a humiliating defeat against Ukraine’s army in the east of the country.
The astonishing figure – revealed by independent Volya Telegram channel – is far higher than previous estimates of released prisoners fighting for Russia in Ukraine.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man known as ‘Putin’s ‘chef’, was filmed earlier this week offering a pardon to violent criminals and sex offenders – if they could survive fighting in Ukraine for six months.
A new video this week showed 400 prisoner-volunteers in a dozen prison vans on their way to basic training.
Most inmates are given just perfunctory training before being sent into battle on the front lines as assault troops, where survival rates are shiveringly low.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, 61, the head of Wagner Group private military company, went to a penal colony in Mordovia to offer prisoners a chance of freedom in exchange for fighting in Putin’s war. It is thought that 28,000 Russian prisoners have taken up the offer
Yevgeny Prigozhin told the inmates they will be pardoned if they survive six months in the war against Ukraine. They should take their own lives instead of being taken prisoner, he said
The Wagner chief gave the inmates five minutes to decide if they wanted to join Russia’s war in Ukraine. The minimum age is 22, and the maximum is 50, with a six-month commitment
Yevgeny Prigozhin, (right) linked to Wagner private military company used to bolster the Russian army in Ukraine, is pictured with Vladimir Putin
Prigozhin, 61, is the man behind the scheme to replenish Russia’s stock of foot soldiers, according to reports. He was recently made a Hero of Russia for his loyalty to Putin and is also thought to be the founder of the notorious private military company Wagner.
He is also suspected of being behind the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency troll farm that pollutes online discussion and interferes with elections in democratic countries.
Prigozhin was seen giving the sales pitch to inmates in a bleak Mordovian penal colony – a former Gulag prison camp – region offering inmates earlier in the week in a leaked video.
The oligarch told prisoners they should take their own lives instead of being captured in Ukraine, holding one grenade for the enemy and one for themselves.
Prisoners were warned they would be shot in summary executions if they deserted, but they can also become heroes of Russia in battle.
Prisoners who opt to fight for Putin are sent to the Wagner private army, ‘controlled’ by Prigozhin, which fulfils military orders of the Russian defence ministry in Ukraine.
‘This is a hard war, not even close to the likes of [Chechnya] and the others,’ he was videoed telling them.
‘Ammo consumption is two-and-a-half-times higher than in the battle of Stalingrad,’ where there were almost two million casualties, he said.
Prigozhin admitted in the video that he represents the Wagner private army, deployed by Putin in Ukraine.
He has previously denied a link to Wagner which is known to have already recruited thousands of inmates as Russia deploys its most dangerous prisoners as fighters.
‘I am a representative of a private war company, perhaps you heard the name – Wagner Group,’ he tells the assembled prison inmates.
A significant number of the inmates seemed tempted by the Squid Games-style offer.
A destroyed Russian tank and armoured personnel carriers on the outskirts of Izium. Russia is experiencing a manpower shortage after suffering heavy losses against Ukraine
A destroyed Russian MT-LB armoured personnel carrier burning in a field on the outskirts of Izyum – something the Russian inmates have to look forward to once they arrive on the battlefield
Yet the system is being abused with some ‘wealthy inmates’ paying bribes to buy their way out of prison without going to fight, it is claimed.
This has so far netted the team of a close Putin crony along with criminal and prison bosses some £33 million, alleges a new report.
‘According to various sources, from April to September the Federal Penitentiary Service has already handed over more than 28,000 people to [Wagner],’ said Volya.
‘Among those ‘recruited’….are [prisoners] who are not going to any war.’
These inmates – including wealthy money launderers – ‘simply paid for formal recruitment and went home’.
They were told to ‘lie low’ for six months because officially they should be fighting for Putin in the Donbas or on another front in Ukraine.
One unnamed law enforcement source in the Main Directorate of Economic Security and Anticorruption told Volya he knew of seven inmates released in this way with corrupt payments, with two more expected soon.
A prison service source told the channel: ‘An inmate pays [criminal bosses], the head of the prison colony who shares it with his chiefs, and Prigozhin’s people.
‘Then he signs a contract for service in Ukraine, and is taken out of the colony and [immediately] freed.
‘There are two conditions: to lie low for six months until the pardon is granted, and better not go to Moscow or St Petersburg.’
‘This offer is made only to truly wealthy convicts,’ stated Volya.
Putin’s chef Yevgeny Prigozhin (marked) pictured with other Wagner Group fighters at LNR at the beginning of August 2022
Putin’s chef Yevgeny Prigozhin (right) pictured at the grave of one of Russian jail inmates, killed in Ukraine
Prisoners are charged between £43,000 ad £290,000 – depending on ability to pay – for the get-out-of-jail scam.
Despite the abuse, the majority go to fight.
‘A perfect candidate is a strong man of 30-to-40 years old, convicted of serious crimes – murder, robbery, causing grievous bodily harm.’
Prisoners who become pro-Putin fighters are paid around £1,500 a month for the duration of their six month contract at the frontline.
If they are killed they will be declared heroes and their relatives receive some £72,500.
Prigozhin warned the convicts: ‘The first sin is deserting. No-one deserts, no-one gives up, no-one surrenders. You’ll be taught what to do regarding surrender.’
They should take their own lives, and not be taken prisoner, he said.
‘Two grenades which you must have on you,’ he went on [One grenade for our foes, and one for yourself].
‘The second sin is alcohol and drugs in the war zone [which are banned]… The third sin is marauding – this includes sexual contacts with local women, men, flora, fauna, anyone.
‘The minimum age we take is 22, the maximum is 50, and ‘good physical shape’ is a must.’
The recruitment of prisoners has been seen as evidence of Putin’s desperation in his war with Ukraine amid recent defeats in Kharkiv region.