A sanctioned Russian businessman and close Putin ally linked to the notorious Wagner Group has reportedly been personally touring Russian prisons and recruiting inmates to join the fight in Ukraine.
That’s according to new reporting out Saturday by the independent outlet Mediazona, which interviewed two inmates held in different facilities in different regions of Russia. Numerous reports have emerged in recent weeks about Wagner’s alleged new recruiting drive among inmates, with the private Russian military force ostensibly trying to shore up Russian forces that have been depleted by heavy losses in the nearly six month war.
But this appears to be the first time that Yevgeny Prigozhin, commonly known as “Putin’s chef,” is said to have personally appealed to inmates.
“They are primarily interested in murderers and robbers, they treat the drug addicts warily, the same with the rapists. It’s better, he said, for it to not be common killers, but straight up calculating ones–you will like it with us, he said. In general, he gave the impression of a maniac,” one unnamed inmate was quoted telling Mediazona.
The inmate went on to note there seemed to be no coercion to join, though “very many” did sign up, he said, estimating that at least 200 inmates eagerly accepted the offer.
Inmates were reportedly offered a free pardon and a paycheck in return for their service, with the man identified as Prigozhin promising they had only a 15 percent chance of dying, a figure reportedly based on an “experimental” deployment of inmates earlier in July.
During an alleged visit by Prigozhin to a penal colony in Rybinsk, in the Yaroslavl region, on Aug. 1, inmates were told that “World War III” was underway and they were being given the chance to fight for their homeland, according to the account told by an inmate to Mediazona.
“My guys go into African countries and in two days they leave nothing alive there, and now they are also destroying enemies in Ukraine. Your decision to serve in the [private military company] is a deal with the devil. If you leave here with me, you will either return a free man or you will die. You will be required to kill enemies and follow the orders of leadership. Those who retreat will be shot on the spot,” an inmate quoted Prigozhin as saying.
An inmate at a penal colony in Plavsk, in the Tula region, told 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 fuck, I need to win this damn war at any cost.”
After the visits, during which Prigozhin was said to have been accompanied by other representatives of Wagner, inmates were reportedly blocked from using phones. And according to a friend of one of the inmates in Plavsk, the Wagner representatives said they’d be back for another visit in two or three months if they “run out” of inmates from the first wave of recruitment.
Several human rights groups have also reported on Wagner’s alleged recruiting drive, including Rus Sidyashaya, which said both inmates and their families have told of overtures from Wagner, and Gulagu.net, a human rights group that monitors conditions for prisoners in Russian penal colonies.
Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of the human rights group Gulagu.net, wrote on Facebook recently that a prisoner at a high-security facility had spoken of the Putin crony Prigozhin arriving by helicopter in late July and convincing about 150 inmates to join the war.
The man identified by inmates as Prigozhin reportedly tried to relate with them by noting he’d served prison time himself, according to Mediazona.
So far, according to the independent outlet Verstka, which has also closely covered the alleged Wagner recruiting drive, the mercenary group has recruited more than 1,000 inmates at 17 different penal colonies throughout Russia.
Long accused by Western officials and investigative journalists of financing Wagner, Prigozhin has denied having any links to the paramilitary force, a shadowy group that has left a long trail of war crimes allegations in its wake in Ukraine, Syria and the Central African Republic.
In a statement to Verstka on Wagner’s alleged recruiting drive for the war in Ukraine, the press service of Prigozhin’s company Concord Management reportedly sent back comment from the businessman in which he avoided answering directly if he was recruiting inmates but admitted that he’d “been in [penal] colonies in the 80s.”