The inmates of the penal colony in St. Petersburg were expecting a visit from the authorities, which would be a kind of inspection. Instead, men in uniform came and offered them amnesty – if they agreed to fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine.
In the following days, about a dozen or more people left the prison, including a woman whose boyfriend is serving a sentence there. Speaking on condition of anonymity because she feared retribution, she said her boyfriend was not among the volunteers, although with years left on his sentence, he “can’t think about it.”
Russia is losing in its invasion of Ukraine, now approaching its sixth month, the Kremlin has refused to announce a full increase — a move that is deeply unpopular with President Vladimir Putin. Therefore, to fill the shortage of manpower, an attempt has been made to recruit secretly using prisoners.
It also comes amid reports that hundreds of Russian soldiers are refusing to fight and trying to desert the army.
“We are seeing a huge flow of people who want to leave the war zone – both those who have served for a long time and those who have recently signed contracts,” said Alexey Tabalov, a lawyer who runs Conscript School Legal. Help group.
The group has seen an influx of requests from men who want to terminate their contracts, “and I personally feel that everyone is ready to run away,” Tablov said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And the Ministry of Defense is digging deep to find those it can persuade to serve.”
Although the Ministry of Defense has denied that any “mobilization activity” is taking place, officials seem to be pulling out all the stops to boost enrollment. Billboards and public transport advertisements in various regions exhort men to join the occupational forces, proclaiming, “This is a job.” Authorities have set up mobile recruitment centers in some cities, including one at the site of a half marathon in Siberia in May.
Regional administrations are creating “volunteer battalions” that are promoted on state television. Business daily Kommersant counted at least 40 such organizations in 20 regions, with officials promising volunteers monthly salaries ranging from $2,150 to nearly $5,500, plus bonuses.
AP looked at thousands of job openings on job search websites for various military specialists.
The British military said this week that Russia has created a major new ground force called the 3rd Army Corps from “volunteer battalions”, which are looking for men up to 50 years old and require only a secondary-school education, and offer “lucrative cash bonuses” once they do. do are stationed in Ukraine.
But while those reports cannot be independently verified, there are also complaints in the media that some are not receiving their promised payments.
In early August, Tabalov said he began receiving several requests for legal assistance from reservists ordered to participate in two months of training near the border with Ukraine.
Vladimir Osechkin, founder of the Gulagu.net prisoner rights group, said the recruitment of prisoners had been ongoing in about seven regions in recent weeks, with prisoners and their relatives contacted by his group.
This is not the first time authorities have used such a tactic, as the Soviet Union used “prisoner battalions” in World War II.
Nor is Russia alone. Early in the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky promised amnesty to military veterans if they volunteered to fight, although it remains unclear whether anything came of it.
In the current situation, Osechkin said, it’s not the Ministry of Defense that’s recruiting the prisoners — instead, it’s Russia’s obscure private military force, the Wagner Group..
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the businessman and Wagner’s manager and financier known as “Putin’s chef” because of his catering deals with the Kremlin, dismissed reports that he had personally visited prisons to recruit convicts, in a written statement released by his representatives this month. Prigozhin, in fact, denies having any ties to Wagner, who has sent military contractors to places like Syria and sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Osechkin, prisoners with military or law enforcement experience were initially offered to go to Ukraine, but that was later extended to prisoners with different backgrounds. He estimated that by the end of July, about 1,500 would have applied, promising them large salaries and eventual amnesty.
Now, he added, many of those volunteers – or their families – are contacting him trying to get out of their commitments, telling him: “I really don’t want to go.”
According to a woman whose boyfriend is serving a sentence in a penal colony in St. Petersburg, offers to get out of prison are a “ray of hope” for freedom. But she said he told her eight of the 11 volunteers died in Ukraine. She added that one of the volunteers regretted his decision and did not believe he would return alive.
Her account could not be independently verified, but was consistent with multiple reports from independent Russian media and human rights groups.
According to those groups and military advocates, some soldiers and law enforcement officials have turned down deployments to Ukraine or are trying to return home after weeks or months of fighting.
Media reports of some troops refusing to fight in Ukraine began to surface in the spring, but rights groups and advocates only began talking about the number of refusals reaching the hundreds last month.
In mid-July, the Free Buryatia Foundation reported that about 150 men were able to terminate their contracts with the Ministry of Defense and return from Ukraine to Buryatia in eastern Siberia, which borders Mongolia.
Some service employees are facing the consequences. Tabalov, a legal aid lawyer, said about 80 other soldiers were detained in the Russian-controlled town of Bryanka in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region after trying to cancel their contracts, according to their relatives. Last week, he said, the Branca detention center was closed due to media attention.
But the parent of one officer who was detained after trying to get out of his contract told the AP this week that some are still being held elsewhere in the region. The parents asked not to be identified for safety reasons.
Tabalov said a serviceman can terminate his contract under duress — usually not hard — though the decision usually rests with his commander. But he added: “In a state of hostility, no commander would admit of such a thing, for where would they find men to fight?”
Alexandra Garmazapova, head of the Free Buryatia Foundation, told the AP that soldiers and their relatives complain that commanders tear up termination notices and threaten to prosecute “those who refuse.” By the end of July, the foundation said it had received hundreds of requests from soldiers to terminate their contracts.
“I’m getting messages every day,” Garmazhapova said.
Tabalov said some soldiers complained that they were deceived about where they were going and did not expect to end up in a war zone, while others were exhausted from the battle and unable to continue.
Rarely, if ever, were they motivated by anti-war convictions, the lawyer said.
Military analyst Michael Kaufman said Russia would face problems if soldiers refused to fight, but Russia’s ability to “mess around with half-measures” should not be underestimated.
“They’re going to have a lot of people who are leaving or people who don’t want to deploy originally,” said Kaufman, director of the Virginia-based Center for Russia Studies Program for Naval Analysis, on a recent podcast. . “And they’ve put in a lot of measures to try to keep people in line. But in the end, there’s not much they can do.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine