Putin’s War on Ukraine: Recruitment of Prisoners by Russian Army

2023-12-23 21:02:12

War in Ukraine

Updated on December 23, 2023, 10:02 p.m

Vladimir Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin (photo taken December 22, 2023). © picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Pool

The Kremlin is recruiting prisoners from penal camps for the war against Ukraine. The fact that there are even murderers among them horrifies many Russians.

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The pain of Vera Pechtelewa’s parents is hard to imagine for outsiders. Almost four years ago, her then 23-year-old daughter was brutally abused, raped and ultimately killed by her ex-partner. The man from the Siberian city of Kemerovo was sentenced to 17 years in a prison camp for the crime – but he is no longer there.

At the beginning of November it became known: Vera’s murderer had been pardoned months ago so that he could go as a soldier in Russia’s war against Ukraine. His release from prison was sealed by a decree from Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin himself.

The murderer’s compensation payments to Vera’s family should be suspended for the duration of his combat mission. “We were shocked. How can something like that be?” asked Vera’s mother Oxana Pekhteleva in an interview with the independent portal “Bereg”. “And I’m not alone. Believe me, there are at least hundreds of mothers like that.”

The release of Vera’s murderer is not an isolated case

She received support from the well-known women’s rights activist Alyona Popova: “What should be done?” she asked on her Telegram channel – and gave the answer herself: “Don’t be silent! If we remain silent, we simply accept that there are such murderers on our streets walk around.” The crime against Vera Pekhteleva, who screamed in vain for help for hours before her death, shocked people across the country in 2020 – and there is now correspondingly great excitement about the release of her tormentor. But this is not an isolated case.

Russia has been waging a war of aggression against its neighboring country Ukraine for almost two years. The fighting is extremely costly on both sides; according to NATO estimates, more than 300,000 soldiers have been killed or injured in the Russian army alone. Through a wave of mobilization last year, Putin drafted hundreds of thousands of men to the front, and the army is constantly recruiting volunteers – but apparently none of this is enough.

In June, the recruitment of convicted criminals by the Russian army was legalized. At this point, however, it had long been known that at least the Wagner mercenary group had already recruited prison inmates on a large scale. In particular, they are said to have served in droves as “cannon fodder” in the battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which will last until the summer of 2023. Thousands died.

Kremlin is silent about the number of prisoners released

The Kremlin justifies the controversial practice by saying that the men “pay for their crimes with blood on the battlefield.” However, Moscow remains officially silent about how many prisoners have already left prison early this way – like so many things in this war. Almost a year ago, the non-governmental organization “Rus Sidjaschtschaja” (“Russia behind bars”) spoke of around 50,000 recruits who had been recruited in prisons. But even then only 10,000 of them were still in action; the rest were killed, injured, missing or taken prisoner by Ukraine. There are no reliable, current figures.

The Russian power apparatus apparently wants to keep quiet about how many of the pardoned criminals will commit crimes again in Russia after their return from the combat zone. According to information from the Meduza portal, state media were recently ordered by the Kremlin not to report on such cases so that Russians “don’t get scared.”

But the topic can no longer be kept secret. Because the Kremlin military romanticism of the supposedly reformed criminals is often contrasted with a completely different reality: There is, for example, a murderer from the Kirov region who was recruited by Wagner and, after returning from Ukraine, stabbed an 85-year-old pensioner to death in his home village.

Or a murderer from Kemerovo who was also pardoned and who, just back from the front, killed his friend while drunk. Or a former fighter from Novosibirsk who is said to have raped a ten-year-old girl. Not to mention, of course, any war crimes these men may have committed in Ukraine.

Politicians loyal to the Kremlin believe an increase in crime is conceivable

According to experts, we can only speculate as to how serious the long-term consequences of criminals returning from the war will be for Russian society. This is also unclear because no one can yet know how many of the pardoned prisoners will even survive their deployment at the front, said sociologist Asmik Novikova recently to the Russian-language service of the US broadcaster “Radio Liberty”.

But even politicians loyal to the Kremlin believe that an increase in crime is quite conceivable against this background. “Somewhere the crime rate may now increase,” Duma deputy Maxim Ivanov told the portal “74.ru.”

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