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Prisoners Caught in Ukraine War Crossfire

by Chuck Sharman

During Ukraine’s successful offensive to liberate the southern city of Kherson in October 2022, retreating Russian forces took 2,500 Ukrainian prisoners with them. What followed was a Kafka-esque journey through five countries, at the end of which the same Russian army that led the prisoners out of jail detained them again – this time for violating immigration laws.

“They asked me, ‘How did you enter Russia?’” said Ruslan Osadchyi, one of the Kherson prisoners. “‘You brought me here,’” he recalled replying, “‘under the muzzles of automatic guns!’”

Curiously, the Ukrainian convicts were passed over by recruiters from the Wagner Group, a private mercenary army partially drawn from Russian lockups. Instead, as another Ukranian prisoner recalled, they “were received with shouts, beatings, [and] humiliations” upon arrival at a Russian-controlled prison.

“Face to the ground,” recounted Oleksandr Fedorenko, 47, “don’t look, don’t speak, and blows, blows, blows.”

Russian officials have not publicly acknowledged the transfer of Kherson prisoners into Russia, which would violate international law prohibiting the forced removal of non-combatants from an occupied zone. The prisoners suffering this haphazard treatment, many convicted of murder, kidnapping and rape, had also been left behind by Ukrainian forces retreating from Russian’s initial advance.

“There was a war going on,” explained former Ukrainian human rights chief Ludmila Denisova. “Who had time for inmates?”

When the Russians first took control, the prisoners said, they were largely left alone. Then as Ukrainian forces pushed back into Kherson, the group was moved to Russian-controlled Crimea. From there they were sent to the Russian mainland, with some then shipped to Latvia. But when Latvia wouldn’t take them, part of that group headed for Georgia. Eventually, a remnant passed through Moldova to return home. Ukrainian officials greeted them skeptically, suspecting they were Russian collaborators. But after lengthy interrogation and a lie detector test, they were finally let in. Those whose sentences had expired were released.

Meanwhile, the Wagner Group has focused recruitment efforts on prisoners already in Russia. Founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladmir Putin, the group promised a pardon if prisoners agreed to fight in Ukraine for six months. Some of those who signed up – including convicted murderers, thieves and even a self-declared “Satanist” – said they were personally recruited by Prigozhin.

The Wagner Group has been widely criticized for poorly training and mistreating prisoner recruits – including executions for desertion. The new fighters received just two or three weeks of training before being sent to the front. Though conducted by former members of Russia’s special forces, the curriculum was probably too broad for such a short timeframe, covering not only shooting and physical training but also tactics, mining and demining.

Prisoners with the most military experience were appointed squad commanders. Many others have died or been injured. Among those who survived, some were bitter; one called the campaign in Ukraine’s eastern Bakhmut region “utter hell.” But others said it was an adrenaline rush. Even some of the injured hoped to recover and re-enroll as contract mercenaries, perhaps with other Wagner Group operations in Libya, Syria or the Central African Republic.

Dmitry Yermakov, 38, had four years left of 14-year kidnapping sentence when he joined the Wagner Group. He said limited prospects in Russia’s civilian economy pushed him to remain in the mercenary army and “definitely be able to earn 150,000 rubles ($2,000) a month.”

“People work hard without days off for 12-14 hours a day,” he said of his non-mercenary countrymen, “and at best they earn 50-60,000 rubles ($672-$806) a month.”

Using prisoners to fight wars is not new. Russia has a long history of using convict soldiers. It was freed prisoners who burned Moscow during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, depriving the French forces of shelter which forced their retreat and ultimate defeat. Russian and Soviet forces in both world wars used penal battalions.

The tactics employed then were similar to those now used: Sent with little training or equipment to the most dangerous posts, conscripts were barricaded there by heavily armed “anti-retreat detachments,” operating under Stalin’s infamous Order No. 227, dictating “Not one step back!” To replenish the numerous casualties that followed, malingering regular army soldiers were arrested and sentenced – providing the state another bonus if they were killed and their families were no longer owed survivor benefits.

In an eerie echo from 80 years ago, a Wagner Group escapee, Andrei Medvedev, 26, accused Russian army leaders of mis-categorizing many killed soldiers as “missing,” in order to avoid paying their families a benefit equivalent to about $71,250 USD.

“Nobody wants to pay that kind of money,” said Medvedev.

The Pentagon estimated that Russia lost 20,000 soldiers from December 2022 to April 2023, half from the Wagner Group. However, the Ukrainian war is not a death sentence for all the mercenaries. Many have survived their six-month tour of duty and returned to the communities that convicted them fully pardoned. Perhaps not surprisingly, those most likely to volunteer for service are those convicted of the most serious crimes and serving the longest sentences. Presumably at least some are enlisting for patriotic reasons as well. A number of Wagner prisoner recruits are also foreign-born, with many from Africa and Asia who have volunteered for duty among those either killed or surviving long enough to be pardoned.

Prior to the Ukraine conflict, Russia’s prisoner population had been reduced by criminal justice reforms in the late 1990s and early 2000s from over a million to just 433,000 in January 2023. It remains to be seen if the war effort significantly reduces the prison population further.

Meanwhile, many prisoner recruits have expressed great admiration and loyalty toward Prigozhin, Wagner’s chief, for giving them a second chance. In a video clip, Prigozhin addressed a group of battle-wounded former prisoners, some missing limbs, saying: “You were an offender, now you’re a war hero.”

Sources: New York Times, Reuters