Russian mercenaries want felons to go fight Putin's war in Ukraine, but many are refusing, US official says
- Kremlin-linked mercenaries are trying to convince prisoners to fight Putin's war in Ukraine.
- A recent video showed the head of the Wagner Group offer inmates freedom if they take up arms.
As Russian forces continue to struggle on the battlefield in Ukraine, a shadowy Russian mercenary group with ties to the Kremlin has been calling on prisoners to go fight Russian President Vladimir Putin's war, but things may not be going quite according to plan, a US official said.
A senior US official told reporters on Monday that the infamous Wagner Group, which has been linked to atrocities in different parts of the world, is trying to recruit over 1,500 felons, but many are refusing to join the group's ranks.
"Our information indicates that Wagner has been suffering high losses in Ukraine, especially and unsurprisingly among young and inexperienced fighters," the official said.
The official added that Russia's military itself is struggling to find new recruits, as the poor performance of Putin's troops lately has led many Russian volunteers to refuse combat.
The official's remarks come after a video recently surfaced showing the head of Wagner — a private military company with close ties to the Kremlin — make a proposal to a collection to inmates dressed in black and standing in a Russian prison yard. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close Putin ally, told the inmates they would be granted freedom if they fight in Ukraine, but he also noted that they would be killed if they tried to desert.
"Nobody goes back behind bars," Prigozhin said in the video, according to a translation by The Wall Street Journal's Yaroslav Trofimov. "If you serve six months, you are free. If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it's not for you, we execute you."
Britain's defense ministry said in an intelligence update last week that Wagner, which has also suffered heavy losses like the Russian military, has been attempting to recruit Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine for months, adding that the organization has offered cash incentives and commuted sentences.
Wagner's efforts have been recently "reinvigorated" by Prigozhin's pitch asking the Russian prisoners to serve as "fighters for assault units," the ministry said.
"The impact of Russia's manpower challenge has become increasingly severe," Britain's defense ministry added, noting Wagner's hunt for troops and shorter training courses at Russian military academies.
Throughout the nearly seven-month-long war, Russian forces — who failed to capture Ukraine's capital city Kyiv early and who now struggle to defend against a punishing Ukrainian counteroffensive — have fought alongside Wagner personnel.
Mercenaries from Wagner have been linked to massacres and atrocities in Ukrainian cities like Bucha, and they have also been accused of committing widespread war crimes and other violent criminal activity in a handful of African countries.
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