Remember the 1967 film, “The Dirty Dozen,” where Major John Reisman, played by Lee Marvin, leads a penal military unit of some of the U.S. military’s worst convicts on a suicide mission behind German lines in occupied France? Only one of the convicts survives to receive the promised pardon. Well, fiction has become fact.
In February, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that his private mercenary group would no longer be recruiting prison convicts to fight in Ukraine. It was a sign of the growing void between Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Prigozhin. The Wagner leader has strongly criticized Russia’s military leadership, accusing Shoigu of gross incompetence and corruption.
Efforts to assert control over the Wagner Group came to a head in mid-June when Shoigu set a July 1 deadline for private military companies to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense, which Prigozhin refused to do. That precipitated Prigozhin’s armed mutiny that was abruptly halted a day later as the result of a deal brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
This spring, the Ministry of Defense took over the task of recruiting convicts in a desperate move to replenish its depleted ranks along the front line in Ukraine. In April, a Ukrainian reserve officer released a captured document revealing that Russia’s Defense Ministry was forming new Storm-Z assault company units comprising recruited prisoners that would be attached to regular Russian army detachments and the militia of the annexed Donetsk People’s Republic. The document said training for the convict recruits would require 10 to 15 days.
The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War, which regarded the Ukrainian officer as reliable, concluded “it is unlikely that the use of these formations will lend Russian forces … a significant offensive edge.”
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In May, Russian war correspondents visited a Storm-Z company of ex-convicts serving in forward posts near the strategic city of Tokmak in the Zaporizhzhia region of southeastern Ukraine, where the Ukrainian army is now mounting a counter-offense.
The independent Russian news outlet Verstka has identified multiple people with past convictions for violent crimes serving in that Storm-Z unit. Verstka reported that the convicts-turned-soldiers include a man sentenced to 26 years in prison for robbing and murdering a 91-year-old woman and who was previously convicted of rape.
The rape conviction would have disqualified him from joining the Wagner Group, which says it recruited about 50,000 prison inmates to fight in Ukraine starting last summer. A Wagner Group recruiting site mentions: “Anything related to sexual integrity is disqualifying.” Wagner Group mercenaries themselves have been accused of raping civilians in Mali and the Central African Republic.
In June, after Ukraine’s counter-offensive had begun, Ukrainian military intelligence was reporting that Russia was having problems with its new Storm-Z convict companies.
"In practice, the occupation units [Storm-Z companies – ed.], equipped with the so-called ‘special contingent’, showed extremely low combat capability,” the press service of the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Military Directorate said.
Alcoholism, looting, and desertion flourish among the invading convicts, including through catastrophic losses."
That “low combat capability” was reflected in a June 20 report by the Institute for the Study of War, which said that Russia has been using the new Storm-Z assault to carry out multiple unsuccessful ground attacks near the Luhansk city of Kreminna.
The ISW, citing a Ukrainian military spokesperson, said: “The recent commitment of ‘Storm-Z’ units to the Kharkiv-Luhansk Oblast frontline likely explains the increased number of attacks reported near Kreminna over the previous few days, as it appears that Russian forces have committed a relatively large quantity of low-quality forces to frontal infantry assaults.”
And now it seems that Russia has another problem with its Storm-Z penal companies. When Prigozhin launched his mutiny, some of them declared in a video that they were ready to leave their positions to join his revolt, but a day later they were calling him “a rat” for running off and leaving them to an uncertain fate at the hand of their commanders.
And this is indicative of the poor state of morale within the Russian ranks as it faces Ukraine’s long-awaited counter-offense.
The Storm-Z convict recruits are there to be used as cannon fodder just like those who signed up in prison to fight with Wagner in Ukraine starting last summer. As before, the prisoners are being offered a full pardon if they survive a six-month deployment in Ukraine. In March, Prigozhin said that more than 5,000 former prisoners had received pardons after fulfilling their contracts with Wagner.
But Prigozhin also acknowledged that about 20,000 Wagner fighters—about equally divided between convict recruits and its regular troops—had been killed in the months-long battle for the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Olga Romanova, the head of the prisoners’ rights group Russia Behind Bars, told The Moscow Times at the end of April that she believes some 30,000 prisoners recruited by Wagner had been killed in Ukraine.
The BBC’s Russian Service reported that the Ministry of Defense was offering prisoners a six-month contract in exchange for a "full pardon with the removal of a criminal record from the databases" plus a monthly salary. The BBC reported that relatives of the convicts said that many decided to go to war voluntarily to obtain a pardon. But some relatives told a different story—that conditions in penal colonies had worsened to the extent that prisoners were desperate to get out, even if it meant going to war.
At the same time, routine parole requests are increasingly being denied by the courts amid the efforts to recruit convicts to fight in Ukraine, according to The Moscow Times, an independent Russian news outlet that now operates out of Amsterdam. Romanova told the independent Russian news outlet Verstka that since the Defense Ministry began recruiting prison inmates on Feb. 1, about 15,000 prisoners have enlisted.
Many of the convict soldiers were placed under the command of the so-called “people’s militia” in the annexed Donetsk region. The Donetsk armed forces are now under the control of Russia’s Defense Ministry. The Donetsk People’s Republic militia desperately needs new cannon fodder because its forces suffered staggering losses in 2022. Forbes wrote:
The separatist DPR began Russia’s wider war on Ukraine in February with around 20,000 men in six light infantry brigades. By November, the army had lost 3,746 killed in action and 15,794 wounded in action, according to the DPR’s ombudsman.
That’s almost as many casualties—killed or wounded—as the militia had in its pre-invasion army, although its forces grew in size thanks to the forced mobilization of thousands of men. These are the Russian-speakers that President Vladimir Putin claimed he was trying to protect by launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
War correspondents from several pro-Kremlin news outlets painted a predictably rosy picture in early May when they visited a Storm-Z company attached to the 71st Guards Motorized Rifle Regiment near Tokmak.
A correspondent for Argumenty i Fakty, a weekly newspaper owned by the government of Moscow, interviewed the regiment’s deputy commander, Oleg Panchurin, claimed the Storm-Z unit exceeded all expectations:
“Guys are disciplined. They are much better motivated than mobilized fighters. They organize themselves quickly. I think that this is one of the best units in our regiment,” Panchurin said.
The deputy company commander of the Storm-Z unit, identified by the call sign “Tambov,” said he went from a penal colony in Mordovia, southeast of Moscow, to Zaporizhzhia.
Tambov said he welcomed the ”opportunity to atone to his homeland for his guilt” by signing a contract with the Ministry of Defense. He said 127 men in his penal company signed contracts with the Ministry of Defense.
“To be honest, there is no better and more devoted soldier than a former prisoner in the army now ...,” Tambov told the correspondent. “Usually those who are under contract serve in the army now simply for a salary. We still have a goal to return home and correct our past. ... But here there are really very ideological and motivated people who came here to fight for their Motherland. We are ready to repulse the Armed Forces of Ukraine and we will stand to the end.”
But after analyzing social media profiles and court records, Verstka determined that “Tambov” is a 38-year-old taxi driver from Russia’s Tambov region named Pavel Alekhin. In December 2022, Alekhin was convicted of robbing and murdering a 91-year-old woman. He was sentenced to 26 years in prison.
But Alekhin is not some modern-day version of Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment,” who robbed and killed an elderly female pawnbroker and then agonizes over his guilt before a pious prostitute persuades him to confess his crimes to the police. He atones for his sins and undergoes a spiritual rebirth in exile in Siberia.
Verstka determined that Alekhin had five prior convictions on his record before the murder of the elderly woman, according to his arrest warrant. In 2009, he was convicted of beating and raping a woman at knifepoint in an abandoned concrete factory.
Another former inmate serving with Alekhin in the Storm-Z unit was identified as Oleg Batishchev, who was convicted of murder in September 2022, Verstka reported. According to official records, Batishchev visited the home of his former girlfriend and got into a fight with her new boyfriend, using his hands, feet, and a wooden stool to beat him to death. His ex-girlfriend testified that he physically assaulted her multiple times while intoxicated.
Meanwhile, in Putin’s Russia, draconian prison sentences are being handed out to those who openly oppose the war in Ukraine. In April, opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison—the longest sentence yet given to a political opponent of Vladimir Putin.
Kara-Murza was detained in April 2022 on charges of spreading false information about the Russian army in Ukraine. He later was charged with treason over public speeches he gave in which he criticized Putin’s policies and the war in Ukraine.
In May, Britain’s Ministry of Defense reported that despite the ramped up efforts by the Ministry of Defense to recruit prison inmates in 2023, it has been unable to keep up with its casualty rate in Ukraine. It said:
”The MoD’s prisoner recruitment campaign is part of a broader, intense effort by the Russian military to bolster its numbers, while attempting to avoid implementing new mandatory mobilization, which would be very unpopular with the Russian public.”
Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, told Newsweek that recruiting from prisons “shows how desperate Moscow is to increase its troop level without resorting to the unpopular practice of conscripting civilians."
Russian lawmakers have recently approved legislation that would formalize the recruitment of prisoners for the war in Ukraine, The Moscow Times, an independent news outlet operating outside Russia, reported. It would enable convicts to clear their criminal records once they complete their battlefield service, or even earlier if they are wounded.
The lower-house State Duma approved a package of bills that would allow current and former convicts as well as suspected criminals to enlist with the Defense Ministry. Putin is expected to sign the legislation.
A separate bill would at least bar the recruitment of convicted rapists. The Moscow Times said the bill lists exceptions to the crimes that can be pardoned, including espionage, treason, terrorism, and sex crimes. However, those exceptions do not apply to those currently serving in the Russian army.
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