Private military contractor Wagner will have to look for new fighters beyond Russia’s prison system, a fertile recruiting ground for the past nine months, according to its boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Prigozhin said on his company’s Telegram channel Thursday: “We have completely discontinued the recruitment of prisoners into Wagner PMC. To those who work for us currently, all obligations are being fulfilled.”
The Russian oligarch did not give any reason for the decision, but there are several plausible explanations for the change of tack. The pool of recruits may have dwindled, the Ministry of Defense may have intervened, or the operation may have stretched Prigozhin’s finances. Alternatively, Prigozhin may have been told that his way of war no longer fits Russian priorities on the battlefield.
After signing up between 40,000 and 50,000 prisoners from jails across Russia, the number of volunteers from prison may have shrunk so far that the campaign is no longer delivering.
Figures just released by the Russian Penitentiary Service may support that. They showed that the prison population decreased by 6,000 between November and January, compared to a drop of 23,000 inmates between September and October last year.
This week CNN spoke with two Wagner fighters who had been recruited from Russian prisons and fought on the front lines in Ukraine before being captured.
They said that dozens of prisoners, some with just weeks left of their sentences, had signed up after visits from Prigozhin in August and September. They said he had arrived at their prisons in a helicopter and made bold promises about wages and other benefits, as well as a pledge that their criminal records would be expunged.
CNN could not independently confirm the claims. The interviews were carried out in the presence of Ukrainian security officers but the captured fighters spoke at length about their Wagner experiences. (CNN told the prisoners that they were free to stop the interview at any time. CNN is not revealing their identities.)
There were already signs that Wagner’s prison recruitment was flagging before Prigozhin’s announcement. Lawyers and a human rights activist told the independent Russian outlet Agentstvo that recruiters had started to threaten prisoners with new criminal cases if they did not agree to go to the front. CNN cannot independently confirm the claim and has reached out to one of the lawyers.
Additionally, the experiences of prisoners who completed their six-month Wagner contracts may have deterred others from joining up. Prigozhin was seen last month with some of the demobilized fighters, many of whom had clearly been wounded.
It’s quite possible that some who have now returned home have relayed accounts of the appalling casualties suffered among Wagner ranks – as wave after wave of fighters were sent into the path of Ukrainian artillery and tank fire.
The two Wagner prisoners interviewed this week by CNN spoke of huge losses as they were sent to storm Ukrainian positions, with fighters refusing to go forward instantly executed by commanders, they said.
One of the lawyers who spoke to Agentstvo said the decline of volunteers from among the prison population was in part due to information about Wagner’s high casualties becoming known.
The convict campaign may also have depleted Wagner’s finances. Prigozhin’s companies had to buy weapons and other equipment for the prison recruits, train them at camps in Russia and in occupied territory in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, transport them to combat areas and feed them.
The finances of Wagner’s parent company – Concord Management – have always been very opaque, with dozens of subsidiaries involved. It’s extremely difficult to ascertain the sources of cash to sustain such a dramatic increase in Wagner ranks.
It is also possible that parts of the Russian establishment are trying to choke off Prigozhin’s access to resources. To get his prison recruitment scheme going, Prigozhin had to secure the agreement of Russia’s prison service, the Interior Ministry and other agencies. That assent may have been withdrawn as Prigozhin has stoked a confrontation with the military establishment over its conduct of the war.
In response to CNN’s request for comment on Wagner’s decision to end recruitment from Russian prisons, Prigozhin issued a sarcasm-laced reply through the Wagner Group’s VKontakte page, and joked that millions of US citizens had applied to join the mercenary group.
“Therefore, we temporarily suspended the recruitment of volunteers from Russian prisons,” he said.
Olga Romanova, who is with the prisoner advocacy group Russia Behind Bars, believes that the Russian Ministry of Defense is now in charge of any further recruitment in Russia’s prisons.
It is also possible that the Wagner way of war – despite the bombast of Prigozhin – no longer fits in with the Defense Ministry’s plans. The Wagner fighters interviewed by CNN said their units never had any interaction with Russian regular forces, even if there was artillery support for some Wagner assaults.
Wagner fighters were able to make incremental gains – taking small towns like Soledar and empty villages around Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine – but only with artillery support from regular forces and only at the expense of hundreds of casualties in each assault. As Russian forces gear up for a widely anticipated spring offensive, it’s as yet unclear how Wagner’s ill-equipped “first waves” of infantry might be integrated into the campaign.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said last week that “the possible decline in the Wagner Group’s prison recruitment campaign may be an indicator that the Russian Ministry of Defense intends to sideline the Wagner Group in future offensive operations,” meaning “the Wagner Group no longer needs large numbers of convict volunteers for a high pace of attritional human wave attacks.”
The prison recruitment campaign was well publicized and widespread, netting as many as 40,000 fighters for Wagner. After Prigozhin’s visits, recruiters would be sent in to process the paperwork. The two Wagner fighters captured by the Ukrainians told CNN that the threshold for service with Wagner was very low, and almost every type of prisoner, including those convicted of murder and rape, was eligible.
Prigozhin’s declared halt to the prison recruitment campaign does not mean Wagner is out of business. Far from it. It has built an experienced and hardened cadre of fighters over the past decade, many of them veterans of the Chechen wars who have also seen action in Africa and Syria. It still has sizable contingents in the Central African Republic and Mali, where Prigozhin combines training and security missions with lucrative concessions for raw materials.
But it may signal an evolution in Wagner’s role in the Ukraine conflict in the coming months, as it becomes less reliant on the poorly trained “cannon fodder” who have been thrown into assaults for places like Soledar.
This story has been updated to clarify the translation of the statement from Prigozhin’s press service.