A convicted murderer who was allowed to leave prison in Russia to join the Wagner private military company and fight in Ukraine was arrested within days of returning home on suspicion of killing an elderly woman.
Ivan Rossomakhin was already a repeat-offender when he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for murder in 2020. He was released last year after signing up to fight for Wagner.
Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has recruited heavily from Russian prisons, with inmates such as Rossomakhin promised a pardon and other benefits in exchange for a contract.
Rossomakhin did an indeterminate stint with Wagner in Ukraine – the normal contract is for six months – before returning to his home town of Novyj Burets in the Kirov region this month.
Almost immediately, according to local accounts, there was trouble. He was placed under arrest for five days after making a number of threats.
His presence led to a town hall meeting on Monday, which was filmed by a local TV channel.
One resident, Galina Sapozhnikova, said Rossomakhin was seen holding a pitchfork, an ax and a knife, threatening to kill everyone.
The District Police Chief Vadim Varankin told the meeting that Rossomakhin was a “known troublemaker” and was being dealt with.
But before that could happen, an elderly woman in the town was murdered. Rossomakhin was arrested on suspicion of carrying out the crime but has not been formally charged.
Prigozhin himself has commented on the case, saying that his company is willing to assist law enforcement in relation to any of its former fighters.
“If a person is behaving aggressively or provocatively or if there is any risk, especially if he is from the category of former prisoners, you need to let us know. We will send our recruiting group, carefully collect him and send him back to the front, to the place where he should take out his aggression,” he said.
Prigozhin said would no longer recruit convicts in February. However, it appears that the recruitment drive in prisons continued under the Russian Ministry of Defense. CNN has spoken to several fighters who said they were directly employed by the ministry.
Brutal tactics, little regard for life
Wagner is known for its ruthless tactics, and for showing little regard for the lives of its own soldiers.
The private military was founded in 2014, and has been accused of war crimes in Africa, Syria and Ukraine.
A former Wagner mercenary who escaped to Norway spoke to CNN about the brutality he witnessed among Wagner fighters in Ukraine.
“They would round up those who did not want to fight and shoot them in front of newcomers,” he alleged. “They brought two prisoners who refused to go fight and they shot them in front of everyone and buried them right in the trenches that were dug by the trainees.”
Wagner has played a key role in the Ukraine war and raised the profile of the formerly shadowy Prigozhin.
Wagner fighters were heavily involved in taking Soledar in eastern Ukraine in January, the first Russian military gains in months.
But there’s also been tension between Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense, who had publicized competing claims about their roles in the fight.
Prigozhin has openly criticized Russian military leadership, even going as far as blaming his fighters deaths on the officials’ inability to secure enough ammunition.
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen, Victoria Butenko, Rob Picheta, Nick Paton Walsh, Daria Markina and Olga Voitovych contributed reporting.