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The Wagner Group’s efforts to recruit Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine has “stopped completely”, its leader has said. Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin said the recruitment drive had come to a halt after months of his outfit fighting intensely in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Roughly 40,000 recruits had been taken from Russian prisoners to fight on the frontlines, including men serving sentences for murder and rape.
“The recruitment of prisoners” has “stopped completely”, Prigozhin said in a statement released by his press office.
He added that all “obligations” towards prisoners who had joined the Wagner Group had been fulfilled.
He was referring to the presidential pardon granted to prisoners, meaning they would be set free from incarceration upon completion of a six-month minimum term on the frontline.
The prisoners were used in “human wave assaults”, particularly around the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk, which involved World War 1-style charges over the tops of the first trench line in an attempt to gain more ground.
An unnamed source believed to be part of the Wagner Group said around 12 mercenary fighters at a time would be sent over the top as “meat”, with the majority of being killed as they ran straight into Ukrainian fire.
Prigozhin’s comments about obligations being fulfilled neglected to broach these allegations, and it is widely believed that most of the prisoners on six-month contracts died before they had completed their service as a result of the brutal tactics employed in Bakhmut.
Russian rights activists reported at the end of the year that Wagner’s recruitment drive had begun to dry up partly because of the news of the staggering number of casualties among recruited convicts reaching the prisons.
Stories of the Wagner Group’s group’s brutal treatment of its own men – its fighters are known to use sledgehammers to beat those that do not want to fight – also made their way back to Russia, reportedly.
Olga Romanova, head of the prison rights group Russia Behind Bars, quoted sources at several Russian prisons as saying that Wagner’s recruitment drive has effectively ground to a halt.
But, she added that the Russian defence ministry had started to recruit from the penal colonies instead.
“Some representatives of the defence ministry have been working at the prison colonies starting last weekend,” she said on Wednesday.
“Now it’s just them who are taking people away to war. The first group of prisoners recruited by the ministry of defence left for the frontline from the colony in Kemerovo on Sunday.”
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Wagner fighters have made rare battlefield gains for Russia, including the capture of the eastern salt-mining town of Soleder last month.
Prigozhin used the successes as a pretext to criticise the Russian Ministry of Defence for what he viewed as their strategic failures elsewhere on the frontline.
The regular Russian army has suffered embarrassing defeats across southern and eastern Ukraine.
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