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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Russia Passes New Law To Allow Military To Recruit Prisoners For The War

The Defense Ministry had pushed for a bill to adopt the same dubious method of recruiting volunteers from prisons begun by the Wagner Group private mercenary outfit. Parliament approved it on Tuesday, the latest sign of the Kremlin's desperate search to recruit soldiers to stave off the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

photo of back of officer head as he observes lineup of recruits

A send-off ceremony last month near Moscow

Artyom Geodakyan/TASS/ZUMA
Vazhnyye Istorii

This article was updated on June 21, 2023, at 11:15 a.m.

MOSCOW — As the counteroffensive of the Ukrainian army begins, the Kremlin is looking for new ways to replenish the ranks of its combat units on the frontline. To this end, a law "On the specifics of the criminal liability of persons involved in a special military operation" was adopted Tuesday by the Duma, Russia's parliament.

The law will allow to release from the criminal responsibility those who conclude a contract with the Russian Defense Ministry, or were drafted on mobilization, even if they committed a crime before the law's enactment. The first draft of the law excludes those convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape.

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Of course, those following the war in Ukraine know that the Duma is not the first to discover this recruitment opportunity: a year ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group paramilitary outfit, had first proposed this same idea to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With Putin's consent, Prigozhin began to visit penal colonies in different regions of Russia and promised prisoners a pardon for six months of service in his army. During his recruitment, he freed some 50,000 prisoners convicted of crimes of varying severity.

As previously reported, Prigozhin recruited everyone indiscriminately, with inmates with a history of murder being particularly highly regarded. In late spring 2023, he had to stop this recruiting process because Putin saw no progress on the front, while people saw many coffins returning to Russia.

More recently, Prigozhin has fallen out of favor and became an enemy of the Russian Defense Ministry, which nevertheless has chosen to adopt his questionable recruiting methods.

Punishment goals and opportunity

The authors of the new law, Senator Andrei Klishas and deputies from the pro-Putin United Russia party Pavel Krasheninnikov and Irina Pankina, are known for preparing legislation that pleases the president; this year alone, Putin has signed 14 of the 17 laws initiated by Klishas.

They would also have their criminal record expunged.

According to the law, people who have already been sentenced by the time they join the armed forces will also be exempt from punishment. They would also have their criminal record expunged.

The authors believe that bringing criminals to the front "will contribute to achieving the goals of punishment and provide additional opportunities for manning the army."

Recruitment poster in Russia

Vlad Karkov/SOPA Images via ZUMA

Recruiting propaganda in full force

Under the current law, convicted citizens may be called up for military service, except for those who have committed crimes against sexual inviolability and those convicted of terrorism, treason, espionage, and other grave and especially grave crimes.

However, Moscow budgetary organizations already help convicted citizens to sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense and receive additional payments through fictitious employment.

A report in April found that propaganda videos played in Russian prisons describe the war as a great opportunity for prisoners, recently released Yuli Boyarshinov reports: “Everything is great. (Russia is on) the offensive on all fronts; you can get a cool, interesting experience. Two hundred thousand a month. You must go. A few people are critical of this information, or say that this is not the whole truth. Maybe five percent of the convicts think about this information critically," says Boyarshinov, who had been imprisoned since 2018 on terrorism charges.

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