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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Report: After Wagner Group, Now Russia's Official Military Is Recruiting Prisoners For War

Desperate to supply depleting forces in Ukraine, Russia's defense ministry has taken up the dubious recruiting method of offering prisoners freedom in exchange for going off to war. The same technique was begun but then halted in February by the Wagner Group mercenaries. It's Putin's latest attempt to avoid a nationwide mobilization.

Photo of the boots of the conscripts lining up at an assembly station of St Petersburg's army recruitment office before departing for service with the Russian Armed Forces

Conscripts line up at an assembly station of St Petersburg's army recruitment office before departing for service with the Russian Armed Forces

Anna Akage

Russia's notorious mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group, had shocked many last summer when it began recruiting soldiers from prisons to fight in Ukraine. After dubious results and high death counts among the ranks, that practice was halted in February. But now, sources say the Russian state military has started up its own prison recruitment campaign in a last-ditch effort to send more men to the front and delay a nationwide draft.

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With the personal approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Wagner had offered prisoners pardons and payment in exchange for six months of service. As many as 50,000 prisoners took the offer – and by early 2023, three out of four of them had been killed, the Ukrainian military estimates.

By February , Wagner called an end to the prison recruitment campaign. Some observers believe the effort ended because the Wagner group and its owner Yevgeny Prigozhin fell out of favor with Putin after failing to make much progress at the front.

But Putin hasn’t given up the idea of turning to prisoners to supply manpower to the frontline, even if untrained and unmotivated. According to Russian NGO Gulagu.net, which investigates corruption and torture in Russian prisons, the Russia's defense ministry is now recruiting directly from prisons – and their standards are reportedly even looser than Wagner’s.

If Wagner recruiters looked for strong, ruthless killers and fighters, the defense ministry is willing to take anyone, regardless of age, health or criminal record.

Photo of the \u200bfounder and leader of the Wagner Group  Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Founder and leader of the Wagner Group Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Konkord Company Press Service via Zuma Press

Russian prison recruiters "grab anyone" 

“It's been a week of hiring inmates in the Tula region colony. More than 200 people have signed up. It's f***ed up! They grab anyone: the blind, the lame, the disabled, those who can barely move their legs and the elderly, who are long out of their minds – even those diagnosed with schizophrenia. And this even though in 2022 more than 200 convicts were already removed from the colony (this is the fourth wave)," sources tell Gulagu.net.

The fighters are likely to be ineffective – but brutal.

Similar stories have been reported from other regions of the country. In propaganda played on TV in Russian prisons, the war is described 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.

Ukrainian observers say that even if Russia’s new recruitment campaign is a success, the fighters are likely to be ineffective – but brutal.

“This embittered herd came to us. These militant groups are trying to ‘free’ us. Pathological ferocity is cultivated … in the Russian army, and the results of this education are seen on the battlefields, temporarily occupied territories, and everywhere. But once in captivity, the Russians find themselves in a completely incomprehensible environment, where they, the captives, are treated better than in their units," says Viktor Kevlyuk, an expert at the Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Turkey-Israel Relations? It's Complicated — But The Gaza War Is Different

Turkish President Erdogan has now called on the International Criminal Court to go after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for war crimes, as the clash between the two regional powers has reached a new low.

Photo of ​Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walking

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Elias Kassem

Since the arrival two decades ago of now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s relationship with Israel has been a mix of deep ideological conflict and cover-your-eyes realpolitik.

On the one hand, Erdogan has positioned himself as a kind of global spokesman for the Palestinian cause. His Justice and Development Party has long publicly and financially supported Hamas, which shares similar roots in the 20th-century Muslim Brotherhood movement.

And yet, since 2001 when Erdogan first came to power, trade between Turkey and Israel has multiplied from $1.41 to $8.9 billion in 2022. Moreover, both countries see major potential in transporting newly discovered Israeli natural gas to Europe, via Turkey.

The logic of shared interests clashes with the passions and posturing of high-stakes geopolitics. Diplomatic relations have been cut off, then restored, and since October 7, the countries’ respective ambassadors have been recalled, with accusations flying between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Still, over the past 48 hours, Turkish-Israeli relations may have hit an all-time low.

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