Wagner's MIA Convicts: Where Do Deserting Russian Mercenaries Go?
Tens of thousands of Russian prisoners who've been recruited by the Wagner Group mercenary outfit have escaped from the frontlines after volunteering in exchange for freedom. Some appear to be seeking political asylum in Europe thanks to a "cleared" criminal record.
Of the about 50,000 Russian convicts who signed up to fight in Ukraine with the Wagner Group, just 10,000 are reportedly still at the front. An unknown number have been killed in action — but among those would-be casualties are also a certain number of coffins that are actually empty.
To hide the number of soldiers who have deserted or defected to Ukraine, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is reportedly adding them to the lists of the dead and missing.
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Some Wagner fighters have surrendered through the Ukrainian government's "I Want To Live" hotline, says Olga Romanova, director and founder of the Russia Behind Bars foundation.
"Relatives of the convicts enlisted in the Wagner Group are not allowed to open the coffins," explains Romanova.
"They assure families that soldiers died in Ukraine, but in fact, many coffins are empty, and some 'dead' are in fact in Ukrainian captivity."
Risk of desertion
The price of desertion for both Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin is not only the loss of soldiers at the front. If there are not enough conscripts — and based on the ongoing "hidden" mobilization and rumors that renewed mass conscription is scheduled for February 2023, this is a real concern — then the war machine will need to be replenished with more convicted criminals and those drawn by the promise of money.
But even more dangerous for Russia is that many deserters, both in Ukrainian captivity and those who have escaped abroad, talk about the situation at the front, and about the ongoing challenges with supplies and command of Russian troops.
In Samara, southwestern Russia, special forces detained the head of the Council of Mothers and Wives, who was headed to Moscow, as a messenger bearing complaints from conscripts. She is accused of discrediting the Russian army.
The PMC (Private Military Company) Wagner Center logo on a new building in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Maksim Konstantinov/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire
Rapists, murderers, thieves
Some conscripts have managed to seek asylum abroad. Romanova describes the case of a prisoner sentenced to 23 years in a strict penal colony for the brutal murder of four people, including two children, who was able to travel to Turkey because his case was "cleared" by Wagner.
This case is not unique: murderers and rapists, often with guns in their hands, are at large.
The number of crimes involving weapons and ammunition in Russia has increased by almost 30% in the last 10 months, reports the Russian edition of RBC. The Kursk and Belgorod regions, which border Ukraine, are at the top of the list.
"There are also those convicts who ran back home. All of them are criminals, rapists, murderers, thieves — and probably armed," says Olga Romanova. "They hide in small Russian cities, and you certainly can't expect them to be better citizens after being at the front."
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