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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Freedom Or Death? Wagner Group Struggles To Recruit New Prisoners For Russia's War

Many of the convicts that the Wagner Group mercenary outfit enlisted to fight in Ukraine are dead or missing, which has created a major recruitment problem for the paramilitary group headed by Putin confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Photo of a Wagner Group fighter in front of a destroyed building in the snow

A Wagner Group fighter near the embattled town of Soledar

Cameron Manley

Back in September, Yevgeny Prigozhin , founder of the private paramilitary Wagner Group, promised a full pardon to any Russian prisoners who agreed to fight in Ukraine. It was a critical recruitment tool to bolster Vladimir Putin's announcement at the time of a "partial" mobilization of new troops.

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Then in January , the first group of convicts, who had supposedly “fulfilled their contracts” with Wagner, had all past criminal charges erased from their record.

Yet now, amid fears of a new wave of Russian mobilization , convicts in Russian penal colonies who are refusing to go to the front line are being threatened with new criminal cases and sentences, Russian independent news site Agenstvo reports.

Lawyer Yana Helmel told Agenstvo that security services have begun threatening convicts in the southern Russian regions of Samara and Rostov, as well as the Krasnodar region, and areas of the North Caucasus.

Difficulty signing up convicts

“Operatives from the Interior Ministry or the Federal Security Service approach prisoners and bully them into signing up to fight by threatening to bring up old cases from ten to 20 years ago, which have already passed the statute of limitations,” Helmel said.

The new recruitment methods can be explained by the fact that, unlike in the summer and fall of 2022, convicts are aware of the high numbers of dead and wounded on the front line. Now they are far less willing to trade their prison sentence for what they see as virtual suicide.

According to the Speaker of the U.S. National Security Council, John Kirby, the Wagner PMC in Ukraine is made up of around 50,000 fighters, 40,000 of whom are former prisoners.

They brought two prisoners who refused to fight and shot them.

Olga Romanova, head of the Rus’ Sidiashchaia, a non-governmental NGO that supports convicts and their families, estimates the number to be slightly higher: 50,000 recruits of which 40,000 are “either dead, injured, or have surrendered or deserted the army.”

Fake funeral notices

Romanova also reports that rather than admit that the convicts he recruits are incompetent, have surrendered, or run away, Prigozhin prefers to say they are dead, sending out fake funeral notices to the recruits’ families.

One ex-commander of Wagner who had deserted the mercenary group in November explained how he had witnessed a double execution at a Wagner training center. “There was an incident when they brought two prisoners who refused to fight and shot them in front of others for refusing to follow orders,” he told The Moscow Times . “There were a lot of such cases.”

This news comes amidst rumors of a potential new wave of Russian mobilization . Ukrainian officials reported Monday that Russia was planning a recruitment process of 300,000-500,000 men to replace the hundreds of thousands already injured or killed on the frontline. Moscow has continued to deny that it is about to launch a second wave of mobilization.

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How War And Censorship Are Killing Russian Rap Culture, One Beat At A Time

Censorship in Russia has increased rapidly over the last couple of decades, especially since their invasion of Ukraine. Russian rap, which has often challenged the politics and society of Russia, has become even more censored than before, even causing some rappers to emigrate.

Russian rapper Egor Krid performs during a concert in St Petersburg.

John Vandevert

In retrospect, rap in 1990s Russia was truly free . How so? Look around: the bright post-Soviet future of which Russians caught a glimpse during the 1990s has collapsed, replaced with something much darker, with one of its victims being rap.

In my PhD research on 1990s rap in Russia , I find the era allowed Soviet nostalgia, sexual promiscuity, and self-reflection to live alongside political cooptation, much like in the 1999/2000 song “Beat Battle”, a covert political message in support of centrist electoral candidate Grigory Yavlinsky . The 1996 track “Vote or Lose” by Bachelor Party (in Russian: Malchinik, Мальчишник) is yet another case:

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What you can’t find is censorship. Whatever one thinks of Boris Yeltsin’s embrace of the West, thanks to rap, a strong community was created. Come 2023, and censorship has changed that community’s fabric forever.

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