The Wagner mercenary outfit in Russia claims it has stopped hiring ex-offenders. This can indicate a change in tactics.

According to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of private military contractor Wagner, the country’s jail system, which has been a good source of recruits over the past nine months, will no longer be Wagner’s only option for finding new soldiers.

On Thursday, Prigozhin announced on the Telegram channel of his business: “We have fully stopped hiring inmates into Wagner PMC. Those who are currently employed by us are meeting all their responsibilities.

The Russian oligarch did not provide a justification for the choice, although there are a number of conceivable explanations. The operation might have put a strain on Prigozhin’s budget, the pool of recruits may have diminished, or the Ministry of Defense may have intervened. Alternately, Prigozhin might have been informed that his style of combat no longer aligns with Russian military objectives.

The number of volunteers from prison may have decreased to the point that the campaign is no longer effective after signing up between 40,000 and 50,000 inmates from jails around Russia.

Recent statistics from the Russian Penitentiary Service may confirm that. They revealed that, as opposed to a drop of 23,000 prisoners between September and October of last year, the prison population dropped by 6,000 between November and January this year.

On January 22, 2023, graves of Wagner mercenary organization fighters from Russia may be observed in a cemetery close to the settlement of Bakinskaya in the Krasnodar area of Russia.
On January 22, 2023, graves of Wagner mercenary organization fighters from Russia may be observed in a cemetery close to the settlement of Bakinskaya in the Krasnodar area of Russia.
This week, two Wagner fighters who had been enlisted from Russian jails and engaged in front-line combat in Ukraine before being caught spoke with CNN.

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After visits by Prigozhin in August and September, they said that dozens of inmates, some of whom had only weeks left in their sentences, had joined up. They claimed he flew into their jails in a helicopter and made a number of bold promises, including that their criminal records would be erased and increased pay and other advantages.

CNN was unable to independently verify the assertions. The interviews were conducted in front of Ukrainian security personnel, but the fighters who were arrested spoke in-depth about their time under Wagner. (CNN informed the detainees that they might end the interview at any point. CNN is keeping their identities a secret.)

In an underground bunker southwest of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers occupy the space.
Ukrainian soldier: ‘Killing Wagner is like seeing a zombie movie.
Before Prigozhin’s announcement, there were indications that Wagner’s prison recruitment was waning. Lawyers and a human rights advocate said that recruiters had begun threatening prisoners with fresh criminal charges if they did not agree to go to the front to the independent Russian publication Agentstvo. CNN has contacted one of the attorneys but is unable to independently verify the claim.

Furthermore, it’s possible that the experiences of inmates who finished their six-month Wagner contracts discouraged others from enlisting. Last month, Prigozhin was spotted with some of the demobilized combatants, many of whom were severely injured.

As wave after wave of fighters were dispatched into the path of Ukrainian artillery and tank fire, it’s highly conceivable that some who have since returned home have recounted reports of the horrifying deaths incurred among the Wagner ranks.

The two Wagner captives who were recently interviewed by CNN described suffering significant casualties when they were ordered to storm Ukrainian defenses. According to them, leaders executed any troops who refused to advance.

One of the attorneys who met with Agentstvo claimed that knowledge of Wagner’s high casualty rate contributed in part to the fall in volunteerism among the jail population.

Another factor that may have hurt Wagner’s finances was the convict campaign. The prison recruits had to be provided with weapons and other supplies, trained in camps in Russia and in the occupied Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, transported to battle zones, and fed by Prigozhin’s companies.

With numerous companies involved, the finances of Wagner’s main business, Concord Management, have always been quite murky. Finding the financial resources to support such a sharp rise in Wagner ranks is very challenging.

On December 24, 2022, students from a military academy drape flags over the coffin of a Wagner Group mercenary who died in the battle in Ukraine. The funeral is held at a cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia.
On December 24, 2022, students from a military academy drape flags over the coffin of a Wagner Group mercenary who died in the battle in Ukraine. The funeral is held at a cemetery in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Reuters/Igor Russak
It’s also conceivable that some elements of the Russian elite are attempting to restrict Prigozhin’s access to resources. Prigozhin had to win the approval of the Russian prison service, the Interior Ministry, and other organizations in order to start his prison recruitment operation. Prigozhin has incited a confrontation with the military establishment over its handling of the war, thus it’s possible that his assent was revoked.

In a sarcastic answer posted on the Wagner Company’s VKontakte page, Prigozhin quipped that millions of US citizens had registered to join the mercenary group in response to CNN’s request for comment on Wagner’s decision to stop recruiting from Russian jails.

So, he continued, “we temporarily stopped recruiting volunteers from Russian jails.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense, according to Olga Romanova of the prisoner advocacy group Russia Behind Bars, is now in control of any new recruitment efforts in Russian prisons.

It’s also likely that, despite Prigozhin’s bombast, the Defense Ministry’s intentions no longer align with the Wagner doctrine of warfare. CNN spoke to Wagner combatants who claimed their troops never interacted with Russian regular forces, despite several Wagner attacks receiving artillery assistance.

An image of former Wagner commander Andrei Medvedev was taken in Norway.
Former Wagner commander: cruelty and ineptitude on the front lines In eastern Ukraine, Wagner fighters were able to take minor towns like Soledar and deserted villages like Bakhmut, but only with regular forces’ artillery support and at the cost of hundreds of fatalities in each attack. It’s not yet apparent how Wagner’s poorly equipped “first waves” of infantry would be incorporated into the campaign as Russian forces prepare for a highly anticipated spring onslaught.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, stated last week that “the Wagner Group no longer needs large numbers of convict volunteers for a high pace of attritional human wave attacks,” meaning “the Wagner Group no longer needs the Russian Ministry of Defense to sideline the Wagner Group in future offensive operations.”

Up to 40,000 fighters for Wagner were recruited through the well-publicized and broad jail recruitment operation. Recruiters would be dispatched to the area following Prigozhin’s trip to handle the paperwork. According to the two Wagner fighters who were taken by the Ukrainians and spoke to CNN, practically all prisoners, including those who had been convicted of murder and rape, were eligible for service with Wagner.

The effort to recruit prisoners has been declared to be over by Prigozhin, but Wagner is still in operation. Not at all. Over the past ten years, it has developed a cadre of warriors with expertise and grit, many of them are Chechen war veterans who have also fought in Africa and Syria. It still maintains substantial contingents in the Central African Republic and Mali, where Prigozhin mixes lucrative concessions for raw commodities with training and security missions.

But as it grows less dependent on the ill-trained “cannon fodder” that has been hurled into assaults on areas like Soledar, it may indicate an evolution in Wagner’s role in the Ukraine conflict in the upcoming months.

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