23.11.22 War Review

Criminal-Patriotic War: the contractual army crisis has forced the Kremlin to rely on informal armies and criminal contingents


There has been a sharp decline in the number of prisoners in Russian male colonies, and this is associated with the mass recruitment of their contingent for the war in Ukraine. We are talking about tens of thousands of people, "Mediazona" found out. However, the criminal contingents may be involved in combat operations on a much wider scale: apparently, those who have not yet been convicted by a court, but who hope to avoid punishment in exchange for participation in military operations, are also being recruited for the war, as follows from the "Verstka" investigation. Such recruitment in exchange for impunity in both cases has no legal basis and is done in circumvention of the legislation, and the informal armies themselves are not accountable to the Russian laws. The contract army crisis has led to a situation where one of the Kremlin's main pillars in the current war is the quasi-army units, which are increasing their numbers at the expense of the criminal contingents.

Over September and October the number of prisoners in the men's colonies of strict and general regimes decreased by 23 thousand people, the "Mediazone" found out. According to the Federal Penitentiary Service, the total number of prisoners in August was 349 thousand, in early October it dropped to 338 thousand, and by November — to 325 thousand. Such a sharp decrease has not been seen since 2010 — even during mass amnesties (the maximum number of a single release — 15 thousand) and the pandemic COVID-19 (a reduction of 17 thousand). At the same time, there is no evident decline in the number of prisoners in the colonies-settlements, pre-trial detention centers, and women's colonies, "Mediazone" notes. 

This effect can only be explained by active prisoner recruitment, engaged by the Wagner PMC, and the scale of the prison population reduction is generally consistent with the estimates of Olga Romanova, the founder of the "Russia Behind Bars", who believes that the number of prisoners recruited by the PMCs for the war in October exceeded 20 thousand, and by mid-November, this figure reached almost 30 thousand. The first reports on recruitment appeared in July, and by September the process has become almost public. Videos with the recruitment scenes, conducted personally by "Putin's cook" and PMC patron Yevgeny Prigozhin, have become widely circulated online. Prisoners are promised a pardon after six months in military operations.

However, there is no legal basis for such recruitment and promises. On September 18, six members of the Human Rights Council addressed Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov with a request to give a legal assessment of the prisoners' recruitment (two months later, four of the six signatories were removed from the Council). Various media outlets suggested that those who agree to fight are sent to a penal colony in the Rostov Region, which is located close to the combat zone (although, in this case, they must remain registered in the Federal Penitentiary Service system). According to other reports (cited by Telegram channel SOTA), the prisoners' disappearance from the colonies is documented as an "escort for investigation actions" by units of the Investigative Committee or the FSB, which are engaged in the war and located on the Russian-occupied territories. In any case, from the legal point of view, we are talking about some kind of systematic and massive fraud sanctioned by the Kremlin, which violates Russian laws and regulations of the Federal Penitentiary Service.

The unaccountability of Prigozhin's private army to the Russian laws and its exclusion from the Russian legal system is emphasized by the fact that in his appeals to prisoners Prigozhin advertises the practice of shooting for desertion, which, according to him, is the norm in PMCs. Moreover, on November 13, the Wagnerians posted a video of an exemplary cruel execution of a captured PMC fighter (who was previously serving a sentence for murder) on social media. The publication of video evidence of similar unconventional, emphatically brutal executions was previously practiced by radical Islamist groups and organisations.

However, the actual participation of criminal contingents in the war may be wider than the calculations of "Mediazona" suggest. The "Verstka" media has drawn attention to the fact that the courts passed much lighter sentences on the participants of the war, as well as on those who agreed to fight in it. For example, in October the court found Magomed Ramazanov, previously convicted and supervised, guilty under part 1 of article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation ("resisting a police officer") and sentenced him to three months in jail, although the article provides punishment of up to five years in prison (and is often used as a repressive measure against protesters). Taking into account the 45 days Ramazanov spent in pre-trial detention, the court considered that the sentence had been served. The mitigating circumstance was the defendant's "voluntary participation in military operations from July 1 to August 30, 2022" and his desire to go back to Ukraine as a volunteer. 

In the Leningrad region, the court has sentenced Akim Ogurtsov to one year on probation for robbery (part 1, article 161 of the Criminal Code). Previously, Ogurtsov was convicted five times and spent eight of the last 14 years in prison. The court took into account that Ogurtsov is a volunteer serving under contract and a few days later his friend posted on her page a picture of Ogurtsov in the army uniform.

Therefore, in addition to prisoners, people seeking to avoid punishment for new crimes may be widely recruited into units fighting in Ukraine.

The crisis of the contract army, which turned out to be unsuitable for a protracted war in Ukraine, has led to a situation where quasi-army units have become one of the Kremlin's main pillars in this war, building up their numbers from criminal contingents attracted by the indulgence for violence prospects and exemption from punishment for past and new crimes. Logically, such armies are beyond the reach of Russian laws, and the very principle of their formation is reminiscent of the Thirty Years' War times.