Infantry shortages on the battlefront in Ukraine have prompted the Kremlin-linked private military force known as the Wagner Group to recruit Russian convicts as its forces flag.
British intelligence on Friday said the mercenary group has been working since at least July to add to Moscow’s ranks by heading to Russian prisons to incentive volunteers to leave their cells and head to Ukraine.
“Prisoners have been offered commutation of their sentences as well as cash incentives,” the U.K. defense ministry said in a daily briefing. “This has been reinvigorated, with recently posted video highly likely showing Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin making a recruitment pitch to prisoners.”
A video reportedly appeared on Telegram this week depicting Prigozhin addressing inmates, all of whom wore black prison uniforms, and emphasizing that he was specifically looking for “fighters for assault units” to take up arms against Kyiv.
“Nobody goes back behind bars,” Prigozhin told inmates according to The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov. “If you serve six months, you are free. If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we execute you.”
Prigozhin reportedly went on to say that he could not give any “guarantees” but pointed out that “only two other people can get you out of here, God and Allah, and they’ll do it in a wooden coffin.”
“I can get you out alive. But you may not remain alive,” he added.
The British defense ministry said Russian academies had also begun to reduce the amount of time its newest cadets remain in training and said they were likely headed to the front lines.
“The impact of Russia’s manpower challenge has become increasingly severe,” the ministry said. “The acceleration of officer cadets’ training and Wagner’s demand for assault troops suggests that two of the most critical shortages within the military manning crisis are probably combat infantry and junior commanders.”
The latest attempts to get Russian boots to the front lines come as Ukrainian troops have made significant advances over the last two weeks since launching a major counter-offensive.
Western defense officials said their ability to rapidly advance was due to a coordinated effort and strategic planning, coupled with Russia’s inability to properly re-supply and re-group its troops in the north over the last six months.