Wagner Group prison recruits return from the Ukrainian front in Russia and face charges of murder and sexual assault
Tallinn, Estonia — When Ivan Rossomakhin returned home from the war in Ukraine three months ago, neighbors in his village east of Moscow were terrified. Three years ago he was convicted of murder and sentenced to a long prison term, but after volunteering to fight he was releasedas a private military contractor.
Back in Novy Burets, Rossomakhin was drunk wandering the streets of the hamlet about 500 miles east of Moscow, carrying a pitchfork and threatening to kill everyone, local residents said.
Despite police promising to keep an eye on the 28-year-old former detainee, he was arrested in a nearby town on charges of stabbing to death an elderly woman with whom he once rented a room. He is said to have confessed to the crime less than ten days after his return.
Rossomachin’s case is not unique. The Associated Press found at least seven other cases in recent months identifying convicts recruited by Wagner who were involved in violent crimes, either in Russian media reports or in interviews with victims’ families in locations from Kaliningrad in the west to Siberia in the US East.
The promise of freedom for frontline service
Russia has made extraordinary efforts to increase its troops in Ukraine, including using Wagner’s mercenaries there. This had far-reaching consequences, as was shown this weekend when the leader of the group sent his private army there.
Another consequence was the use of convicts in combat.
The UK Ministry of Defense warned of the consequences in March, saying that “the sudden influx of often violent criminals with recent and often traumatic combat experiences is likely to pose a significant challenge to Russia’s wartime society” when their service ends.
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin said he had recruited 50,000 convicts for Ukraine, an estimate shared by Olga Romanova, director of the prisoner rights group Russia Behind Bars. Western military officials say convicts made up the bulk of Wagner’s force there, although Prigozhin said in February his company was no longer recruiting from prisons.
About 32,000 returned from Ukraine, Prigozhin said last week, before his rebellion against the defense ministry failed. Romanova estimated the number at about 15,000 in early June.
Prisoners who agreed to join Wagner were promised freedom after their service, and President Vladimir Putin recently confirmed he would sign “pardon decrees” for convicts fighting in Ukraine. These decrees were not published.
In January, Prigozhin appeared in a video addressing a group of men who are said to have been the first to be granted amnesty after serving in Ukraine.
“You have honored your contract. They worked honorably and with dignity,” Prigozhin said in the clip published by Russia’s Ria Novosti news agency. Prigozhin said the men “should be treated with the utmost respect by society” after completing their contracts, but added a warning and was keenly aware of the risks:
“Don’t drink a lot, don’t take drugs, don’t rape women, don’t do anything bad,” Prigozhin was heard saying to the men.
Murders, robberies and sexual assaults
Putin recently said that the recidivism rate among those released from prison in Ukraine is much lower than the average in Russia. But advocates for the rights say fears that those rates could rise as more convicts return from the war are not necessarily unfounded.
“People note a total absence of a connection between crime and punishment, an act and its consequences,” Romanova said. “And it’s not just convicts who see it. Even free people see it – that you can do something terrible, enlist in the war and be a hero.”
When Rossomakhin returned from the fighting in Ukraine, he was not considered brave, but rather an “extremely restless, problematic person,” police said at a meeting with anxious residents of Novy Burets, which was broadcast by a local broadcaster before 85-year-old Yulia was filmed Buyskikh was killed. He was even arrested once for breaking into a car and held for five days before police released him on March 27.
Two days later Buyskikh was killed.
“She knew him and opened the door when he came to kill her,” her granddaughter Anna Pekareva wrote on Facebook. “Every family in Russia must be afraid of such visitors.”
Other incidents included a store robbery in which a man held a saleswoman at knifepoint; a car theft by three ex-convicts in which the owner of the vehicle was beaten and forced to hand it over to them; the sexual assault of two schoolgirls; and two other murders besides the one in Novy Burets.
According to a local media report and a relative of the girl, a man was arrested in Kaliningrad for sexually assaulting an eight-year-old girl after snatching her from her mother.
The man went to his mother and boasted about his prison sentence and his Wagner service in Ukraine, the relative, who spoke to the AP for security reasons on condition of anonymity. The relative asked, “How many of them will be returning soon?”
A “pattern of relapsing behavior”
According to media reports and rights groups, when recruiting, Wagner typically offered convicts six-month contracts. Then they can return home, unlike regular soldiers, who cannot cancel their contracts and retire from service as long as Putin’s mobilization decree remains in effect. However, it was not immediately clear whether these conditions would be observed after Prigozhin’s unsuccessful mutiny.
Prigozhin, himself a former convict, recently admitted that some repeat offenders were Wagner fighters – including Rossomakhin in Novy Burets and a man arrested in Novosibirsk for sexually molesting two girls.
Putin recently said the recidivism rate among convicts who went to Ukraine was “10 times lower” than anyone else. “The negative consequences are minimal,” he added.
There is not yet enough data to assess the consequences, according to a Russian criminology expert who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.
This year’s incidents “fit the pattern of recidivist behavior,” and there is a possibility these convicts would have committed crimes again after their release, even if they had not been recruited by Wagner, the expert said. However, there is no reason to expect an explosion in crime, since a significant proportion of ex-convicts can probably refrain from breaking the law for a while, especially if they are well paid by Wagner, the expert said.
He assumes that the crime rate will increase after the war, but not necessarily because of the use of convicts. It’s something that usually happens after conflict, he said.
According to a 2020 research report by the Russian Penitentiary Service, the Soviet Union sent 1.2 million convicts to serve in World War II. It didn’t say how many returned, but the criminology expert told the AP that a “substantial number” ended up behind bars again after years of committing new crimes.
Brilliance and a deterrent effect
Romanova, from Russia behind bars, says there have been many disturbing incidents of convicts returning to civilian life after a stay in Ukraine.
Law enforcement and court officials who have invested time and resources in bringing these criminals to justice may feel humiliated to see so many walking free without serving their sentences, she said.
“They see that their work is not necessary,” Romanova added.
Some convicts caught committing crimes upon return sometimes try to turn the tables on police, accusing them of discrediting those who fought in Ukraine – which is now a serious crime in Russia, he said she.
When asked if that deters law enforcement, Romanova said, “You know, a prosecutor doesn’t want to go to prison for 15 years.”
Yana Gelmel, a lawyer and a lawyer who also works with convicts, said in an interview that returnees from Ukraine often act with cockiness and bluster, demanding special treatment for “defending the motherland.”
wagSie portrays a grim life in Russian prisons with rampant and relentless violence, extreme isolation, constant submission to the guards, and a strict hierarchy among the inmates. “What would his state of mind be for prisoners in these conditions?” asked Gelmel.
Add to that the trauma of being thrown into battle – especially in places like Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, the longest and bloodiest conflict where“Imagine – he went to war. If he survived… he experienced so much there. In what condition will he return?”
Does the Department of Defense recruit from prisons?
Meanwhile, the recruitment of prisoners for service in Ukraine appears to be continuing — just not by Wagner, human rights groups say. Instead, the Ministry of Defense is now looking for volunteers there and offering them contracts.
Romanova said the ministry had recruited nearly 15,000 convicts through June, although officials there did not respond to a request for comment.
Unlike Wagner, the Defense Department will soon have a legal base – legislation allowing convicts to be drafted into contract service was swiftly passed by Parliament and signed by Putin last week.
And unlike Wagner, the ministry offers 18-month contracts, but many recruits weren’t given anything to sign, leaving them in a precarious position, Romanova said.
Inmates’ enthusiasm for the service has not waned, she said, even after thousands have been killed on the battlefield.
“Russian roulette is our favorite game,” Romanova said grimly. “National entertainment.”