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Using conscripts and detainees, Russia doubles its forces in Ukraine

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RIGA, Latvia — Despite heavy combat losses in ten months of brutal war, Russia now has more than double the number of troops ready to fight in Ukraine as it did when it invaded in February, including thousands of freed convicts prison and conscripts from a controversial mobilization campaign this fall.

According to a new US assessment, the Wagner mercenary group, which fights alongside regular Russian troops in Ukraine, has recruited 40,000 prisoners from across the country into its ranks in recent months. Together, with 300,000 new conscripts and 20,000 volunteers, the Russian force is now more than double the 150,000 initially allocated to what President Vladimir Putin has called a “special military operation”.

Russia’s largest force, even after losing around 25,000 killed in action and tens of thousands more wounded, upholds Putin’s oft-repeated commitment to push forward until his military objectives in Ukraine are achieved, although military experts widely question the level of readiness and morale of recent recruits.

The new figures, presented by US national security spokesman John Kirby during a Thursday briefing, generally match assessments by rights groups, including Russia Behind Bars, which said an unofficial recruitment of Russian detainees had been carried out separately from the “partial mobilization”. ordered by Putin at the end of September.

Putin declares ‘war’ – out loud – abandoning his euphemistic special operation

In remarks this week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 300,000 troops were mobilized in September and October, with another 20,000 joining as volunteers.

At Thursday’s briefing, Kirby said 40,000 of the Wagoner Group’s estimated 50,000 members were convicts. Kirby added that Washington believes at least 900 prisoners were killed in recent fighting in eastern Ukraine. He said Wagner, led by businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin, seemed locked in a power struggle with other Russian military structures.

“In some cases, Russian military officials are actually subordinate to Wagner’s command,” Kirby said. “It’s pretty obvious to us that Wagner is becoming a rival power center for the Russian military and other Russian ministries.”

Prigozhin, dubbed Putin’s leader because he made his fortune from Russian government catering contracts, was videotaped in September personally visiting prisons to help recruit convicts to join Wagner, with a preference for people accused of violent crimes.

The press service of Prigozhin’s catering company Concord then coyly commented on the video, saying it “can confirm that the person in the video looks a lot like Yevgeniy Viktorovich.”

Angry families say Russian conscripts were thrown to the front unprepared

In recent weeks, Wagner has focused on the attempt to capture the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, a push that sparked some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, but has so far failed to yield the much-sought victory. . This week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Bakhmut and awarded medals to some of the soldiers involved in defending the city, highlighting Wagner’s failure so far to capture it.

“It looks like Mr. Prigozhin is ready to throw Russian bodies into Bakhmut’s meat grinder,” Kirby said. “In fact, about 1,000 Wagner fighters have been killed in the fighting over the past few weeks, and we believe 90 percent of those 1,000 fighters were, in fact, convicts.”

The Prigozhin prison recruitment effort, which began in late spring or early summer, was a response to an urgent need for reinforcements at a time when Putin was still resisting a mobilization, in the hope of protecting the Russian population from direct involvement in the war.

Throughout the war, Wagner rose to prominence after early successes in the Luhansk region contrasted with the multiple setbacks suffered by Russian regular forces, prompting state media for the first time to praise and openly adulate the group of mercenaries. Wagner had long operated in the shadows, Moscow denying any connection with him.

The UK government, meanwhile, estimates that Wagner’s fighters in Ukraine have fallen from around 1,000 in March 2022 to nearly 20,000, which the UK says represents 10% of Russian forces on the ground. .

Recruiters linked to Prigozhin and Wagner offered the prisoners forgiveness and freedom, in exchange for six months of fighting. They also receive a monthly salary of around $1,400 sent to relatives of the prisoner, but they are also warned that those who attempt to flee the front line without a fight risk being shot.

Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars, said families are usually paid, albeit irregularly, but there is no legal basis or guarantee that fighters will receive what they were promised. Even their freedom can be legally uncertain, Romanova said.

Wagner mercenaries buy North Korean missiles for war in Ukraine

“The court decisions regarding these recruits are not overturned, they are still registered with the prison service,” Romanova said. “Pardons are granted by presidential decree, and it is a very complex process, which has not undergone any modification. There is therefore neither pardon nor amnesty that parliament has the power to vote.

Romanova also said that the vulnerable position of the inmates and the lack of any legal protection allowed Wagner to engage in extrajudicial executions of former convicts who violated the mercenary group’s rules.

“They promise to shoot them, and they do, for drug and alcohol use or for, say, sex,” Romanova said. “I would say these are mass extrajudicial executions.”

According to Romanova, recruited convicts are thrown into the front lines, used for mine clearing or as infantry, though they are often in poor health and with little or no training, resulting in heavy casualties. “Of the first recruits who took part in the first battles in July, we only know of one survivor…that’s one in a unit of about 100 people,” she said.

In November, a video appeared on a Telegram account linked to Wagner showing the apparent execution of Yevgeny Nuzhin, a 55-year-old convict who was serving a 24-year prison sentence for a murder he committed in 1999.

In July he signed a deal to join Wagner but defected to Ukraine where he gave a series of interviews. In the clip, Nuzhin was seen lying with his head stuck to a brick as a stranger in fatigues hit him with a hammer.

Prigozhin did not directly take responsibility for Nuzhin’s death or acknowledge Wagner’s role in it, but he called Nuzhin a traitor and said “he did not find happiness in Ukraine, but that he met wicked but righteous people”.

In a speech earlier this week, Putin said 150,000 mobilized troops have already been deployed to the combat zone, while the other half are “located and trained at military training grounds and constitute a sufficient reserve”. .

“This is for rotation because you can’t send thousands of troops to the front and keep them there until the end of the war; you have to rotate them periodically,” said Ruslan Leviev, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, which has been tracking Russian military activities in Ukraine since 2014. 150,000 are waiting their turn.

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