Russia Doing ‘The Dirty Dozen’ Recruiting Inmates To Fight In Ukraine

Haranguing prison inmates into fighting is often a viewed as a desperate measure, more often seen in Hollywood films than in real life.

byDan Parsons|
A screen grab from a video showing Putin confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin pitching military service in Ukraine to a group of Russian convicts.
A screen grab from a video showing Putin confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin pitching military service in Ukraine to a group of Russian convicts. capture via Twitter

It's a scene straight out of the Dirty Dozen or Suicide Squad. A close confidant of Vladimir Putin pitches combat duty to a prison yard full of inmates, promising clemency for service in Russia's floundering invasion.

Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and Putin confidant with links to the country's GRU military intelligence agency, can be seen in the video below recruiting Russian prison inmates to serve with the Wagner Group, an ostensibly private military company. Wagner, which is also tied to the Kremlin and the GRU, and other similar organizations have seen duty in all of Russia’s recent wars of choice.

Prighozhin’s pitch to the inmates may be a bit misguided. According to one online translation, he says the “war is heavy,” and “nothing like Chechnya.” At one point he claims that more artillery shells are being fired than at the legendarily brutal 1943 Battle of Stalingrad in which more than a million Soviet troops were lost. The Nazis and their allies suffered 800,000 or so casualties.

In Hollywood, these scenes play out as fringe, sometimes maverick or disgraced, officers are tasked with molding hardened criminals into a team willing to undertake impossible missions with the prospect of unbelievable rewards. In The Dirty Dozen, 12 men were asked to infiltrate and destroy a chateau hosting a gathering of the Nazi high command in France just before D-Day in exchange for pardons. The missions are always top secret and almost certainly one-way tickets for the recruits.

Here we have that very scenario played out in daylight, filmed, and posted to social media.

In the real world, military service has been an option for some convicts eager to clear their names. It was a common option available to some U.S. criminals during the Vietnam war, for instance.

Variations in the practice reach much further into history. The Soviet Union notably employed shtrafbats, or penal battalions, in World War II, as did their Nazi opponents. The Dirlewanger Brigade, a Waffen-SS unit made up of individuals convicted of murder and other major crimes, was particularly infamous and directly responsible for a number of war crimes.

Far from recruiting personnel to embark on explosive, do-or-die missions, the men now being wooed into the Russian armed forces with offers of clemency for past crimes are in this case being sent into a meat grinder of Russia’s own making.

Retired three-star general and former chief of U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) Mark Hertling called the move “formalized fratricide.”

In the video, Prighozhin goes on to specify the rules under which the inmates who do sign up for service will have to follow. The first “sin” is desertion, standard for any military force. Except this edict comes with a Soviet-era twist that surrender and capture are not options. The first 40 inmates conscripted into Wagner who fought with him stormed a Ukrainian trench, and the group suffered three dead and seven wounded.

“Nobody goes back behind bars,” he says. “If you serve six months, you are free. If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we execute you.”

Alcohol and drug abuse are fine, as long as the conscript was not addicted to their poison. Looting and sexual assault are out, though those who are incarcerated for sexual abuse will be excused because “mistakes happen.” He then clearly explains the mission.

“We only need assault troops.”

Reliance on conscripted troops is obviously nothing new, but Russia's continued need to refresh its ranks with untrained soldiers is seemingly a mark of how desperate Moscow has become. Russia is supposed to have mustered hundreds of thousands of troops prior to its invasion of Ukraine in February. The loss of perhaps tens of thousands of them, along with needing to refresh its ranks and soldiers having done their specified time, has clearly sent the powers that be fishing for any recruits they can find. Wagner is known to be suffering from this issue to a severe degree.

It would be interesting to know if even after the horrific sales pitch and of the prisoners took the deal.

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