Russia struggles to replenish troops in Ukraine

Prisoners in the St. Petersburg penal colony expected a visit by officials, thinking it would be some sort of examination. Instead, men in uniform arrived and offered them a pardon — if they agreed to fight alongside the Russian army in Ukraine.

About a dozen people got out of prison in the days that followed, according to a woman whose boyfriend is serving time in prison. Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, she said her boyfriend was not among the applicants, but that he “couldn’t think about it” with years remaining in prison.

As Russia continues to suffer losses in it, Invasion of Ukrainenow approaching six months, the Kremlin has refused to announce a full-scale mobilization — a move that may be highly unpopular with President Vladimir Putin instead to make up for the lack of personnel. It has led to clandestine recruitment practices, such as using prisoners to

This also comes amid reports that hundreds of Russian soldiers have refused to fight and are about to quit the military.

Alexey Tabarov, a lawyer who runs a law firm at a conscription school, said: “We are witnessing a mass exodus of people who want to leave the war zone. It’s the people who tied the knot,” he said. aid group.

The group has been inundated with requests from men wanting their contracts terminated, and “I personally get the impression that anyone who can get away is ready to get away,” Tabarov said. “And the Department of Defense is digging deep to find anyone they can persuade to comply.”

The defense ministry denies that “mobilization activities” are taking place, but officials appear to be doing everything in their power to encourage enlistment. Billboards and public transport ads everywhere proclaim “this is the job” and encourage men to enlist. Authorities have set up mobile recruitment centers in some cities, including the site of a half marathon in Siberia in May.

Local governments organize “volunteer battalions” advertised on national television. Business daily Kommersant counts at least 40 such organizations in 20 regions, with officials promising volunteers salaries and bonuses worth between $2,150 and almost $5,500 a month.

AP looked at thousands of job openings on various military professional job search sites.

The British military said this week that Russia had formed a major new ground force called the 3rd Corps from a “volunteer battalion”. This recruits men up to his 50s and requires only a secondary school education, while offering “lucrative cash bonuses.” sent to Ukraine.

However, complaints have also surfaced in the media that some people have not received their promised payments, but these reports cannot be independently verified.

In early August, Tabarov said he began receiving multiple requests for legal assistance from reservists ordered to participate in two-month training in areas near the border with Ukraine.

Vladimir Osechkin, founder of’s prisoner’s rights group, citing prisoners and their relatives his group has contacted, said prison recruitment has taken place in seven regions in recent weeks. .

This is not the first time authorities have used such tactics. The Soviet Union adopted a “prisoner battalion” during World War II.

Not only in Russia. Early in the civil war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky promised to grant amnesty to veterans behind prison if they volunteered, but it remains unclear if anything was gained from that. .

In the current situation, it is not the Ministry of Defense that is recruiting prisoners, Wagner Group, Russia’s secret private army.

Evgeny Prigozhin, an entrepreneur known as “Putin’s Chef” due to his catering deal with the Kremlin and a reported Wagner manager and investor, said in a written statement released by his representatives earlier this month. dismissed reports of personal visits to prisons to recruit prisoners. In fact, he denies having anything to do with Wagner, who reportedly sent military contractors to places like Syria and sub-Saharan Africa.

Prisoners with military or law enforcement experience were initially offered to go to Ukraine, according to Osechkin, but it was later expanded to include prisoners from a variety of backgrounds. He estimated that as of late July, about 1,500 people may have applied, lured by the large salary and the promise of an eventual pardon.

Now, many of those volunteers and their families have reached out to him to drop their commitments, saying, “I really don’t want to go,” he added.

A woman whose boyfriend is serving time in a St. Petersburg penal colony says the offer to be released from prison is a “little hope” of freedom. She added that one of her volunteers expressed regret over his decision and did not believe he would return alive.

Her account could not be independently verified, but was consistent with multiple reports by independent Russian media and human rights groups.

Some soldiers and law enforcement officers have refused to be sent to Ukraine or are trying to return home after weeks or months of fighting, according to lawyers for these groups and the military.

Media reports about some troops refusing to fight in Ukraine began to surface in the spring, but rights groups and lawyers began talking about the number of denials reaching the hundreds last month.

In mid-July, the Free Buryatia Foundation reported that about 150 men had completed their contracts with the Ministry of Defense and were able to return from Ukraine to Buryatia, a region of eastern Siberia bordering Mongolia.

Some military personnel are facing repercussions. Tabarov, a legal aid lawyer, said about 80 other soldiers who had asked to have their contracts voided were detained in the Russian-controlled town of Bryanka in Luhansk province in eastern Ukraine, according to their relatives. rice field. Bryanka detention center was closed last week due to media attention, he said.

But the parent of one police officer detained trying to terminate his contract told the Associated Press this week that some are still being held elsewhere in the area. requested anonymity.

Military personnel can terminate their contracts for compelling reasons, Tabarov said, and while it’s usually not difficult, the decision is usually up to the commander. However, he added:

Alexandra Garmazapova, director of the Free Buryatia Foundation, told The Associated Press that soldiers and their relatives complained that commanders were destroying dismissal notices and threatening to prosecute “rejectors.” Told. As of late July, the foundation said it had received hundreds of requests from soldiers seeking termination of their contracts.

“I get messages every day,” Garmazhapova said.

Some soldiers complained that they were tricked about where they were going and didn’t think they would end up in a war zone, while others were too exhausted from the battle to continue, Tabarov said.

Lawyers said they rarely, if ever, appeared to be motivated by anti-war beliefs.

Russia will continue to face problems with its soldiers refusing to fight, military analyst Michael Coffman said, but don’t underestimate Russia’s ability to “disrupt by half-hearted means”. .

“They’re going to have a lot of people quit or basically don’t want to deploy,” Coffman, director of the Russian Studies Program at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analysis, said in a recent podcast. said. “And they have employed many means to try to keep people in line. But at the end of the day, there’s not much they can do.”


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine.