Ukraine-Russia War: How many Wagner mercenaries are ex-convicts?

The GUR noted that the number of Wagner mercenaries in Russia, most of whom are on the front lines, is over 8,000. Most of them are prisoners. 

 A service member of pro-Russian troops stands inside a residential building in Volnovakha (photo credit: REUTERS)
A service member of pro-Russian troops stands inside a residential building in Volnovakha
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The majority of Wagner Group mercenaries fighting on behalf of Russia in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine consist of enlisted prisoners, according to a recent report from Ukraine's Main Intelligence Directorate (GUR).

The GUR noted that the number of Wagner mercenaries in Russia, most of whom are on the front lines, is over 8,000. Most of them are recruited prisoners

Not only that, but according to the GUR, most of the Wagner mercenaries who have been killed in battle with Ukrainian forces are also these prisoners.

Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine and former Russian prisoners

The fact that Wagner is using former prisoners is well-established by numerous reports at this time. Intelligence reports have long stated that Russia is working to recruit prisoners through mercenary groups like Wagner to shore up its heavy losses in the ongoing war, which Russia refers to as a "special military operation."

According to Russian oligarch and Wagner co-owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, who posted a statement on Russian social media outlet VKontakte in response to a question from Russian news outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda, which is not to be confused with the similarly named Ukrainian news outlet Ukrainska Pravda.

 The US announced on March 3, 2022 they were imposing sanctions against Russian oligarchs, including Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as it targeted Russia's super-rich and others close to President Vladimir Putin, further ratcheting up financial pressure over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. (credit: FBI/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) The US announced on March 3, 2022 they were imposing sanctions against Russian oligarchs, including Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as it targeted Russia's super-rich and others close to President Vladimir Putin, further ratcheting up financial pressure over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. (credit: FBI/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

"Of course, if I were a prisoner, I would dream of joining... in order to not only redeem my debt to the Motherland, but also to repay it with interest," said Pirogzhin, a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Regarding those who don't want prisoners to be recruited to fight in Ukraine, Pirogzhin said: "Send your children to the front. Either private military contractors and prisoners, or [send] your children - decide for yourself."

"Send your children to the front. Either private military contractors and prisoners, or [send] your children - decide for yourself."

Yevgeny Prigozhim

According to Ukrainian intelligence reports, after signing and fulfilling the contracts with the private military company convicts are promised full amnesty after six months of service. They further claimed that the crime committed by convicts is irrelevant, even if it is murder or other serious crimes.

Wagner has reportedly been taking part in this, as they have also suffered significant losses during the war.

And according to some experts, it is highly likely that these prisoners are not forcibly conscripted but willingly enlist, though not for money. According to Olga Romanova, head of Russian human rights NGO Russia Behind Bars, "The prisoners want to leave... get out, go anywhere. Because any place on Earth is better than a Russian prison."

"The prisoners want to leave... get out, go anywhere. Because any place on Earth is better than a Russian prison."

Olga Romanova

Also, despite Prigozhin's claims, UK intelligence claims that Russia's military has lowered its standards for recruits and the training is rushed.

The fact that training is rushed, however, may help explain why so many of these former prisoners have died. 

According to the GUR, the primary task of the prisoners recruited by Wagner is to support the smaller group of experienced mercenaries.

For this endeavor, they are reportedly training hundreds more prisoners to be sent to the battlefield.

Roman Meitav contributed to this report.