Thousands of convicts recruited by Wagner are set to be released in coming weeks, which may worsen the private military company's personnel issues in Ukraine, the UK Defense Ministry assessed in a Tuesday morning intelligence update.
Tens of thousands of Russian prisoners, most recruited in the fall of 2022, signed up for six-month contracts for service in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In return, the convict-soldiers would be pardoned for their crimes.
"Although approximately half of the prisoners recruited have likely been killed or wounded, evidence from Russia suggests the group is following through on its promise to free survivors," said the UK Defense Ministry. "The certificates issued to freed Wagner veterans claim to have been endorsed by the decree of President Putin."
Wagner-associated Telegram channels have previously shared posts showing mercenaries being pardoned, as proof of the program's legitimacy.
Wagner lost prison access
The UK Defense Ministry previously assessed on March 13 that Wagner had lost access to prisons for recruitment over political disputes with the Russian Defense Ministry's leadership. Yevgeny Prigozhin has publicly criticized Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the two factions have competed for credit and success on the battlefield.
"With Wagner now likely banned from recruiting more prisoners, this exodus will worsen its personnel problems," the UK Defense Ministry said on Tuesday.
Wagner has begun seeking to recruit through other means. Telegram posts on Wagner channels have offered contracts for various mercenary positions. The UK Defense Ministry reported on March 13 that Wagner had set up recruitment drives in Russian high schools and sports centers.
The Russian military is also continuing recruitment campaigns, Ukrainian Intelligence representative Adriy Yusov said on Tuesday. Yusov claimed that a hidden conscription process is recruiting 20,000 Russian citizens each month, and more mobilization measures would be introduced soon.
The UK Defense Ministry also noted on Tuesday that the release of many of the convicts could impact Russian civilians.
"The sudden influx of often violent offenders with recent and often traumatic combat experience will likely present a significant challenge for Russia’s war-time society," said the ministry.