US blasts Wagner releasing convict-soldiers, enlisting from Chechen jails

State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the practice of recruiting convicted criminals for battle in exchange for freedom if they are willing to fight, calling it a "barbaric tactic."

 Visitors pose for a picture outside PMC Wagner Centre, which is a project implemented by the businessman and founder of the Wagner private military group Yevgeny Prigozhin, during the official opening of the office block in Saint Petersburg, Russia, November 4, 2022 (photo credit: REUTERS/IGOR RUSSAK)
Visitors pose for a picture outside PMC Wagner Centre, which is a project implemented by the businessman and founder of the Wagner private military group Yevgeny Prigozhin, during the official opening of the office block in Saint Petersburg, Russia, November 4, 2022
(photo credit: REUTERS/IGOR RUSSAK)

The US condemned the Russian mercenary group Wagner for its release of mercenaries recruited from prisons who had completed their contract with the private military company on Thursday night, even as Wagner reportedly sought to enlist more convicts from Chechen jails.

State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the practice of "Seeking out convicts – in many cases individuals who had been convicted of violent crimes – promising them freedom if they were to fight and in many cases likely die on the front lines as well,"  as "a barbaric tactic."

"This is a tactic that the world has condemned," Price said at a Thursday press briefing. "It’s a tactic that is extralegal. Human rights groups have been vocally critical of it for that reason as well."

The US condemnation of Wagner, which is controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin ally and oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, came in response to Wagner reportedly releasing fighters that had completed their contract.

"The first fighters from among those sentenced to prison who fulfilled the terms of the contract in the Wagner Group, as promised, received a pardon," said the Wagner-affiliated Telegram group Grey Zone. "The pioneers of the system, which Prigozhin tested, gave a result."

 Wagner private military group centre opens in St Petersburg (credit: REUTERS) Wagner private military group centre opens in St Petersburg (credit: REUTERS)

The former prisoners and mercenaries were given state and Wagner medals in addition to pardon papers. Prigozhin reportedly gave them the business card of this legal department to help resolve any further claims. According to Grey Zone, some of the pardoned men "expressed a desire to stay at Wagner or return to it after visiting relatives and friends."

Wagner's continued recruitment efforts seeks 'alternative' soldiers

Ukrainian intelligence has claimed that Wagner has continued the recruitment process at correctional facilities in the Chechen Republic, "most of whom were convicted of political activities." More than 50 men have allegedly already been recruited.

While the practice appears set to continue, Price warned that it was a "tactic that will be ineffective."

"Even if there are tens of thousands of forces who may fall under Wagner’s control, under the control of Mr. Prigozhin, these are not forces that will be in a position to change the tide of the war," Price explained. "These are not forces that are trained; these are not forces that are generally well enmeshed in the broader Russian combat operations. And we’re seeing the results of that. Despite the infusion of personnel, essentially what the Kremlin is using as cannon fodder, the Ukrainians continue to wrest back territory, to continue to take back territory that was taken from them since 2014 in some cases, more recently, since February 24th."

Tensions have also reportedly begun to rise with Wagner and Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's men on one side and Russian soldiers on the other, according to the Ukrainian National Resistance Center.

Wagner mercenaries and Chechen fighters have been accused of receiving priority for equipment and best buildings as positions along the battlefront, the center said.

"Even if there are tens of thousands of forces who may fall under Wagner’s control, under the control of Mr. Prigozhin, these are not forces that will be in a position to change the tide of the war,"

US State Department spokesman Ned Price

It also claimed that Prigozhin and Kadyrov were at odds with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Military Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov. The former have been critical of the war's management by the latter in the past, and the Center is claiming that Prigozhin is using bot farms to attack the Russian military heads for their lack of professionalism and the deaths of  89 soldiers in a Ukrainian missile strike on Wednesday that may have been caused by the illegal mass use of mobile phones by servicemen.

While Wagner continues its recruitment, the Russian military has formally integrated militias from the Luhansk People's Republic and the Donetsk People's Republic, a Friday UK Defense Ministry intelligence update said. While the process was completed on December 31, the ministry has discreetly controlled both since 2014.