According to reports from various rights advocacy groups, Russia is believed to have recruited more than 100,000 prisoners to fight in Ukraine since the war began. The figures were provided by Russian dissident-in-exile Vladimir Osechkin, who heads the Gulagu.net anti-corruption project, based on sources in Russia's prison system. Osechkin stated that every week, over 1,000 of the convict recruits are killed in the war, and that in some cases, older men past retirement age have been recruited to fight.
The Washington Post previously reported that Russia's prison population has dropped from 420,000 before the war to about 266,000, according to Deputy Justice Minister Vsevolod Vukolov. This revelation has been described as shocking by Olga Romanova, the director of the Russia Behind Bars human rights organization.
The practice of recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine was first started by the now-deceased leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin. He promised prisoners pardons and financial incentives if they joined up. Rights groups estimate that Prigozhin recruited about 50,000 prisoners, and it appears that the Russian Defense Ministry has continued the practice, with the total number of recruits believed to be around 100,000.
There have been documented cases in which defendants were recruited to join the war before their cases even went to trial. Additionally, controversy has arisen as former convicts finish their service in Ukraine, as two men convicted of murder and cannibalism were recently released after they fought.
Russia has been suffering heavy casualties in Ukraine, with estimates from the West putting the number at about 300,000. War analysts have noted that the Russian military has often relied on human wave tactics, throwing poorly trained troops into massive assaults.
To combat manpower shortages in Ukraine, Russia has sent in prisoners, called up military reservists, and recruited ethnic minorities. The Russian military appears to be able to continuously reinforce with recruits, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
Overall, the recruitment of prisoners by Russia to fight in Ukraine has raised concerns among human rights organizations and shed light on the challenges faced by the Russian military in the ongoing conflict.