Wagner Group Likely Seeking More Competent Soldiers in Ukraine: Expert

  • Wagner Group, the Russian paramilitary organization, has stopped recruiting prisoners for the war.
  • The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, confirmed the cessation of the practice last week.
  • An expert in Russian history told Insider the move could be an attempt to recruit more competent fighters.

Wagner Group, the powerful Russian paramilitary organization that sparked global outrage by offering convicted prisoners a chance at freedom in exchange for their fighting in Ukraine, has ended the controversial recruiting practice. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group and a longtime ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, confirmed in a Thursday Telegram statement that Wagner had ceased its carceral recruiting amid reports that increasing numbers of prisoners were refusing to sign up for a suicide mission. 

Prigozhin offered little hint as to what comes next for Wagner Group, which has been one of the few Russian outfits to see battlefield success in Ukraine since the war began nearly one year ago. 

A historian who studies the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations suggested to Insider that the group’s cessation of prisoner recruitment could be part of Wagner’s long-term goal to stabilize its lines in Ukraine with capable soldiers, as well as a calculated move by Prigozhin to increase his power and position with Putin.

“This was never a lucrative proposition,” Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said of enlisting the incarcerated. “It was people deciding they would take their chances dying in Ukraine as opposed to dying in a Russian prison.”

Over approximately five months, more than 40,000 former prisoners ultimately took Wagner’s offer to deploy in Ukraine, US officials said last month; the majority of them died while fighting, according to investigations by The New York Times and Reuters.

The men received minimal training and shoddy equipment, Miles said. Inmates only had to prove they could march several yards in order to pass the physical selection process, two Wagner fighters who were captured by Kyiv forces told CNN this week. Enlisting prisoners was almost certainly intended to be a temporary measure, Miles said, citing the group as a source of cheap and readily available labor. 

“It was never going to be the long-term approach. There just aren’t the numbers,” he said. “It’s not exactly where you go to recruit top talent.”

Wagner Group and Prigozhin likely have larger aims in the war, according to Miles, and achieving those goals will necessitate recruiting more top-notch talent, which itself will require convincing competent fighters they’ll be serving among fellow soldiers on whom they can depend.

“If you are a disaffected soldier from anywhere other than Russia, or even from Russia, the idea of going to war alongside rapists and murderers is not super appealing,” Miles said.

While Prigozhin’s quest for influence is well-documented, it’s also entirely possible that Wagner ceased its prison recruitment efforts simply because the well had run dry, Miles said. A Russian prisoner in the Tula region told independent Russian media earlier this month that more than 1,000 convicts had accepted the organization’s offer in October, compared to just 340 in December. 

It’s not immediately clear where Wagner will next set its sights on to collect manpower, though the group claimed credit this week for a bizarre recruitment video aimed at American veterans in what Miles called a “Trumpian” propaganda ploy. 

The group could look to other war-torn countries where experienced soldiers might fight for pay, Miles said. But it’s unlikely that the group is particularly picky.

“They need a bunch of military-age males with experience,” Miles said.

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