By Paul Goble
Faced with a situation in which ever fewer prisoners are volunteering to serve in Ukraine in order to gain their freedom, Russia’s jailors are now threatening those who don’t agree to go to war with new and longer sentences. But despite that, some prisoners are still refusing to fight in Ukraine.
Novaya Gazeta journalist Svetlana Bychkova says that Russians in prisons and colonies are ever less often agreeing to serve in Ukraine and that in the hopes of changing that, “the authorities have thought up a new means of forcing them to go to the front” – the threat of ten years more in prison (novayagazeta.eu/articles/2023/12/08/kontrakt-v-khatu).
The way this new arrangement works is as follows: those who refuse official blandishments to serve in Ukraine are charged with being members of the AUE, a criminal organization of prisoners, whether they are or not. If they are charged with that, then on conviction, they can see ten years added on to their current sentences.
Prisoners are more reluctant to go to Ukraine not only because stories about what is taking place are increasingly filtering back to them but also because they are unhappy with the arrangements Moscow has introduced since the basic recruiter ceased being the Wagner PMC and became instead the defense ministry.
With Wagner, “everything was more or less clear,” Bychova writes. A prisoner who agreed to serve did so for a specific amount of time and money, was put in a unit consisting largely of other prisoners and had a date certain after which he would be amnestied and be free to return home and life in freedom.
But now, under the defense ministry, the terms have changed: not only are prisoner volunteers not kept together but they aren’t give a date certain regarding their amnesty. Instead, they are to fight until the war is over – or until, many prisoners have concluded, they are killed – outcomes that make volunteering less attractive.
That Moscow is now using the threat of additional years in jail to force prisoners to serve in Ukraine shows just how many difficulties the Russian military is facing in replacing its losses – and also highlights one of the downsides as far as the Kremlin is concerned from its inclusion of PMCs within the ambit of the regular army.