Ukraine war: No more easy deals for Russian convicts freed to fight

Group of soldiers holding flag

Russia has been releasing prisoners to fight in Ukraine for more than a year, originally offering them a pardon and freedom after six months, even if they have been convicted of a violent crime.

But the BBC has discovered this deal is a thing of the past. Now, they no longer get a pardon, face tougher conditions and instead of going home early, they must fight until the end of the war.

“If you sign up now, be ready to die,” writes a man called Sergei in a chatroom for former Russian prisoners fighting in Ukraine.

He says that since October he’s been part of a new type of army unit with the name “Storm V” which convicts are now being assigned to.

“Before you could wing it for six months. But now, you have to make it until the end of the war,” he writes.

When the mass recruitment of Russian prisoners started in the summer of 2022, it was led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, once the head of the Wagner private military group. Prisoners were offered a clean record, full pardon and allowed to go home after six months on the battlefield.

Before he died in a plane crash in August, Prigozhin said that almost 50,000 Russian prisoners had been dispatched to the front line under this deal – similar figures have been cited by human rights activists. Thousands of those prisoners died, but others, including dozens convicted of violent crimes returned home, with some going on to re-offend and even commit murder.

The Russian military took over the scheme in February 2023, initially offering the same incentives as Prigozhin.

But the arrangement meant prisoners released to fight could go home after six months and were in a more privileged position than regular soldiers. That upset men who had been mobilised and their families.

Now, new conditions for prisoners redress that balance and are far stricter.

Storm V fighters at a christening ceremony in December 2023
Image caption,Storm V fighters at a christening ceremony in December 2023

From reviewing messages in chatrooms and speaking to fighters and relatives, the BBC can confirm that Storm V troops are currently serving along the front line, from Zaporizhzhia in the south of Ukraine to Bakhmut in the east.

One woman from the Transbaikal region in Russia’s Far East, who wished to remain anonymous, told the BBC her husband was recruited into one of the Storm V squads at the beginning of autumn 2023. She would not reveal what crime he had committed, but said it was “a serious charge”.

She said they made the decision together that he would fight in Ukraine, believing it would result in a quicker release.

“This February would have been 15 years since he was sentenced. He had another four to go,” she said. “Conditions in the prison were OK. He could have continued to serve his sentence, but this was the only way to get him home quickly.”

She said his contract with the Russian Ministry of Defence was for a year, not six months, as it was for previous prisoners. And when her husband’s time is up, he won’t get a pardon and won’t be able to go home immediately as the contract “will be automatically extended”.

Posts on social media from other Russians whose relatives are serving in Storm V units indicate they too will have to stay on the front line until the end of what Moscow calls its “special military operation”.

Prisoners are warned about this when they sign up, and it follows a September 2022 decree by Vladimir Putin which essentially means that when a contract expires it can’t actually be terminated and is renewed.

Now the only way for prisoners to get a full release is if they get a state decoration, become incapacitated, reach the maximum age limit, or if the war itself ends.

Instead of a pardon, former prisoners now get what is described as a conditional release at the end of their time with the army. That means if they are found guilty of committing a new crime their sentence will also reflect their previous convictions.

President Putin is also no longer involved in personally signing pardons, which means fewer unwelcome headlines in the media about him pardoning people convicted of murder and sex crimes.

Woman in pink coat playing guitar, surrounded by men in military uniform
Image caption,A departure ceremony to see off Storm V fighters to the front, November 2023

The BBC has reviewed many posts in chatrooms from men who say they have been on the front line in these units.

“The conditions are sort of better. You get full pay, like in the military, and all the other benefits and allowances,” one convict writes.

“Your chances of survival are about 25%. I’ve been a stormtrooper for five months. Out of our platoon of about 100 men, only 38 are still alive,” another says.

Many of the Storm V troops are trained at a range for as little as 10 days before being despatched. There are several dozen known cases of convicts who have found themselves on the front line after only three to five days of training. In comparison, Soviet conscripts in Afghanistan got up to six months’ training before deployment.

Since January 2023, BBC Russian has partnered with the Russian website Mediazona and a team of volunteers to identify the names of Russian fighters killed in the war. More than 8,000 prisoners have died serving in Ukraine, and at least 1,100 of them fought in Storm V units or the units they replaced.

We only include in our database those prisoners whose sentences have been confirmed by a published court verdict. But not all verdicts are digitised, and not all deaths are reported. In reality, the number of dead convicts is estimated to be far higher.

Working out how many have been killed is extremely difficult, especially as many of those who die are not found straight away.

Many relatives are still looking for fighters who they lost touch with last summer.

“This hell will never end. I never thought I would be glad just to find his bones. Just to bury them,” writes one mother in a chatroom.

In the past, the details on convicts’ dog tags were not always entered into military databases, but that has changed – members of Storm V units are now processed as military personnel rather than volunteers.

For the Storm V fighters that survive, many end up in captivity and the BBC has seen videos which purport to show prisoners of war being interrogated by the Ukrainian military.

In one, a man says he has been in prison several times since 2014 for grievous bodily harm and theft. The BBC has been able to identify him and confirm the sentences using court records.

The man signed a contract in October with the defence ministry and went to the front from a high-security facility. He was later captured and under duress said that Storm V fighters are often sent on “pointless assaults” from which only a few individuals return. He said if they refuse to go, they are put in a pit in the ground and are not given any food.

His account matches others including that of a woman from Siberia who told the BBC her husband had said the same thing.

In a chatroom, Sergei discusses the fate of Russian convicts like himself still fighting in Storm V units.

“Luck isn’t going to be enough,” he writes, talking about his chance of survival on the front line.

“I already know I won’t make it,” he says.

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