Russia moves to legalise prisoners fighting in Ukraine war

Amnesty to be legally offered to criminals and crime suspects who agree to serve in Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The Russian parliament’s lower house, the State Duma, has approved legislation that would give pardons to criminal convicts who volunteer to join Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, a move aimed at boosting troop numbers during the first stages of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

The legislation sets in law the recruitment of prisoners and criminal suspects for the war in Ukraine, a practice first adopted by the Wagner mercenary force last year before Russia’s Ministry of Defence took over prison recruitment in early 2023, the Moscow Times reported on Tuesday.

The State Duma said in a statement on Tuesday that amnesties for fighting at the front lines in Ukraine do not extend to all criminals in Russian prisons: acts of terror, sex offences, espionage and treason are among the serious crimes exempted.

“The validity of the document does not extend to those who have previously been convicted of terrorist and extremist acts, as well as offences against the sexual sanctity of minors,” according to a statement published on the Duma’s website.

If the legislation becomes law, the criminal records of those who join the Russian army will be erased once they complete military service, receive a state award for fighting, are wounded in action or reach the retirement age of 65, the Moscow Times reported.

Suspected criminals also receive a reprieve if they agree to serve in Ukraine.

“For suspected criminals who agree to take up arms, authorities can suspend criminal proceedings against them if they face up to five years in prison for premeditated crimes or up to 10 years for acts of negligence. The bill notes that crimes committed after the law takes effect will not be expunged,” the Moscow Times reported.

The legislation will next go through a single round of voting in Russia’s upper-house Federation Council, after which Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign them into law, the newspaper said.

Even before the passage of the legislation, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group mercenary force, has been allowed to recruit criminal convicts as mercenaries, promising them pardons if they survive six months of fighting in Ukraine.

Over the weekend, Prigozhin said that 32,000 of his Wagner mercenaries recruited from prisons had returned home after serving in the war in Ukraine. In May, the Wagner boss said that about 20,000 of his fighters had been killed in the battle for Ukraine’s Bakhmut city.

With the high-profile acrimony between Wagner forces and Russia’s defence ministry continuing to rumble, Prigozhin has complained that his access to Russian prisons for recruitment has been blocked.

The Washington, DC-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said on Tuesday that Wagner forces are attempting to recruit new fighters in “the wake of significant losses in Ukraine“.

“Russian opposition outlet Verstka reported on June 19 that Wagner recruiters are disseminating messages on social media platforms calling for individuals aged 21 to 35 years old with a ‘gaming background’ to join Wagner as UAV specialists,” the ISW said.

“Verstka noted that these recruits are not required to have any military experience,” the institute said.

Ukrainian forces are making steady, incremental advances in the ongoing counteroffensive, according to Ukrainian military officials, and Russian troops are resisting fiercely behind fortified positions and minefields.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Tuesday that Ukrainian forces were moving forward but that the campaign would not be a quick offensive with successes like in a “movie”.