Russian President Vladimir Putin is pardoning the convicts to allow them to fight in Ukraine as members of the paramilitary group Wagner, the Kremlin has admitted.
Russia has also rejected the US Treasury’s decision to label Yevgeny Prigozhin’s group, which is playing an increasingly important role on the front lines as Putin’s full-scale invasion enters its 12th month. «transnational criminal organization».
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday the prisoners were being pardoned ‘in strict accordance with Russian law’ and praised a convicted armed robber recruited by Wagner for ‘heroism’ on the spot of battle after the president presented him with a medal.
After nearly a decade of hiding the activities of the mercenary operation in secrecy, its founder Prigozhin even claiming it did not exist, the Kremlin embraced Wagner as a key part of its wavering efforts to defeat the Ukraine and rally support for the war among an anxious population. .
Although Russia initially denied that the group was fighting in Ukraine, the poor performance of the Russian regular army and widespread dissatisfaction about the campaign among the Russian elite allowed the former caterer, nicknamed «the chief of Putin» and himself a former convict, to establish a role as the leader of a radical pro-war faction and won Wagner praise on state television for his recent battlefield exploits.
Russia’s constitution gives Putin exclusive power to pardon prisoners, although Peskov said «there are decrees open and decrees marked classified», declining to comment further.
On New Year’s Eve, Putin presented Aik Gasparyan, who was serving a seven-year sentence for a 2019 armed robbery, with a «courage» medal. Peskov said that Gasparyan «is taking part in the special military operation and showed heroism, which was rewarded with a state honor.»
Peskov ignored Washington’s recent decision to limit Wagner’s international reach in response to widely documented reports of alleged atrocities committed by the group in countries including the Central African Republic, Libya and Syria, where he participated in secret deployments of mercenaries.
Peskov claimed the United States had «demonized» Wagner for «many years» and said the charges were «baseless».
As part of the designation, the United States on Thursday issued new sanctions against Wagner, in addition to 15 other Russian entities, eight individuals and four aircraft, in an attempt to target Russian battlefield assets in Ukraine.
Prigozhin has been under US sanctions since 2017 for his alleged role in running an infamous troll farm in St. Petersburg, whose employees tried to influence the 2016 US election by posing as Americans on social networks.
In a statement released Friday by Concord, his catering company, Prigojine said, “We conducted an internal investigation into Wagner’s crimes, but found nothing prejudicial. If anyone has information about Wagner’s crimes, please send it to our press office or publish it in the media. We can therefore help our American colleagues to take their position.
British intelligence estimates that Prigozhin, a longtime Putin confidant, recruited at least 50,000 prisoners to fight for Wagner in Ukraine.
Prigozhin explained the recruitment drive as a necessary measure to reduce public opposition to the war stemming from Moscow’s overreliance on the highly unpopular project launched by Putin last September. The mobilization prompted hundreds of thousands of men to flee the country.
He admitted to leading the shadowy group later that month.
Prigozhin was pictured with suspected Wagner fighters at a salt mine in the captured town of Soledar in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region earlier this month. The Kremlin has acknowledged the group’s role in capturing Soledar, a rare success after a series of humiliating retreats from territories such as the southern city of Kherson that Putin had tried to annex to Russia.
However, Wagner’s forces made little concrete progress and suffered many casualties in the Donbass, according to Western and Ukrainian officials.