Russian president Vladimir Putin is pardoning convicts to allow them to fight in Ukraine as members of the Wagner paramilitary group, the Kremlin has admitted.
Russia also dismissed the US Treasury’s move to label Yevgeny Prigozhin’s group, which is playing an increasingly prominent role on the front lines as Putin’s full-scale invasion enters its 12th month, as a “transnational criminal organisation”.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday said prisoners were being pardoned “in strict adherence with Russian law” and praised one convicted armed robber recruited by Wagner for “heroism” on the battlefield after the president gave him a medal.
After nearly a decade of shrouding the mercenary operation’s activities in secrecy, with its founder Prigozhin even claiming it did not exist, the Kremlin has embraced Wagner as a key element of its faltering efforts to defeat Ukraine and rally support for the war among an anxious population .
Though Russia initially denied the group was fighting in Ukraine, the poor performance of Russia’s regular army and widespread discontent about the campaign among Russia’s elite have allowed the former caterer, nicknamed “Putin’s chef” and himself a former convict, to establish a role as the leader of a hardline pro-war faction, and won Wagner praise on state television for his recent battlefield exploits.
Russian’s constitution gives Putin sole authority to pardon prisoners, though Peskov said “there are open decrees and there are decrees marked classified”, declining to comment further.
On New Year’s Eve Putin gave Aik Gasparyan, who was serving a seven-year sentence for an armed robbery committed in 2019, a medal for “courage.” Peskov said Gasparyan “is participating in the special military operation, and he demonstrated heroism, which was rewarded with a state honour”.
Peskov shrugged off Washington’s recent move to limit Wagner’s international reach in response to extensively documented reports of alleged atrocities committed by the group in countries such as the Central African Republic, Libya and Syria, where it has taken part in covert mercenary deployments.
Peskov claimed the US had been “demonizing” Wagner for “many years” and said the accusations were “unfounded”.
As part of the designation, the US issued new sanctions on Thursday against Wagner, in addition to 15 other Russian entities, eight individuals and four aircraft, in an attempt to target Russia’s battlefield resources in Ukraine.
Prigozhin has been under US sanctions since 2017 over his alleged role running an infamous troll farm in St Petersburg whose employees attempted to influence the 2016 US election by posing as Americans on social media.
In a statement published by Concord, his catering company, on Friday, Prigozhin said: “We have held an internal investigation into Wagner’s crimes, but have not found anything damaging. If anyone has any information about Wagner’s crimes, please send it to our press service or publish it in the media. So we can help our American colleagues form their position.”
UK intelligence estimates Prigozhin, a longtime Putin confidant, has recruited at least 50,000 prisoners to fight for Wagner in Ukraine.
Prigozhin has explained the recruitment drive as a necessary measure to reduce public opposition to the war stemming from Moscow’s over-reliance on the highly unpopular draft launched by Putin last September. The mobilization prompted millions of men to flee the country.
He admitted to running the shadowy group later that month.
Prigozhin was pictured with alleged Wagner fighters in a salt mine in the captured town of Soledar in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region earlier this month. The Kremlin acknowledged the group’s role in capturing Soledar, a rare success following a series of humiliating retreats from territory such as the southern city of Kherson that Putin had attempted to annex for Russia.
However, Wagner’s forces have made little concrete progress and sustained high casualties in Donbas, according to western and Ukrainian officials.