October 22, 2022
Time to revise some beliefs…
We have repeatedly noted and discussed how Russia’s private military groups (PMGs), most famously Wagner under Prigozhin, have been recruiting convicts for service in Ukraine. At the time, I wondered under what authority a private individual like Prigozhin (or his representatives) could walk into a prison and start promising amnesties in exchange for military service in the PMG. (And that there’s no doubt that Prigozhin is “just” a civilian, recall that this is what Kremlin spokesman Peskov said about him.) I left this question without an answer because I did not have one.
Now we do.
There is now documentary evidence for the secret contracts that the Wagner, Redut, Storm Groups have signed — under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense — with convicts in Russia. We are talking about hardened criminals, many with multiple murders on their rap sheets, over 20,000 of whom have already been sent to Ukraine. Under the terms of these contracts, prisoners, some of whom have multi-decade sentences, agree to participate in sabotage and assault operations for six months in return for a full amnesty. If they do not fulfill their end of the contract, they will be returned to prison. If they try something, they will be shot. (The video shows the contracts themselves, which also list the fairly attractive salaries involved.)
These new revelations from Gulagu.net, I think, provide the answer about Prigozhin’s “authority” to short-circuit whatever passes for the justice system in Russia: it comes from the Ministry of Defense (MD). Now, I have noted before the fact that the PMGs are unusually well supplied, and that most of their equipment comes from the MD. You should also recall that recently I posted about a story that Wagner had transferred vehicles to units of VSRF. At the time, I speculated that this is probably a way to put Prigozhin in his place after his forays into politics.
In light of the new information, it seems that this indeed was the case. Moreover, it’s really starting to look very much that these PMGs are not private in any way. There is one thing that could explain all these otherwise puzzling abilities to circumvent the law, procure high-tech equipment — including an air force! — and the high efficiency of these groups as shock troops: they are special operations guys under the command of the Russian MD, who only seem to operate as PMGs.
In other words, Prigozhin really is just Putin’s cook, so to speak. The Wagner Group is a wholly owned subsidiary of VSRF’s Spetsnaz, which allows the Russian government to operate worldwide with “plausible deniability.” The same holds for the other PMGs like Redut.
This suggests that some care has to be taken when assessing the balance of forces among the Kremlin towers. In particular, all the speculation about Prigozhin/Kadyrov forming some sort of power-wing to take on the military would be misplaced. It would also mean that Shoigu — of whose nearly miraculous survival powers I have written several times — is not nearly as vulnerable as some commentators have claimed. None of us have any real insight into what goes on in the Kremlin, and so any such speculations were always suspect anyway.
The fact that these groups now recruit convicts suggests that their force has been spent, either because too many of their best soldiers have been killed during the incessant attacks — an otherwise puzzling thing for a PMG to do given how expensive and difficult it is to find and train good soldiers — or they have called it quits at the end of their contracts. It will be interesting to see what happens to their battle-worthiness as the convicts begin to outnumber the veterans.
Incidentally, I very much doubt that the amnesties will be forthcoming after 6 months of service for these people. There is no way in hell that the Russian leadership is so stupid as to release hardened convicts, now with military experience, back into society. This means that they will either quietly disappear in Ukraine or else make a career as marauders in Ukraine or as part of these various extra-legal military groups.
Russia is not only a terrorist state, now — as the people at Gulagu.net put it, it’s a failed state as well. Normally, even dictatorships retain some sort of a penal system that is supposed to function under certain rules. Now even this has been short-circuited for the exigencies of the special operation.