A private military company is recruiting prisoners to be sent to the front lines in an effort to bolster Russian President Vladimir Putin's faltering invasion, according to Western military analysts and a new video that appears to show the group’s recruiting pitch.
Footage emerged this week of what appears to be Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch and the reputed financier of the Wagner mercenaries group. He has previously denied links to the group, whose mercenaries have been fighting in Ukraine and have been deployed by the Kremlin in places such as Syria and Sudan, analysts say.
The video posted to Russian social media sites shows a man with the voice and likeness of Prigozhin addressing a large group of prisoners, all wearing navy-colored uniforms and assembled in what appears to be a concrete yard. He tells them that their sentences would be commuted if they served in Ukraine for six months — but that anyone who changes their mind would be shot as a deserter.
“You won’t be any different from us,” the man in the video tells the prisoners, according to a translation for this article. “I’m taking you out alive. But don’t always return you alive.”
NBC News’ social newsgathering team geolocated the video to a jail in the city of Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Russia’s central Mari El Republic, about 500 miles east of Moscow. It is unclear when the footage was filmed. It first surfaced this week in Russian Telegram channels and social media accounts, and was shared by opposition activists.
Ukraine’s armed forces have retaken control of huge swaths of land in the past few weeks, as they advanced with the help of precise Western-supplied artillery against what experts said were thin and disorganized Russian lines.
The counteroffensive led to the discovery of an alleged mass burial site near the crucial city of Izyum, one of many areas from which the Russian retreat has left the Kremlin struggling to respond.
The British Defense Ministry said Friday that Wagner had been offering prisoners sentence reductions or cash incentives to sign up to fight since at least July. The ministry also said that Russian military academies were shortening training courses so cadets could be deployed sooner. “The impact of Russia’s manpower challenge has become increasingly severe,” it said.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based military think tank, said in a briefing this week that the video showed “Prigozhin is being established as the face of the Russian ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.”
A Russian military blogger “noted that Prigozhin is introducing a ‘Stalinist’ method that allows the Kremlin to avoid ordering a general mobilization that could ignite social tensions in Russian society,” the institute added, referring to the online community of pro-war activists who have been urging the Kremlin to change its approach in the wake of the Ukrainian advances.
“Putin hasn’t so far wanted to go for general mobilization, which would be highly unpopular and could have consequences for the stability of the regime,” said John Lough, an associate fellow and Russia expert at Chatham House, a think tank in London. He said the prisoner recruitment “suggests a level of desperation” on behalf of the Kremlin.
Russian soldiers being sent to the front lines are very badly equipped, poorly prepared and lack the motivation to fight, according to Lough.
“There are increasing indications that there’s a serious morale problem … which is extraordinarily dangerous to the Russians. Some pockets of the forces there have clearly chosen to retreat at high speed,” Lough said.
Prigozhin’s company provides catering to the Kremlin and other Russian state agencies, earning him the nickname of “Putin’s chef.” Now a wealthy oligarch, the close Putin ally previously served nine years in prison for robbery in his 20s.
He was banned from entering the United States under Treasury Department sanctions for his alleged involvement in attempts to influence the 2018 election.
Concord Group, Prigozhin’s company, which is the only apparent way to contact him for comment, appeared to confirm it was him in the video in a gently mocking answer to a journalist from a Russian tabloid on the Russian social media platform VKontakte.
“Indeed, we can confirm that the man in the video bears a monstrous resemblance to Yevgeny Viktorovich,” it said, using the patronymic version of Prigozhin’s name.
Addressing criticism of the scheme to hire prisoners as soldiers, a response the company posted on its VKontakte page and said was from Prigozhin himself read, using an acronym for private military companies: “Either PMCs and prisoners, or your children — decide for yourself.”
In the video, the man who appears to be Prigozhin warned the prisoners about the dangers of indulging in alcohol and drugs on the front lines, and of what he called “marauding.”
“That includes sexual contacts with local women, men, flora, fauna, anyone,” he said.
The Wagner Group would be careful, he continued, about recruiting sexual offenders, before adding: “But we understand that there can be mistakes.”
The man said in the video that he was looking for “stormtroopers” to join assault missions. He also revealed he had previously used 40 prisoners from the Russian city of St. Petersburg in an assault on a power station in Ukraine’s Donetsk region in June.
Russia has consistently denied the involvement of the Wagner Group in its official military operations. NBC News has contacted the Kremlin for comment.
NBC News asked the Concord Group whether it was Prigozhin in the video and for clarification of his relationship to Wagner. “Gentlemen, you are getting more and more boring,” the company’s VKontakte page publicly responded, referring to previous media responses and without answering the questions.