Ukraine war: Russia recruits prisoners for its invasion

A recruitment ad in MoscowGetty Images

The Russian defence ministry has been recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine, apparently taking over from the Wagner mercenary group which was the first to adopt the practice last year.

Such army units are commonly known as Storm-Z, the letter Z being one of the symbols of Vladimir Putin’s so-called “special military operation” against Ukraine. It is also the first letter of the Russian word “zek”, or “inmate”.

The name Storm-Z is unofficial and can be applied to a range of Russian army units active in different parts of Ukraine.

Similarly to Wagner’s prisoner units, Storm-Z detachments are reportedly often treated as an expendable force thrown into battle – with little consideration for the lives of their servicemen.

There are also indications that members of other army units can be sent to Storm-Z detachments as punishment for violations such as insubordination or drunkenness.

Wagner’s role

Last year, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin – known as “Putin’s chef” – was allowed to recruit in prisons after tens of thousands of Russian troops were killed in Ukraine.

He personally visited numerous jails to promise convicted criminals that they would be able to go home free, and with their convictions removed, after six months of fighting for Wagner in Ukraine – if they survived.

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The group, which employed experienced mercenaries as well as convicts, proved itself as a capable fighting force in locations such as the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.

But then Prigozhin very publicly escalated his criticism of Russia’s top brass, accusing them of incompetence and of deliberately starving Wagner of ammunition. Two months after staging a short-lived mutiny, Prigozhin died in a plane crash in August 2023 together with Wagner’s other top commanders.

The group has now all but disappeared from the battlefield in Ukraine.

Military takes over

Reports from Russia suggest that the defence ministry has taken over from Wagner as a recruiter of inmates for the war against Ukraine.

“It is the same scheme as with the [Wagner] private military company,” said RTVI, a Russian news website. “Prisoners sign contracts with the defence ministry, and after completing them they can go home or continue serving.”

One member of Storm-Z, a former prisoner interviewed by US-funded website Sever Realii, said defence ministry recruiters promised inmates lavish payments: a salary of 205,000 roubles (about $2,000 or £1,700) a month, a payment of 3m roubles ($31,000 or £26,000) per injury and 5m roubles ($52,000 or £43,000) to be paid to the recruit’s relatives if he gets killed.

“It all sounded hunky-dory!” he said. But soon after being deployed to Ukraine the former prisoners realised they were being sent into a “total meat-grinder” without proper armaments or without even being told of the real situation on the front line, he said.

Ukrainians fire artillery at Russian positions near Bakhmut

Getty Images

The man – whose real name Sever Realii did not give – lost a leg in battle, but he survived, unlike some of his fellow fighters from Storm-Z.

Even though the Russian military has not confirmed or denied recruiting convicts, there are numerous indications of them being sent to units known as Storm-Z.

For example, Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russia-installed governor of the occupied city of Sevastopol in Crimea, on 17 October confirmed that one of the two Storm-Z members recently killed in fighting was an ex-prisoner who had “decided to atone for his guilt and signed a contract with the defence ministry in spring 2023”.

Also in October, popular Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets interviewed another member of Storm-Z, a convicted murderer who uses the call sign Bandit. He had served six years of his 19-year prison sentence before joining the Russian military.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a contract soldier, if you’ve been mobilised or if you are even a convict. No, we’re like family,” Bandit told the paper. “I just hope the defence ministry does what it promised and secures a pardon for me.”

‘They’re just meat’

The defence ministry in Moscow first referred to “storm units” on 25 January this year, publishing a video of them training, but without going into the detail of who their members were. It is possible that the unit mentioned by the defence ministry is different from Storm-Z units which comprise convicts.

It said that the “storm units’ job is to break through the most complicated layered parts of Ukrainian defences”.

In practice, this appears to mean that they are often readily deployed without much consideration for their chances of survival.

“Storm fighters, they’re just meat,” one regular soldier who has fought alongside members of Storm-Z, told Reuters. In its investigation, the news agency also said that, in an echo of Stalin’s penal military units, servicemen from other army detachments can get sent to Storm-Z as punishment for disobeying orders or drinking alcohol.

Recruiters in Moscow at a stall

Getty Images

Independent Russian website Agentstvo quoted a Russian soldier fighting in Ukraine’s Kherson region (whose identity the website says it has confirmed) as saying that regular servicemen were sent to Storm-Z as a form of punishment. The man shared with Agentstvo a video of three masked men who he said were members of his brigade, one of whom says:

“This means they’re running out of people, and our commanders plug these holes by sending people to Storm-Z. We think this is unlawful and illegitimate. This has to stop.”

One Russian Telegram account believed to be run by a military instructor involved in training Storm-Z units claimed that some of their members had been driven to desperation and attempted desertion after being mistreated by their commanders.

“People can simply go berserk because they’re being treated like dispensable meat which deserves no sympathy. And this attitude is in reality not uncommon,” the account calling itself the Grey Zone Philologist said.

But then, it claimed, Storm-Z servicemen are not the only members of the Russian army subjected to mistreatment by “unhinged man-eating commanders”.

The UK ministry of defence says it is possible that Storm-Z units were originally envisioned as “relatively elite organisations”.

In an intelligence update published on 24 October, it says they have now effectively become “penal battalions, manned with convicts and regular troops on disciplinary charges”.

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