Will Prisoners Help Putin
Win the War?
March 29, 2024
  • Alexander Golts
In the context of Russia’s widespread use of criminals to fight in Ukraine, journalist Alexander Goltz analyzes historical experience and concludes that convicts are not particularly effective on the battlefield.
In his most recent address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin announced his intention to form a new national elite from soldiers who fought in the war against Ukraine, who “should take leading positions both in the system of education and upbringing of youth, and in public associations, in state-owned companies, business, in state and municipal administration, and lead regions, enterprises, and ultimately, the largest domestic projects.” In particular, a special personnel program for veterans called “Time for Heroes” was unveiled. They will also be given priority status at leading universities should they wish to pursue higher education or a civilian trade.

Just two weeks after Putin’s speech, the Duma passed laws outlining the procedure whereby those suspected or accused of petty and minor crimes can be freed from potential prison sentences if they are called up for military service through mobilization or in wartime, or if they signed a contract with the Ministry of Defense. In addition, the exemption is supposed to be extended to those who have been convicted and are already serving time. Convicted criminals who decide to go to Ukraine are to have their sentences changed to a suspended sentence.

In light of the regular media reports about new crimes committed by pardoned criminals who came home from the front, the future Putin elite begins to look, frankly speaking, frightening. There is reason to think that even the Kremlin saw this unpleasant association. The president’s press secretary hastened to announce that people with a criminal record will not be admitted into the Time for Heroes program.

Note, however, that those who, as a reward for military service, are released from punishment at the investigation stage or before trial will not have any criminal record. Even previously convicted criminals can have their criminal record expunged by being awarded a medal or order. So, it cannot be ruled out that over time criminals with a very particular set of skills, acquired in a cruel, bloody war, may find themselves in high positions.
Yevgeny Prigozhin and his soldiers. Prigozhin is announcing the capture of Bakhmut on May 20, 2023. Source: VK
Prigozhin’s echo

I do not think that those who wrote the above mentioned laws seriously thought that replacing criminal punishment with service in the armed forces would lead to a renewal of the elite. In fact, the authors of the law were pursuing a completely different goal. Namely: to exclude the obvious injustice that was created when prisoners were initially recruited for the war against Ukraine.

In the summer of 2022, when the Russian army was taking heavy losses, Putin allowed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of PMC Wagner, who had a colorful criminal record himself, to recruit prisoners to fight.

Prigozhin personally toured prisons and flew to penal colonies in a private helicopter, appearing there with his Hero of Russia star and demonstrating to the prisoners his power over their jailers. All this was needed to convince the criminals that this was “real lad” who would keep his word and that going to Ukraine was indeed a get out of jail free card.

According to media reports, when recruiting for Wagner, preference was given to violent prisoners and those convicted for serious offenses, like murder, theft, robbery, causing grievous bodily harm, as well as repeat offenders. Prigozhin explained that the “weak-willed” (that is, those who were not murderers and robbers) had no chance to survive.

The criminals had little chance of surviving the Bakhmut meat grinder. According to Prigozhin himself, the total losses of the PMC exceeded 30,000 people. Still, the head of Wagner categorically emphasized that he fulfilled his promises and that those who were lucky enough to survive six months of fighting would receive a pardon and their freedom. And the recruited prisoners did, some of them even after Prigozhin’s failed “march on Moscow.” As far as one can tell, it is these Prigozhin recruits who are free and committing all these crimes today.

As a result of Wagner’s experiments with recruiting criminals, a monstrous injustice emerged.
Honest citizens who had been mobilized in the autumn of 2022, or who had voluntarily signed a contract with the army, were doomed to fight until the end of the conflict, while criminals who survived six months at the front were released.
This situation lasted for about a year. The Ministry of Defense quickly realized that prisoners were a source of submissive cannon fodder and began recruiting convicted criminals itself.

As early as February 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin stated that Wagner had stopped recruiting prisoners, though he insisted that he continued to fulfill his promises to criminals already fighting with the PMC. Having had its flow of replenishments cut off, Wagner quickly withered.

This was likely the real reason for Prigozhin’s later rebellion, since, having lost his cannon fodder, the Wagner owner lost the gigantic funds that the Kremlin had allocated for the maintenance of his army.

Already in the summer of 2023, after the rebellion was suppressed, a law was hastily passed that forced criminals, just like mobilized and contract soldiers, to serve indefinitely – until the end of the war. In fact, the laws adopted weeks ago finally formalized and standardized this. Still, the question remains as to how effective the use of criminals in a fighting army is.
Ilya Repin. Seeing off a Recruit (1879). Source: Wiki Commons
Serving in hell

There are few historical examples of military ranks being replenished by criminals (I am not considering all sorts of penal and disciplinary units created to punish those who were already military personnel at the time of their crime). It is known, for example, that in 17th-century France criminals and vagabonds were recruited into the army, forming special units called bataillons de salades.

The same thing happened in Prussia. In 1713, King Frederick William I legalized the forced recruitment of persons of “bad morality” (schlimme Subjekten) and criminals. In Russia, from the creation of the regular army by Peter I until the Milyutin reforms, which introduced universal conscription, service in the army was a common punishment for criminal and political crimes.

In modern times, the recruitment of criminals into the army can be traced back to the June 1832 decree of French King Louis-Philippe I, which created two battalions of “African light infantry.” A year later, another battalion was created. They were displaced in Tataouine (Tunisia) – one of the driest and most hostile to the colonial regime among the French possessions.

Soldiers who were sentenced to disciplinary companies for misconduct were supposed to serve out the rest of their sentence in these battalions in the event that their sentence was shorter than the total term of service in the army. Civilian convicts were also sent there. When their sentence ended, they still had to complete their compulsory military service.
World War I. Position of the Russian army near Sarikamish in 1914 (Kars Region of the Russian Empire). Source: Wiki Commons
The African light infantry was classic cannon fodder. These battalions were ordered to carry out the most dangerous missions. Their living conditions were terrible. And discipline was maintained by corporal punishment. The soldiers called the battalions hell, as well as Biribi, after the name of a certain game that was popular at the time, a mixture of lotto and roulette. The African light infantry fought in all the colonial wars waged by France – from Algeria to Mexico, and according to some sources, they were involved in the Crimean War. They also saw action in World War I.

With the outbreak of World War I, when huge numbers of men were needed (the classic phrase attributed to Napoleon states “God is always on the side of the big battalions”), even Great Britain, which for centuries had relied on voluntary service in the army, also started thinking about recruiting criminals.

However, as far as one can tell, approving a convict’s request to serve in the active army was a rather complex bureaucratic procedure, and the last word remained with the judge, who decided how sincere an applicant was in his desire to fight for his homeland. As a result, only about a thousand British prisoners ended up in the army.

Drafting criminals was also discussed in Tsarist Russia. However, the army did not show enthusiasm for the idea, and the discussion dragged on until the green light was finally given at the end of 1916.
In the end, the arrival of convicted criminals in reserve battalions only intensified the disintegration of the army that took place between the 1917 revolutions.
World War II: Soviet penal battalions and the SS Dirlewanger Brigade

The practice of exchanging a prison sentence for time at the front was most widespread during World War II. This is no coincidence: the number of troops that could be used in a particular operation became decisive, while the losses of the fighting armies were unprecedented.

Just three weeks after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, on July 12, 1941, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet adopted a decree that, in areas where martial law was declared, released those convicted of certain categories of crimes and brought them into the army.

With things getting worse at the front, on November 24, 1941, the decree was extended to the entire USSR. It was decided to release additional categories of prisoners, as well – for example, former military personnel who had been convicted of reporting to their unit late, as well as those who had been found guilty of committing minor malfeasance, economic or military crimes before the start of the war.

During the entire war, about half a million prisoners were sent to the army. For comparison, at any given time during the war (given the constant replacement of men knocked out of the war by draftees) the total number of the USSR armed forces was about 11 million.
It is rather difficult to assess the prisoners’ contribution to the Soviet victory: they simply dissolved into ordinary units. There is no reliable data on their effectiveness on the battlefield.
Oskar Dirlewanger, founder and commander of the so-called SS Dirlewanger Brigade.
Source: Wiki Commons
Some, thanks to their personal qualities and “professional skills,” turned out to be brave soldiers and were awarded.

“A natural appetite for risk, determination and arrogance made them valuable soldiers,” wrote Varlam Shalamov. After the war, some of them returned to their previous trade, though they were not accepted by the leaders of the criminal world – from the standpoint of “thieves’ ethics,” they had violated the laws of the criminal world by fighting in the regular army. A real war broke out between former soldiers, claiming the lives of hundreds of people.

In Nazi Germany, criminals who were serving time were initially not taken into the army. Until 1943, even military personnel who had committed crimes were not sent to the front – they were kept in special prisons. Eventually, penal units were created. Meanwhile, the only fighting unit that criminals could join was the so-called SS Dirlewanger Brigade (later a division), created by the sadist and murderer Oskar Dirlewanger, who had been convicted of raping a minor. The Nazi authorities liked his theory that murderers and rapists could be good warriors.

The brigade formed from German criminals (in 1942 they were joined by Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian volunteers) carried out punitive expeditions first in Poland, then in Belarus. Over 15,000 civilians were killed.

The high command of the SS and Wehrmacht had an extremely negative view of the brigade. Not because of its cruelty, of course – rather for its complete lack of discipline and countless unauthorized crimes. The Dirlewanger Brigade took part in the destruction of the Belarusian village of Khatyn, where 149 civilians were killed, as well as reprisals for the Warsaw Uprising and the suppression of the uprising in Slovakia. By the end of the war, the unit had been almost completely destroyed. Dirlewanger himself, who was captured, was beaten to death by Polish soldiers. His subordinates, who were citizens of the USSR, were handed over to the Soviet authorities and subsequently executed after military tribunals.

Unit 684

In the post-war period, perhaps the most exotic story was that of the South Korean “Unit 684.” It was created on the orders of dictator Park Chung Hee, who was enraged by an attempt by Pyongyang-sent special forces to attack the presidential palace and kill him. In response, a group of petty criminals was formed to take out North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. For three years, exhausting training took place on the uninhabited island of Sumido, with several members of the squad shot for insufficient zeal.

However, in 1971, a regular thaw occurred in North-South relations. Members of Unit 684 suspected that the political authorities would want to get rid of them. In response, they killed their guards, crossed over to the mainland and went to Seoul to deal with Park Chung-hee, who had supposedly betrayed them. When their bus was blocked by army units, the squad showed that they were in fact well-prepared for their mission, killing several dozen soldiers and police. Many members of Unit 684 were killed too. The four survivors were shot after a secret trial.

Criminals in the army: More harm than good?

The entire experience of using criminals in the army shows that this practice is resorted to only in cases where there is a clear shortage of fighters for the front. At the same time, prisoners-turned-soldiers are not particularly effective on the battlefield. The disadvantages of using them are much more significant.
Military service is the duty and responsibility of a citizen. When it is turned into the equivalent of punishment, it seriously undermines the morale of the army.
The notorious dedovshchina, a system of humiliation and violence to which soldiers in their senior year of service subjected those who had been recently called up, with its prison-like rituals, began in the Soviet armed forces in the late 1960s, when criminals released under an amnesty began to be conscripted en masse.

There are also significant practical considerations against recruiting prisoners. Any army is built on a hierarchical principle, and those junior in position and rank are obliged to carry out the orders of those senior. But criminals are by definition people who refuse to live by the rules of society. In the army, they receive weapons and thus the opportunity to defend their “right” not to obey anyone.

It is all the more doubtful that criminals during hostilities will follow orders that could threaten their lives. It is more than likely that the massive inflow of convicted criminals into the Russian army today will result in a similar outflow of armed deserters who, fleeing back to Russia, will commit new serious crimes. And when the current war is over, it is possible that the surviving criminals, having been forgiven of their sins, will demand a place for themselves in the new Putin elite – and, to the misfortune of those around them, will fight for that place in their own, particular way.

The Russian government has just released one of the country’s top criminal leaders from prison early. According to informed sources, the authorities thus thanked him for facilitating the recruitment of prisoners into the army.
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