In a month spent on the entrance line, Aleksandr, an ex-convict serving within the Russian Military, hadn’t seen a single Ukrainian soldier and had barely fired a shot. The specter of loss of life got here from a distance, and seemingly from all over the place.
Despatched to protect in opposition to a possible river crossing in southern Ukraine, his swiftly fashioned unit, made up virtually solely of inmates, endured weeks of relentless bombardment, sniper assaults and ambushes. The marshy, flat terrain provided no cowl past the burned-out hulks of cottages. He mentioned he had watched canines gnaw on the uncollected corpses of his useless comrades, drunk rain water and scavenged rubbish dumps for meals.
Aleksandr claims that out of the 120 males in his unit, solely about 40 stay alive. These survivors are being closely pressured by the Russian army to stay on the battlefield on the finish of their six-month contracts, in line with Aleksandr and accounts offered to The New York Instances from two different Russian inmates combating on the entrance line.
“We’re being despatched to a slaughter,” Aleksandr mentioned in a sequence of audio messages from the Kherson area, referring to his commanders. “We’re not human to them, as a result of we’re criminals.”
His account offers a uncommon window into the combating in Ukraine from a Russian inmate’s perspective. Models made up of convicts have change into one of many cornerstones of Russian army technique because the extended combating has decimated the nation’s common forces. Aleksandr’s descriptions couldn’t be independently confirmed, however they aligned with accounts from Ukrainian troopers and Russian prisoners of struggle who mentioned that Moscow used inmates basically as cannon fodder.
The troopers’ accounts have been obtained by way of voice messages over the past two weeks, some in direct interviews and a few by way of messages offered by relations and associates. Their final names, private particulars and army items have been withheld to guard them in opposition to retribution.
Aleksandr’s testimony conveys the brutality imposed on Russian convicts, and the human price Moscow is ready to pay to keep up management of the occupied territory.
The Russian Protection Ministry started to enroll hundreds of inmates from the nation’s jails in particular items referred to as “Storm Z” in February, after taking up a jail recruitment mannequin utilized by the Wagner non-public army firm within the first 12 months of the struggle.
Aleksandr mentioned he had enlisted in March, shortly after receiving an extended jail time period for murder in central Russia. He left at dwelling a spouse, a daughter and a new child son, and was frightened that he wouldn’t survive the torture and extortions in his jail.
Like different inmate fighters, he was promised a month-to-month wage of $2,000 at right this moment’s trade fee, and freedom on the finish of his six-month contract, a replica of which he shared with The Instances.
Wagner claims that 49,000 inmates fought for its drive in Ukraine, and that 20 percent of them died. Former fighters have described brutal disciplinary measures imposed by the paramilitary group.
Nevertheless, Wagner survivors have additionally broadly mentioned that they have been capable of accumulate wages and return dwelling after six months as free males. To carry the recruitment numbers, Wagner additionally labored to rehabilitate the inmates within the eyes of Russian society, presenting their army service as a patriotic redemption.
But by February, Wagner had misplaced entry to prisons throughout an influence wrestle with the army excessive command, permitting the Protection Ministry to supplant them by way of recruiting convicts.
The dimensions of the Russian Military’s personal inmate items and their casualty charges are unknown. Nevertheless, a tally of the country’s war deaths collected by the BBC and Mediazona, an unbiased information outlet, reveals that inmates turned essentially the most frequent Russian casualties beginning this spring, underlining the oversize contribution they’ve made to the nation’s struggle effort.
The testimony of Aleksandr and three different former inmates reveals how convict items have advanced below the direct management of the Russian Military. The Instances obtained Aleksandr’s contact info by way of a Russian rights activist, Yana Gelmel, and verified his and different inmates’ identities utilizing publicly out there court docket information and interviews with their kin and associates.
They’ve described irregular wage funds that fell far wanting the quantities promised to them by the state and an lack of ability to gather compensation for accidents. Aleksandr additionally mentioned that his officers had explicitly prevented males in his unit from gathering useless comrades from the battlefield.
He claimed that this was carried out to stop their households from claiming compensation, as a result of the useless troopers can be registered as lacking slightly than as killed in motion.
“There have been our bodies all over the place,” Aleksandr mentioned, describing the combating on the banks of the Dnipro River in Could. “Nobody was focused on gathering them.”
Russia’s Ministry of Protection didn’t reply to a request for remark.
Aleksandr additionally claimed that his officers used threats and intimidation to drive surviving inmates to stay on the entrance for an additional 12 months after the tip of their contracts. One other inmate soldier at the moment serving on the Zaporizhzhia entrance additional east mentioned that his contract had obliged him to stay in Ukraine for an extra 12 months after acquiring his pardon, this time as knowledgeable soldier.
All inmates spoke of colossal casualties of their items and of their commanders’ seeming disregard for his or her lives.
“Each day, we dwell like on high of a powder barrel,” Aleksandr mentioned. “They inform us, ‘You might be nobodies, and your identify is nothing.’”
After a month of coaching close to the occupied metropolis of Luhansk, Aleksandr mentioned he was despatched along with his unit to carry a line of former vacation houses close to the Antonovskiy Bridge, an space that Ukraine has been concentrating on with hit-and-run assaults since Russia’s forces withdrew to the east financial institution of the Dnipro in November.
They spent the subsequent three and a half weeks below fixed bombardment from the invisible enemy, who shelled their uncovered positions from throughout the river and focused them with snipers and night time ambushes. Enemy drones continually hovered within the air.
The intention of their mission was unclear to them; they have been advised to easily stay of their positions. That they had no heavy weapons and no means to defend themselves in opposition to Ukrainian assaults.
“I’m working round with an automated gun like an fool. I haven’t made a single shot, I haven’t seen a single enemy,” a former inmate from Aleksandr’s unit named Dmitri, who’s now deceased, mentioned in a voice message on the time. “We’re only a bait to reveal their artillery positions.” The message was shared with The Instances by Dmitri’s spouse.
“Why the hell do I must be right here? To sit down round and shake like a rabbit as a result of shells carry on exploding throughout you?” Dmitri mentioned in one of many messages.
Aleksandr mentioned his unit had been left with out meals and water for days after asking their commanders to be relieved, forcing them to scavenge for ration biscuits and drink rain water handled with chlorine.
In late Could, Aleksandr was despatched on a mission to mine a riverbank. His unit was hit by a Ukrainian howitzer shell, which detonated close by mines.
The entire different males in his detachment died immediately, he mentioned; Aleksandr was injured.
“It was raining, and I fell right into a puddle,” he mentioned, describing the assault. “I crawled away little by little after which lined myself with some rubble, as a result of I knew they’d end me off.” He mentioned he had managed to ship textual content messages to his unit earlier than dropping consciousness.
The following day, he was dragged out by his comrades and evacuated to a hospital in Crimea. Although he nonetheless couldn’t stroll effectively, he was despatched again to the entrance line, earlier than being put in a hut within the rear with different convalescing fighters.
“It’s so scary to stay right here,” Aleksandr mentioned. “This isn’t our struggle. There’s nothing human right here.”
Oleg Matsnev and Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.