Putin Ally Dismisses Criticism of Prisoners Fighting War: 'Send' Your Kids

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian billionaire who has been nicknamed "Putin's chef," defended a plan he reportedly pitched to recruit prisoners to fight in the war in Ukraine.

The Wagner Military Group, an elite paramilitary force that has been linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and sent mercenaries to fight in Ukraine, has made the pitch to Russian prisoners, news outlets reported on Thursday.

The BBC posted a video of a man speaking to inmates, reporting that the speaker is Prigozhin.

"If you serve six months [in Wagner], you are free," he said, according to the BBC. However, he cautioned that "if you arrive in Ukraine and decide it's not for you, we will execute you."

'Putin's Chef' Dismisses Criticism of Prisoners Fighting
Russian billionaire businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin attends Russian-Turkish talks in Konstantin Palace in Strelna on August 9, 2016, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Prigozhin, the Russian billionaire who has been nicknamed "Putin's chef," defended a plan he reportedly pitched to recruit prisoners to fight in the war in Ukraine. Mikhail Svetlov

According to the U.S. State Department, Prigozhin, "known as 'Putin's chef' due to his catering contracts with the Kremlin, is a Russian oligarch and Wagner's manager and financier."

According to the Washington Post, Prigozhin's catering company, Concord, released a statement saying it "can confirm that the person in the video bears an enormous resemblance to Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin]."

The Post also reported that Prigozhin released a statement saying: "If I were a prisoner, I would dream of joining this friendly team in order to not only redeem my debt to the Motherland, but also to repay it with interest."

"Those who do not want mercenaries or prisoners to fight...who do not like this topic, send your children to the front," Prigozhin said. "It's either them or your children, decide for yourself."

Newsweek reached out to the Russia's foreign and defense ministries for comment.

In July, investigative media outlet Important Stories reported that the Wagner Group had made a similar pitch, and was offering to pay 200,000 rubles ($3,446) to prisoners, as well as amnesty, for six months of "voluntary" service in the Donbas region.

The alleged efforts to recruit prisoners to fight in Ukraine comes as reports in recent days have claimed that Russian troops are fleeing the frontlines.

The U.K.'s Ministry of Defense said that as Ukrainian troops have consolidated control over areas of the northeastern Kharkiv region they've regained from the Russians, some soldiers have "fled in panic." In some cases, Russians abandoned "high-value equipment" after they left the area.

Last week, the Ukrainian General Staff of the Armed Forces claimed that the Russian military had deployed "helicopters and weapons" to search for soldiers who had deserted their positions.