Russian Prisoners Offered Freedom If They Join Fight Against Ukraine: Report

Russian prisoners in St. Petersburg are being offered freedom and money if they join Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine, according to a local independent news outlet.

Relatives of prisoners serving sentences in the city told investigative media outlet Important Stories that the notorious Russian mercenary Wagner Group is offering to pay 200 thousand rubles ($3,446), and an amnesty, for six months of "voluntary" service in the Donbas region—if the prisoners return alive.

Convicts serving sentences in IK-7 "Yablonevka" and IK-6 "Obukhovo" in St. Petersburg were also reportedly offered a five million rubles ($85,873) compensation for their families in the event of death.

A relative of a convict told the news outlet that prisoners were asked to "defend the Motherland."

Newsweek is still trying to verify these events and claims.

Russian servicemen patrol Mariupol
Russian servicemen patrol the destroyed part of the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Ukraine's port city of Mariupol on May 18, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. Russian prisoners in St. Petersburg are reportedly being offered freedom and money if they join Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

The prisoners were first told that only those who had previously served or fought in battle would be considered. But a few hours later, everybody was considered, and some 40 people signed up.

"All this is only in words, it will not be recorded anywhere on paper. At the same time, all the information is not transmitted directly, but through the foremen [prisoners who help the colony staff manage the units]," said a relative of one of the prisoners.

The prisoners were told that about 20 percent would return, a relative said.

The news outlet also spoke to the relatives of a prisoner who agreed to be sent to the Donbas region. The prisoner reportedly was swayed by the promise that in six months he would return home, and that his criminal record would be wiped clean.

"In addition, when six months have passed and someone wants to continue their service, this company will provide work," the relative said.

Some relatives said convicts were asked to serve, while others said that they were asked to restore infrastructure. The first group of "volunteers" are already being prepared for deployment, a source said.

The Wagner Group is an elite paramilitary force that has been linked to Putin. The British Ministry of Defense said in April that the group was sent to eastern Ukraine, as Russia shifted its focus to the Donbas region.

The shadowy paramilitary group was formed in 2014, during the war in Donbas in eastern Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Authorities in the U.S. said the group is funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman closely linked to Putin, although Prigozhin has always denied any ties with the mercenary group.

The Kremlin meanwhile denies the group exists, or that is has any involvement with the Wagner Group.

Jamie Williamson, executive director of the International Code of Conduct Association, previously told Newsweek that the Wagner Group was staffed by ex-Russian army and serves as "a military contract group."

There are clear connections to the Kremlin in terms of ownership and where the money lies," Williamson said. "But the Russian government does not recognize them as a way of plausible deniability, and a lack of attribution.

"But they are seen as a military contracting outfit, verging on mercenary type entities similar to what we had in the early Cold War eras, involving some companies in southern Africa and eastern and western Africa."

Newsweek has contacted Russia's foreign ministry for comment.