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Ukraine recruits criminals in fight against Russia

Igor Burdyga | Anna Pshemyska
July 6, 2024

Many convicted criminals in Ukraine prefer to serve their country in the trenches to staying in prison. Russia, meanwhile, has been recruiting prisoners since the early days of its war of aggression.

A group of men seen from behind, dressed in prisoner uniforms, walking toward a large Ukrainian flag
Almost a quarter of the prisoners in this penal colony in the Kyiv region have decided to join Ukraine's armed forces in exchange for early paroleImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

Since Ukraine started mobilizing prisoners in mid-May, some 3,000 men have been granted early release from detention facilities "to participate directly in the defense of the country," as the government officially calls it.

But the released prisoners aren't really free. Directly after leaving prison, they're first taken to a draft office under the watchful eye of National Guard personnel, where they sign a contract with the armed forces. From there, they go straight to military training areas to become soldiers.

Many of the men have wanted to go to the front ever since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and have appealed to prison directors, lawmakers and human rights activists for the right to do so. But people who had been given prison terms or suspended sentences were banned from serving in the armed forces.

Ukraine approves new mobilization law

In the first months of the war, several hundred men were able to swap a prison cell for military barracks because their cases had not yet come before the courts. But once they enlisted, that was the end of prisoner mobilization — at least, until recently.

By contrast, Russia — in the form of the Russian mercenary group Wagner and the Defense Ministry's Storm-Z formations — has been actively recruiting criminals from prison since the beginning of the war.

Ukraine looking for prisoner volunteers

Serhiy Ionushas, head of Ukraine's parliamentary Law Enforcement Committee, said Ukraine "couldn't afford that from a purely ethical point of view." But more than two years later, with Russia making in eastern Ukraine, Ionushas announced the government's intention to change the law and allow prisoner mobilization.

After heated debate, lawmakers agreed not to accept anyone into the army who had been convicted of crimes against national security, terrorism, premeditated murder of two or more people, attacks on police or military personnel, driving while intoxicated that resulted in death, sexual violence or particularly severe corruption offenses.

Two men work next to a row of concrete barriers
Some prisoners are also sent to work on supplies for the war, like these concrete anti-tank barriers known as 'dragon's teeth'Image: Igor Burdyga/DW

Prisoners who are not immediately rejected due to illness or injury receive a visit from personnel officers attached to Ukrainian brigades.

These officers told DW repeatedly that there was a fundamental difference between their visits and the mobilization employed in Russian prisons. Their aim was not to incite prisoners to go fight a war but to find volunteers acting of their own free will.

Emotional state, motivation more important than past crimes

In mid-June, DW met up with Dmytro Kukharchuk, battalion commander of the 3rd Assault Brigade, in front of a prison. In the fall of 2021, he himself was behind bars for three months after being accused of hitting a police officer at a political demonstration.

The 34-year-old commander gets out of a white SUV, followed by an army psychologist, a camera operator and an older soldier. They're here to recruit dozens of prisoners — mostly men who are not serving their first prison sentence.

But at the entrance to the prison, they run into two representatives from the 28th Mechanized Brigade in the Odesa region. They, too, are visiting Ukrainian prisons as recruiters.

Women in Ukraine's army fighting for the right to fight

After several hours, the recruiters return, slightly disappointed. The group from Odesa was able to win over 18 prisoners, and Kukharchuk signed up 17 out of 40 volunteers. But he feels that his assault brigade could have signed up more men. "We are one of the few units that know how to deal with prisoners. We know their psyche," he said.

The emotional and psychological state of future soldiers, their willingness to go to war and their motivation are more important than the burden of past crimes, said Kukharchuk.

"The people we meet in prison want to be able to tell their children one day that they weren't sitting in prison during the war, but defending our country," he added.

Where will former prisoners serve?

Kukharchuk rejects one stipulation in the new law about former prisoners having to serve in separate special units. "We are not going to form penal companies; that is unacceptable," he said. "We've had good experiences with mixing recruits with volunteers."

But in other units, like the 5th Assault Brigade, a 600-800-strong battalion made up of former prisoners will be set up in the next few months, perhaps even with a commander from among their ranks. "There is an extreme shortage and we will have to wait a little for the men mobilized by the draft offices. We can now fill a few gaps like this," said the brigade's deputy commander, who introduces himself by his first name, Vladyslav.

A bearded man in dark sunglasses and camouflage gear stands outside a white building
Vladyslav, of the 5th Assault Brigade, plans to send prisoner recruits to a difficult section of the frontImage: Igor Burdyga/DW

Despite being a former state prosecutor, he does not see men recruited from prisons as criminals wanting to escape their punishment. "We work with those who are motivated to fulfill their duty," said Vladyslav. At the same, it's clear to him that there is a high risk of former prisoners fleeing from a military unit. That's why he wants to send the future battalion to such a difficult section of the front that they "won't be able to easily get away, even in an armored vehicle."

Vitali Y., a 23-year-old from Kyiv, has already volunteered for the 5th Assault Brigade. In the fall of 2020, police arrested him in the city of Lutsk with a large packet of synthetic drugs. Despite his assertion of having only sent packets belonging to other people by post, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

"During the trial, I already wanted to go to the war, but I was told I wouldn't be accepted. So I served two years," he said. "But when the law came out, I applied. I know that I will serve in the army until the end of the war. But it will be better there than in prison."

About 20,000 inmates could potentially be eligible for the new program, according to Justice Ministry estimates. And the ministry hasn't ruled out that in the future, several current restrictions on recruiting people convicted of other crimes could be lifted, and that the law could also be expanded to cover female prisoners as well.

This article was originally written in Russian.