Leaked video appears to show a close ally of President Vladimir Putin offering Russian prisoners a pardon if they fight in Ukraine – but warning they will be shot if they desert when they get there.
In the footage, a man believed to be Yevgeny Prigozhin, the alleged head of the private military company Wagner Group, is seen talking to a large group outside a prison in Yoshkar-Ola.
He describes himself as a representative of the Wagner group.
He tells the prisoners that they will be freed if they serve in Ukraine with Wagner.
“After six months, you go home, having been pardoned,” he says, but they are warned that any deserter will be executed by firing squad.
Prigozhin’s company, Concord, did not deny that it was him in the video. He said “we can confirm that the man in the video bears a striking resemblance to him” and that “the person in the video has very good speech, just like Yevgeny Viktorovich (Prigozhin)”.
The Wagner Group is a Russian private military company. It is allegedly owned and financed by Prigozhin, which he regularly denies.
Its operations are “deeply connected” to the Russian military and intelligence community, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
There has been speculation that as the conflict continued and Russia suffered casualties, the group turned to the prison community to bolster its strength.
In the video, the man believed to be Prigozhin highlights the intensity of the conflict: “This war is tough. It is unlike any of the Chechen wars.”
Prisoners are subject to strict conditions – drugs and alcohol are prohibited, as is sexual contact with “local women, flora, fauna, men – anyone”.
One of Putin’s closest friends appears to be in the midst of a recruitment drive
Russia desperately needs more troops in Ukraine after losing between 60,000 and 80,000 soldiers dead or injured.
Vladimir Putin could solve this problem overnight by ordering a full mobilization, but that would make it clear that Russia was waging a war, not a special military operation, and could be politically disastrous for him if it continued to go wrong.
His government is now scraping the barrel, it seems to be sending associates to jail to try to find new recruits.
Yevgheny Prigozhin has always denied any involvement in Wagner’s shady mercenary group. He is nicknamed Putin’s chef because he started as a caterer in the Kremlin.
Yet here he openly represents the group, it seems, in a desperate recruitment drive.
As one of Putin’s closest friends, he knows how important it is for Russia to find new troops to send to Ukraine.
But he is surprisingly candid about the situation there, saying the war is even worse than the extremely tough conflict Russia has fought in Chechnya.
It does not attempt to sweeten the pill but offers freedom to those who sign up and death to those who think twice.
Only the most desperate criminals would be likely to take up the offer, but those who face long stays in Russia’s notoriously grim prison facilities may well be tempted.
Men between the ages of 22 and 50 can apply. It seems that it may be independent of their sentence, as the man believed to be Prigozhin explains: “We are very careful about those who have been imprisoned for sexual abuse. But we understand that mistakes happen.”
It’s not just Russian prisoners who could fight on the front line. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on February 28 that “Ukrainians with real combat experience – will be released and will be able to compensate for their guilt in the hottest points of the war”.
Does the video feature Yevgeny Prigozhin?
A screenshot of the man in the video was run through a facial recognition program by open source analysts. He returned a match with existing photographs of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the voice in the video also resembles existing audio of him speaking.
The man in the video is also wearing two medals. One appears to be Hero of the Russian Federation, the highest honorary title in Russia. Prigozhin has already been photographed wearing this medal.
The video was also shared on the pro-Wagner group’s Telegram channels, where it is described by supporters as showing Yevgeny Prigozhin recruiting for the war.
Where did it happen?
Sky News geotagged the video to Yoshkar-Ola, Russia. A distinctive church and chimney in the video can be paired with satellite imagery.
The footage appeared and was shared on Russian Telegram channels on September 14. Sky News was unable to independently verify the date or time the footage was taken.
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