• Reuters

Wagner Mutineers Included Russian Convicts Freed to Fight in Ukraine

REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo
Fighters of Wagner private mercenary group, including Roman Yamalutdinov (L), pull out of the headquarters of the Southern Military District to return to base, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023.

TBILISI (Reuters) – The Wagner Group mercenaries who seized the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Saturday in a failed mutiny included at least three convicted criminals, a Reuters review of facial recognition software, court records and social media showed.

Almost all of the fighters who took part in the gravest threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule to date had their faces covered and so could not be identified.

But Reuters reporting shows that some of them had previously been in jail, underlining how the Kremlin’s decision to allow Prigozhin to recruit thousands of mercenaries from prisons across the country last year has come back to haunt it.

Wagner fighters took control of the southern port and logistical hub for Russia’s war in Ukraine on Saturday morning.

The mercenary force’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, ordered his men to march on Moscow before they turned back in the failed bid to oust his longtime rival, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Wagner mercenaries, among them ex-prisoners, have been fighting in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion began, notably in the city of Bakhmut, which has been the bloodiest battle so far and a rare victory in Russia’s stalling campaign.

Reuters has previously reported that many surviving convict fighters remain extremely loyal to Prigozhin, whom some credit for giving them a second chance at life. Those who survive six months in Ukraine are pardoned by Putin by secret decree.

In the case of the individuals identified by Reuters in Rostov, that loyalty extended to taking part in a mutiny, and raises questions over what they will do next as Putin tries to defuse the crisis.

They have been offered a choice between leaving for Belarus to join Prigozhin who is in exile there, joining the regular military or returning to civilian life.

Reuters has tried to contact the three ex-convicts, but none of them replied to messages over social media.

Russia’s defense ministry, penal service and Wagner did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

THE CONVICTS

Wagner pulled out of Rostov late on Saturday after a deal was brokered by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

One of the Wagner fighters to depart the city that night was 25-year-old Dmitry Chekov, a Rostov local who had been convicted four times for theft and drug offenses.

He was part of a Wagner squad climbing aboard a military-style truck, ready to depart and the only one whose face was visible as he posed for reporters and cheering local people.

In video obtained by Reuters, the man, who has a scrubby beard and short fair hair, smiles and stretches out his thumb and little finger.

Facial recognition software linked him to an account on VKontakte, Russia’s Facebook equivalent, created in the name of Dmitry Chekov.

Legal papers seen by Reuters showed Dmitry Chekov had been sentenced to a total of six years and five months for three separate charges by Rostov courts since 2015. He received his most recent sentence of three years and four months for drug possession in January, 2022.

A close relative who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed to reporters that he had served time in penal colonies.

Russian media reported last September that Prigozhin had visited prisones in Rostov region, recruiting more than 1,000 convicts for Wagner. Chekov’s relative did not know he had joined Wagner but confirmed it was him in a picture shared by Reuters.

In another image of the Wagner occupation of Rostov, published by Russian state news agency TASS, a tall man with a bushy beard is seen walking down a street with comrades, carrying his helmet and an assault rifle.

The man was identified by facial recognition software as 33-year-old Sergei Shirshov, a native of the Volga River city of Saratov. On VKontakte, Shirshov’s profile picture is of a Wagner Group shoulder patch.

Court papers seen by Reuters show that Shirshov was sentenced to seven years in prison for armed robbery by a Saratov court in 2019, his second such conviction.

According to publicly available data, Shirshov had been serving his term in Saratov region’s high-security Penal Colony No. 10. Local media reported that Prigozhin visited Penal Colony No. 10 in October 2022.

A third Wagner fighter pictured in Rostov was identified by facial recognition software as Roman Yamalutdinov, a native of Krasnoyarsk in Siberia.

According to court papers reviewed by Reuters, 31-year-old Yamalutdinov had been sentenced to prison at least twice since 2017, having been variously convicted for drunk driving, car theft, and assaulting a police officer.

In a 2020 case filed by penal authorities, Yamalutdinov was described as a “malicious violator” of prison rules, and ordered moved to a stricter prison colony.

Reuters was unable to confirm that Yamalutdinov was in prison when Prigozhin began his Wagner recruitment campaign, and his last recorded prison term would have ended in 2021.

However, Russian court documents available online are not comprehensive. Prisoners’ rights activist Olga Romanova said that Prigozhin toured Krasnoyarsk region prisons in October and November 2022.