The head of a Russian shadowy Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, appeared in a leaked filmed footage shot at a prison while recruiting convicts to fight in Ukraine.
In the verified video footage, Prigozhin can be seen addressing a large group of detainees and telling them their sentences would be commuted in exchange for service with his Wagner group.
This would confirm long-running speculation that Russia hopes to boost its forces by recruiting prisoners.
Although Russian law does not allow commutation of prison sentences in exchange for mercenary service, Prigozhin maintained that “nobody goes back behind bars” if they serve with his group.
Prigozhin told the convicts, “If you serve six months [in Wagner], you are free,” but also warned potential recruits against desertion and said that “if you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will execute you.”
The 61-year-old, Prigozhin, also mentioned Wagner’s rules and its banning of alcohol, drugs, and “sexual contacts with local women, flora, fauna, men—anything.”
Mercenary chief alluded to difficulties in the Russian invasion
The video depicted Prigozhin speaking in what appeared to be the penal colony’s exercise yard, where he also alluded to difficulties Russia has faced in the protracted conflict.
He further stressed and told the prisoners that “this is a hard war, not even close to the likes of Chechnya and the others.” Until now, it is unclear who filmed the video, when it occurred, or how it was released.
However, based on geolocated information, the footage was confirmed to be from a penal colony in Russia’s central Mari El Republic. Analysts determined this by conducting a reverse image search on a church visible in the background of the video, which matched up to penal colony number six.
A screengrab on the recruiter’s face was also run through facial recognition software tools, returning a positive match of between 71 to 75 percent with an actual photo of Prigozhin.
In speaking to media agencies in Russia, separate sources also confirmed that the person in the video was likely to be Prigozhin.
“This is his voice,” one source noted. “His intonation. His words and manner of speaking… I’m 95 percent sure that this is him and this is not a montage.”
“Very similar—his manner—and his voice is very similar,” another source also said.
Mr. Prigozhin’s own company, Concord, refused to deny that he appeared in the footage, noting the “monstrous” similarity when approached by Russian state media.
Prigozhin previously denied links to Wagner mercenary group
Although a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin previously denied links to the Wagner group, whose forces have been deployed in Ukraine, Syria, and several African conflicts.
In the video, however, the oligarch can be seen telling inmates that he is a “representative of a private war company…perhaps you heard the name—Wagner Group,” he reveals to the group of prisoners.
He told prisoners that the first forty recruits from a penal colony in St. Petersburg were deployed during an attack on Vuhlehirska Power Station in eastern Ukraine last June but also mentioned recruits have to be in “good physical shape.”
He said the prisoners had stormed the Ukrainian trenches and attacked Kyiv’s troops with knives. Three of the men, including a 52-year-old who spent more than thirty years in detention, were killed, according to Prigozhin.
Amidst convicts who were all sporting black jumpsuits, he cautioned that they would be expected to kill themselves with hand grenades if they are at risk of being captured.
The origins of the Wagner group are shadowy, but it is believed to have been formed by an ex-Russian army officer, Dmitri Utkin. Different sources say Prigozhin rose in ranks from being a restaurateur and caterer for the Kremlin, hence attracting the code name “Putin’s chef.”
It’s either prisoners fighting in Ukraine—or your children
Since 2014, the group is believed to have been deployed to Ukraine, and since Russia’s invasion in February, Ukrainian forces have carried out strikes on what they say were Wagner bases in occupied eastern Ukraine.
In a statement published on social media after the video went viral, Prigozhin said that if he were in prison, he would “dream of” joining the Wagner group to “pay my debt to the Motherland.”
“It’s either private military companies and prisoners, or your children—decide for yourself,” he added in a message to those who do not want mercenaries or prisoners to fight.
The statement, however, did not explicitly address the video or admit that it was genuine.
The UK’s defense ministry also said the recruitment of prisoners indicated that Russia was suffering from a “critical” shortage of combat infantry troops.
In August, US defense officials said that up to eighty thousand Russian troops have been killed or injured since the war began in February, and Moscow has reportedly turned to Wagner to fill the gap left by the heavy casualties.
In August, while speaking to inmates held in facilities throughout Russia, independent Russian media confirmed that Mr. Prigozhin had personally visited facilities to recruit inmates to join the fight in Ukraine.