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Source work documents Russia recruiting prisoners to fight

Russian soldiers patrol a destroyed part of the Illich Iron and Steel Works Metallurgical Plant in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, May 18, 2022, during a media trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Despite losses in Ukraine, the Kremlin has resisted announcing a full mobilization, instead using a covert enlistment effort that includes recruiting prisoners to make up for the Russian manpower shortage. This photo was made during a trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. (AP Photo, File)

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As Russia continues to suffer losses in its invasion of Ukraine, reports have emerged of a covert recruitment effort that includes using prisoners to make up the manpower shortage. But getting anyone to speak, even on background, has been virtually impossible; many promising leads came to nothing.

AP’s correspondent, unnamed for their security, was determined to find sources who could confirm the enlistment push. The journalist read that two prisons in St. Petersburg had recently been visited by military recruiters who were offering inmates amnesty in exchange for agreeing to fight in Ukraine.

The reporter managed to obtain access to a Russian social network group for family members of one of the prisons — in this closed group families freely discussed the recruitment of their loved ones. One woman was particularly outspoken and when contacted privately she agreed to speak off the record about how her boyfriend was offered (but refused) to fight in Ukraine. This woman said that some of the men serving time alongside her partner did agree fight in Ukraine — of 11 volunteers, eight died in Ukraine and others now regretted their decision, she said. The woman’s information provided the backbone of the story.

The reporting was backed up by multiple local media sources and also by Vladimir Osechkin, the founder of gulagu.net, a prisoner rights group, who went on record for the story.

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In photo at left, Russian troops guard an entrance of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station, a power plant on the Dnieper River in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, May 20, 2022, during a trip organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. At right, a billboard in Vladivostok, Russia, reads, “Sign up for a volunteer team,” encouraging Russians to sign up for the Tiger volunteer battalion. Colorful billboards and ads on public transport in different Russian regions state that “heroes are wanted,” urging Russian men to join the professional army ranks. – AP Photos

AP was also put in contact with the father of a soldier who said that his son was part of a group of Russian soldiers detained in eastern Ukraine after trying to get out of their contracts. The father initially didn’t want any of his son’s story to be used in the piece, even on background, fearing scrutiny from the authorities. At the last moment he agreed for this information to be used, again corroborating reports of hundreds of Russian soldiers refusing to fight or trying to leave the military.

The story received strong play and appeared in full in many online publications. Other English-language media have reported on recruitment efforts in Russia, but without the sources whose personal experience and detail made AP’s story stand out.

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