Russia admits Putin pardoning convicts so they can join Wagner in Ukraine

Russian president Vladimir Putin is pardoning convicts to allow them to fight in Ukraine as members of the Wagner paramilitary group, the Kremlin has admitted.

Wagner is playing an increasingly prominent role on the front lines as Russia’s full-scale invasion enters its 12th month. The Kremlin on Friday dismissed the US Treasury’s move to label Yevgeny Prigozhin’s group a “transnational criminal organisation”.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said prisoners were being pardoned “in strict adherence with Russian law” and praised one convicted armed robber recruited by Wagner for “heroism” on the battlefield after the president gave him a medal. Russian law gives Putin sole authority to pardon prisoners, though Peskov said “there are open decrees and there are decrees marked classified”, declining to comment further.

Peskov shrugged off Washington’s recent move to limit Wagner’s international reach as punishment for extensively documented reports of alleged atrocities committed by the group in countries such as the Central African Republic, Libya and Syria, where it has taken part in covert mercenary deployments. He claimed the US had been “demonising” Wagner for “many years” and said the accusations were “unfounded”

UK intelligence estimates Yevgeny Prigozhin, a longtime Putin confidant who admitted to running the shadowy group last year, has recruited at least 50,000 prisoners to fight for Wagner in Ukraine.

Though Russia initially denied the group was fighting in Ukraine and Prigozhin claimed it did not even exist for years, the poor performance of Russia’s regular army and widespread discontent about the campaign among Russia’s elite have allowed the former caterer, nicknamed “Putin’s chef,” to establish a role as the leader of a hardline pro-war faction, and won Wagner praise on state television for its battlefield exploits.

On New Year’s eve Putin gave Aik Gasparyan, who was serving a seven-year sentence for an armed robbery committed in 2019, a medal for “courage.” Peskov said Gasparyan “is participating in the special military operation, and he demonstrated heroism, which was rewarded with a state honour”.

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