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Russia Releases Female Prison Inmates to Join Ukraine War

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Russia released a group of women from a prison in late May to join the fighting in Ukraine, according to two former inmates who maintain contact with those still there, potentially signaling a new phase in the Kremlin’s use of criminals in its war effort.

Military recruiters collected several women from a prison outside St. Petersburg, said the former inmates, whose names are being withheld to protect them from possible retaliation. It is unclear if their release represents an isolated case, a pilot program or the start of a larger wave of recruitment of female inmates.

About 30,000 women were serving time in Russia at the start of the invasion.

Military recruiters began touring prisons for women across the European part of Russia in the fall of 2023, more than a year after the country’s forces started offering convicted men pardons and salaries in return for combat service. Until now, however, convicted women who had enlisted remained incarcerated without an official explanation, according to interviews with former and current inmates of four Russian prisons for women.

Tens of thousands imprisoned Russian men have taken up the military’s call, replenishing the country’s invasion force at a crucial moment in the war and helping it regain its military advantage over Ukraine. Thousands of them have been killed in Ukraine. Some who survived their military services and were discharged have since committed serious crimes, including homicide.

The recruitment of women convicts comes as the Russian government has resorted to increasingly unorthodox schemes to attract volunteers from the margins of Russian society, trying to avoid another round of unpopular conscription. Apart from prison inmates, these recruitment schemes have targeted debtors, people accused of crimes and foreigners.

Russia’s defense ministry and prison service have in the past left unanswered all requests for comment on the country’s prison recruitment program.

It is also unknown what roles the recruited women would assume at the front. The military recruiters who visited their prison near St. Petersburg last year offered inmates contracts for serving as snipers, combat medics and frontline radio operators for one year, a significant departure from the largely auxiliary positions occupied by most Russian servicewomen. About 40 of the prison’s 400 inmates signed up at the time.

They were offered pardons and the equivalent of about $2,000 a month, about 10 times the national minimum wage.

Two women who have witnessed the recruitment at the prison in 2023 told The New York Times that fellow inmates signed up despite the dangers outlined by the visiting military officers.

The former inmates said the strict conditions in Russia’s prisons for women have contributed to the decision of some women to enlist. Inmates at the prison near St. Petersburg had to remain silent at all times, and spent up to 12 hours a day doing compulsory labor at the jail’s sawing workshop, even in subzero temperatures in winter, the women said.

The use of convict soldiers is also being used by Ukraine. After long deriding Russia’s prison recruitment, the government in Kyiv authorized a similar scheme last month amid increasingly acute troop shortages. Ukrainian officials have said that thousands of convicts have applied to enlist since.

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