Anger has erupted in Russia as prisoners who were recruited by the Wagner Group six months ago to fight in Ukraine are set to be released back into society.
It comes after Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and founder of the mercenary Wagner Group, announced on Thursday that the first batch of prisoners who participated in the war in Ukraine completed their six-month contracts and have received a pardon.
The paramilitary group is heavily involved in the fighting in Ukraine and assisted the Russian military in the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The Wagner Group has been recruiting large numbers of male prisoners for Putin’s war in Ukraine and hiring in penal colonies in Russia, offering commuted sentences and cash incentives in return for six months of military service.
“They [completed] their contract. They worked with honor, with dignity,” Prigozhin told reporters, adding that two-dozen prisoners are among the first group to be pardoned.
Russian readers expressed anxiety and anger at the news in the comment section of a news article on the topic, published by state-run news agency RIA Novosti.
“Should we rejoice? Strange, on the contrary, I have anxiety, but what crimes did they commit, for which they were imprisoned? I hope there are no bandits, rapists and murderers among them,” a commenter who goes by the name Almira N wrote.
Another commenter, named Ivan Ivanov, questioned how many of those pardoned “will return to their former lives with theft, robbery.”
“Criminals with combat experience will return to society, hmm, encouraging,” user Sainex commented.
Others questioned how these convicts were granted a pardon in the first place.
“As a citizen, I am interested in the level of legality in our country. Does the individual entrepreneur Prigozhin have in his hands the pardon forms signed by [Putin]? How many of them does he have on hand? To whom will he give them? Who controls it? Doesn’t it bother you? We have to worry about this,” a commenter named Amikos wrote.
Isulenin15 posted: “There are no more procedures, no system, no recognized boundaries, and this is just the beginning.”
Some questioned why Russia is still failing to make progress in the embattled city of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, which has been one of the most intense spots of fighting in the war for months. Russian forces in the region are being led by members of the Wagner Group.
“And what have they achieved? Nothing, no advances, Bakhmut was not taken, there are no results, it turns out that the whole idea is a failure, and now there are a lot of bandits at large,” commenter KN wrote.
Another added: “Why is our professional army not even in conditions of war, but only in a special military operation, unable to complete tasks without the involvement of convicts?”
Others wrote, however, that the convicts had earned their right to return to society.
“Whoever they are, but if a person defends the Motherland, and does not run across the border on a bicycle, he cannot be a scoundrel. Thank you brothers!” commented Igor Mikhalev.
Andrey Gormov added: “Ugh … It’s disgusting to read …. The men, even if they were former criminals, without hesitation, went to atone for their guilt on the battlefield with their blood, and even die for Russia, and you are delving into legal definitions here, but pouring mud on them… If you are so smart and brave, why not at the forefront???”
In November, a Russian mob boss warned civilians of a “change of power” in the country, saying that convicts recruited by the Wagner Group for the war in Ukraine will eventually wreak havoc in society.
“Believe me, imagine who the Wagners are. All former convicts who were 20, 15, 18, 19 years old, who are behind rape, for the spread of murder, and for all kinds of violence,” Grisha Moskovsky said in a video appeal. “And now they are free, and they want to eat, they want to earn money and want to feel good. And who will they go to? They will go to you, the common Russians.”
Newsweek reached out to Russia’s Foreign Ministry for comment.
Do you have a tip on a world news story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about the Russia-Ukraine war? Let us know via email@example.com.