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

The Kremlin acknowledged that Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned the convicts to allow them to fight in Ukraine as part of the Wagner paramilitary group.

Russia also rejected the US Treasury Department’s decision to designate Yevgeny Prigozhin’s group, which is playing an increasingly prominent role on the front lines as Putin’s full-scale invasion goes on for 12 months, as a “transnational criminal organization.”

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday said prisoners were being pardoned “in strict accordance with Russian law” and praised one convicted armed robber recruited by Wagner for “heroism” on the battlefield after the president awarded him a medal.

After nearly a decade of keeping mercenary activities under wraps, with founder Prigozhin even claiming they didn’t exist, the Kremlin has embraced Wagner as a key element in its tentative effort to defeat Ukraine and rally support for the war among an anxious population. .

Although Russia initially denied that the group had fought in Ukraine, the poor performance of the Russian regular army and widespread dissatisfaction with the campaign among the Russian elite allowed the former caterer nicknamed “Putin’s chef” and a former prisoner himself to cement his role as leader of the hardline pro-war faction and earn praise. Wagner on state television for his recent combat exploits.

People in military uniform are photographed
Yevgeny Prigozhin and alleged Wagner fighters pose in a salt mine believed to be in Soledar in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, earlier this month © Concord/Handout via Reuters

The Russian constitution gives Putin the exclusive authority to pardon prisoners, though Peskov said “there are open decrees and there are decrees marked ‘classified'” and declined to comment further.

On New Year’s Eve, Putin awarded Hayk Gasparyan, who is serving a seven-year sentence for an armed robbery committed in 2019, with the Medal of Courage. Peskov said that Gasparyan “participates in a special operation and showed heroism, for which he was awarded a state award.”

Peskov shrugged off Washington’s recent move to curtail Wagner’s international activities in response to widely documented reports of alleged atrocities committed by the group in countries such as the Central African Republic, Libya and Syria, where it took part in the covert airlift of mercenaries.

Peskov said the US has been “demonizing” Wagner for “many years” and called the allegations “unfounded.”

As part of the appointment, the US on Thursday imposed new sanctions on Wagner, as well as 15 other Russian organizations, eight individuals and four aircraft in an attempt to target Russia’s military assets in Ukraine.

Prigozhin has been under US sanctions since 2017 due to his alleged role in running the infamous St. Petersburg troll farm, whose employees tried to influence the 2016 US election by posing as Americans on social media.

In a statement released by his catering company, Concord, on Friday, Prigozhin said: “We conducted an internal investigation into Wagner’s crimes, but did not find anything that could cause damage. If someone has information about Wagner’s crimes, please send it to our press service or publish it in the media. So we can help our American colleagues form their position.”

British intelligence estimates that Prigozhin, a longtime Putin confidant, recruited at least 50,000 prisoners to fight for Wagner in Ukraine.

Prigozhin explained the recruitment campaign as a necessary measure to dampen public resistance to the war, fueled by Moscow’s over-reliance on the wildly unpopular conscription launched by Putin last September. The mobilization prompted hundreds of thousands of men to flee the country.

Later that month, he admitted to running a shadowy group.

Prigozhin was pictured with alleged Wagner fighters in a salt mine in the captured eastern Ukrainian town of Soledar in the Donbas earlier this month. The Kremlin has acknowledged the group’s role in the capture of Soledar, a rare success after a series of humiliating retreats from territories such as the southern city of Kherson, which Putin has sought to annex for Russia.

However, according to Western and Ukrainian officials, Wagner’s forces have made little concrete progress and suffered heavy casualties in the Donbas.

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