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Inside Ukraine’s prison recruitment efforts to bolster front-line troops

A debatable path to redemption is part of Ukraine’s latest strategy to replenish its forces — recruiting from prisons.

by Alexander Khrebet June 12, 2024 11:42 AM 8 min read
A group of convicts walks in the prison in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, on May 30, 2024. (Alexander Khrebet / The Kyiv Independent)

A debatable path to redemption is part of Ukraine’s latest strategy to replenish its forces — recruiting from prisons.

by Alexander Khrebet June 12, 2024 11:42 AM 8 min read
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ZHYTOMYR, KYIV OBLASTS — Taras Netavrovanyi, an inmate at the medium-security prison in Zhytomyr Oblast, eagerly seized the chance to break free of his two-and-a-half-year sentence.

New Ukrainian legislation allowing military service for prisoners convicted of certain felonies, including manslaughter, offers a unique opportunity: parole in exchange for joining an assault unit, monthly pay, and social welfare for soldiers.

But Netavrovanyi says his primary motivation for wearing a pixel-camouflage uniform is redemption.

“I’m motivated enough to make such a decision. I needed to decide how to be useful in this life,” Netavrovanyi told the Kyiv Independent inside the prison in Zhytomyr Oblast.

As Ukraine’s new mobilization law comes into effect, the country is also turning to prisons to replenish its troops. The government has said it’s looking to recruit 20,000 convicts, with an initial campaign seeing around 5,000 inmates trading their cells for trenches.

Taras Netavrovanyi, convicted of illegal possession of ammunition, in the prison in Zhytomyr Oblast, Ukraine, on May 28, 2024, less than two weeks before he was released on parole and joined the Ukrainian military. (Alexander Khrebet / The Kyiv Independent)

The military had already recruited some 300 inmates with combat experience since the start of the full-scale invasion. The new law allows a wider range of convicts to enlist with the exception of those serving for premeditated murder, the murder of two or more people, sexual violence, drug production, and crimes against national security.  

If caught trying to violate their parole while serving, by deserting, for instance, convicts will face five more years on top of their original sentence, according to the new law.

The legislation is the brainchild of the Justice Ministry, which found itself inundated with applications after the law went into effect in May. Deputy Justice Minister Olena Vysotska said applications they received equaled the anticipated amount for the entire campaign.

Justice Ministry: Over 3,000 Ukrainian convicts have applied to join military
More than 3,000 convicts have applied for conditional release to join Ukraine’s Armed Forces, Deputy Justice Minister Olena Vysotska said on national television on May 21.

“This is a motivating program to change their life, fate, and if you can say so, to cleanse their sins with their blood, or the blood of invaders,” Vladyslav Shahan, a recruiter of the 5th Assault Brigade, told the Kyiv Independent at separate visit to the medium-security prison just outside Kyiv.

Prison jumpsuit for military uniform

Clangs of thick doors and heavy locks echo through the Zhytomyr Oblast prison's labyrinthine corridors. Two prison guards escort the Kyiv Independent into the heart of the facility, where inmates live, work, and walk.

Among them is Netavrovanyi, a chiropractor with 15 years of experience who’s serving for illegal possession of ammunition. He’s applied to serve as a combat medic in the 153rd Infantry Brigade where five former fellow inmates are now serving.

“My knowledge will be needed more (in the army) than here,” he told the Kyiv Independent in a room where an officer was present but never interrupted. While Netavrovanyi asserted the prison administration hadn't selected him to talk to reporters, he glanced at the officer before addressing certain questions.

A group of convicts walks through the prison in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, on May 30, 2024. (Alexander Khrebet / The Kyiv Independent)

Netavrovanyi is confident that he can join the military this time around after two failed attempts: once in his hometown weeks before the onset of the full-scale war and again after applying from a pre-detention center following his arrest in February 2023.

Passing a medical examination is Netavrovanyi’s final hurdle before he can join. After this stage, the remaining steps are simply a formality.

“(The military) doesn't shepherd us with a stick. It's all voluntary,” he also said.

In the prison in Kyiv Oblast, Andrii Fetisov, 28, longs to enlist but doesn’t meet the legal criteria. He is serving a 14-year sentence for a double homicide and was upset to discover his charge prohibits him from joining the military under the new law.

“(It would be) good if I could help my country,” Fetisov told the Kyiv Independent.

The law was designed to consider victims and their loved ones' feelings. However, Vysotska does not rule out expanding the list of criteria later if the military requests it.

Andrii Fetisov, who is serving a 14-year sentence for a double homicide, wants to join the army but doesn’t meet the legal criteria for mobilization under the new Ukrainian legislation, in the prison in Kyiv Oblast on May 30, 2024. (Alexander Khrebet / The Kyiv Independent)

“Parliament will need to be presented quite strong arguments to accept this or that amendment,” she says.

At this stage, it’s unclear whether the law will be amended. But Fetisov hopes it will be as he has been trying to join the army since the start of the full-scale invasion.

“If you look at the felony – murder – you don't go to war to guard corn in the field, you go to fight and possibly kill,” Fetisov said.

Recruitment

The prison in Zhytomyr Oblast is on the sprawling list of 86 facilities throughout Ukraine that recruiters tour. They inform sold-out-like audiences of inmates on training and service in the military.

The 5th Assault Brigade aims to headhunt at least 600 motivated and strong inmates for a separate battalion where only prisoners serve. After two months of boot camp, they will be deployed to the eastern front in Donetsk Oblast, where the brigade fights the endless Battle of Donbas.

“This will strengthen the defense line and the offensive and ignite the desire in other people serving sentences to consider joining the Armed Forces. Life will show how it will be, but hopes for this battalion are high,” says Shahan, a captain.

A group of convicts lined up in the prison in Kyiv Oblast on May 30, 2024. (Alexander Khrebet / The Kyiv Independent)
An open-air corridor inside the double-fenced perimeter with barbed wire of the prison in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, on May 30, 2024. (Alexander Khrebet / The Kyiv Independent)

Ukraine’s move to mobilize prisoners echoes Moscow’s tactics deployed in 2022 when the now-late warmonger Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group boss, toured Russia to recruit tens of thousands of inmates for brutal assaults on Ukrainian positions.

The Russian Defense Ministry later ousted Wagner, a notorious mercenary outfit now fading into oblivion, from prisons. Moscow continues inmate recruitment regardless of crimes committed, offering pardons if they make it through six months of endless assaults.

Nonetheless, Deputy Justice Minister Vysotska insists Ukraine is avoiding Russia’s indiscriminate recruitment methods when crafting the new legislation, focusing on the legal status of recruits. She also says Ukraine is the first country in the world to introduce a legal mechanism allowing convicts to join the Armed Forces.

“(Ukrainian prisoners) have a court decision with parole in their hands. Free men sign a contract with the Armed Forces,” says Vysotska.

Prisoners embark toward enlistment with a written plea for parole and application to join the army. As momentum gains, military medics arrive at the prison to assess the inmate's fitness for service.

Nearly 20,000 Wagner mercenaries died taking Bakhmut, media investigation confirms
BBC Russia and Mediazona obtained documents shortly after the death of Wagner Group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin in August 2023, detailing the posthumous payments to relatives of those killed fighting in Ukraine between January 2022 and August 2023.

If deemed fit, the prison commission and army officer decide on the sentence suspension. Their decision moves the prisoner's file to court for parole hearings.

When the ink dries on the parole papers, the National Guard escorts the now-former convict to the enlistment office. Here, they sign a contract with the brigade, sealing their commitment and marking the end of their journey from prison to service.

“We monitor how (convicts) train for combat missions with the military. There will be no meat grinder assaults, as we see with captured former Russian convicts who share their stories,” Vysotska says, referring to the Russian strategy of deploying waives of poorly-trained inmates to attack.

On the fence

While many prisoners have applied, some are still on the fence, waiting to see what happens to their fellow former inmates after deployment to the front.

Maksym Kryvenko, a 26-year-old convict at the prison in Zhytomyr Oblast, is considering joining the military but is wary of rushing into it — his haste has already landed him in an unpleasant situation once.

"I don't want to make decisions about my life impulsively because I am already in prison. My previous decision (of committing a crime) was also made impulsively. Therefore, I’m now thinking more constructively," Kryvenko told the Kyiv Independent.

Kryvenko landed in prison on drug offenses in April 2023 after several years of investigation and rounds of trials.

Maksym Kryvenko, a convict considering joining the army but wary of rushing into it, in the prison in Zhytomyr Oblast, Ukraine, on May 28, 2024. (Alexander Khrebet / The Kyiv Independent)

When the Covid-19 lockdown strained his family budget, Kryvenko worked in food delivery, a booming sector during the pandemic. After clashing with his manager, he found a new delivery job promising the same pay for fewer hours.

Instead of restaurant food, he delivered drugs. He was 22, married, planning to have children, and studying.

Police caught him planting amphetamine packages for online buyers on the second day. He confessed where he had planted the remaining 200 grams of drugs, earning a five-year sentence instead of 12 for cooperation.

He spends days overseeing cleanliness in the residential block, occasionally cooking and reading, like the fantasy novel “The Witcher.” Kryvenko, undecided about mobilization, aims to use his prison time productively, taking technical courses.

A group of convicts walks through the prison in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, on May 30, 2024. (Alexander Khrebet / The Kyiv Independent)

“Some will be the first to walk this path. And we, who are hesitant, will see their experience and make our decisions,” he says.

Kryvenko says he would enlist now if recruiters were looking for tech-savvy people. In the meantime, he is “waiting and considering options.”

“I’m not a marksman, but maybe I’d be more useful in programming areas. That's why I’d like to go there and bring more benefits rather than just die quickly.”

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