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The video showing Evgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group, in the midst of a recruitment operation within a Russian prison 800 kilometers from Moscow, is a sign of weakness on the part of Russia – and of its difficulties in finding men to fight in Ukraine. Explanations.
A man, identified as Yevgeny Prigozhinthe head of Wagner group, reputed to be close to Putin, harangues prisoners. In a video published Wednesday, September 14, the supposed financier of the Wagner militia offers dozens of men gathered in the courtyard of a Russian penal colony a martial “deal”. “If you do six months in Ukraine, you are free. But if you get there and decide it’s not for you, we’ll execute you,” he said coldly.
And the man detailed his conditions: “The first sin is desertion. No one can be taken prisoner. No one backs down, no one surrenders. When you are trained, you will be told how to behave. You will be told about two grenades that you should have with you if you get caught.”
The prisoners have five minutes to make their choice.
Wagner’s prison recruitment methods were already known, as were the presence of its mercenaries in Ukraine, where they are notably accused of having participated at the Boutcha massacre. But this is the first time that Yevgeny Prigojine has publicly acknowledged his links with the militia.
A trump card up Putin’s sleeve
For Lukas Aubin, director of research at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris) and author of Geopolitics of Russia (ed. La Découverte), this video is both a “demonstration of strength and an admission of weakness” of from the Kremlin.
“It is not certain that Prigozhin has mastered the dissemination of this video. It could have leaked without his consent, explains the researcher. But if the dissemination has been authorized, we can think that Vladimir Putin wants to show that he has d ‘other tricks up his sleeve, that he still has resources despite his difficulties in Ukraine. Mercenarism is now officially one of them.’
The video leaked days after Russian troops abandoned their positions in the face of Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the eastern Kharkiv region.
It is indeed unthinkable that Yevgeny Prigojine took the initiative to recruit in a prison without the approval of the Kremlin. The famous paramilitary formation, known in particular for its participation in combats such as insurgencies in Central African Republic and at mali, had hitherto played on the ambiguity of its relations with the Russian state. That now seems over.
“If he chooses to publicly show Prigojine recruiting prisoners, Putin is trying to reassure the Russian population, continues Lukas Aubin. This is a propaganda operation, he shows that he still has solutions at hand, that can also impress Westerners and Ukrainians, but it is still a mark of weakness.”
The need to resort to paramilitary organizations testifies in fact to the bad situation of the Russian army, unable to recruit enough men to fight in Ukraine. The Kremlin still describes the conflict in Ukraine as a “special operation” and not a war, which prevents it from triggering a general mobilization.
Army recruiting difficulties
“Sending Wagner to recruit in prisons shows that there are not enough volunteers, bounces Jeff Hawns, specialist in Russian military issues and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for research in geopolitics. Russian has an awful reputation, most people say they’d rather go to jail than the army…while Wagner still enjoys prestige from his overseas operations, but that doesn’t bode well. “
The recruitment session could also be a sign of tensions within the regime: “There must be internal conflicts within Russian institutions, suggests Jeff Harms. Yevgeny Prigojine considers that the Russian army has failed in Ukraine, so he says to Putin “let me manage with my guys, I’ll be better off”.
But we must not let ourselves be taken in, says the expert: the impact of Wagner will be “negligible” on the battlefield. “Wagner is not an elite formation, it’s a collection of social cases. They were certainly very effective on the battlefield, but they faced [avant la guerre en Ukraine, NDLR] poorly trained and poorly equipped opponents. Nothing to do with a regular army.”
However, there are still other cards in Vladimir Putin’s hands, notes Lukas Aubin: general mobilization and nuclear weapons. But for the moment, he argues, this recruitment operation says something about the Kremlin’s strategy. “Using Wagner allows the Russian authorities not to call for general mobilization, says the researcher. This recruitment operation also took place in a prison located in the Republic of the Maris, a region where ethnic minorities live. C is a way of keeping the Russian population at a distance and keeping it in a passive posture.”