The leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group said thousands of its members received pardons from Moscow after fighting in Ukraine.
“At the present time, more than 5,000 people have been released on pardon after completing their contracts with Wagner,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, said in an audio clip posted on Telegram Saturday, according to Reuters.
The Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization comprising approximately 50,000 fighters, has reportedly recruited a majority of its members from prisons, luring them with the promise of fighting alongside Russian forces and gaining their freedom.
According to U.S. officials, the group has engaged in Kremlin-supported military campaigns globally as part of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.
Under the leadership of Prigozhin, a sanctioned oligarch, the group has played a crucial part in Russia’s efforts to gain control over the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a policy research organization focused on U.S. national security, predicted earlier this week that the Wagner Group could suffer significant losses in its convict force as members complete their six-month military contracts.
This follows the Kremlin’s announcement in January that it would be granting preemptive pardons to convicts who served in Russian combat operations in Ukraine.
The UK Ministry of Defense has forecasted that the pardoned Wagner members’ departure will exacerbate the group’s personnel shortages, as the Kremlin has also prohibited Wagner from recruiting additional prisoners.
The Wagner Group, which openly recruits personnel on billboards across cities in Russia, has engaged in combat in various countries including Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic, and Mali.
Despite mercenary forces being outlawed in Russia, the group continues to operate. U.S. officials attribute the group’s growth to Russia’s military forces suffering a series of humiliating defeats.
“When Ukraine launched a counteroffensive that retook large swaths of its territory, President Putin conscripted an additional 300,000 men … and he unleashed the Wagner Group — mercenaries who have committed atrocities from Africa to the Middle East, and now, in Ukraine,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said last month at the United National Security Council Ministerial meeting on Ukraine.
On Saturday, Prigozhin, who is sometimes nicknamed “Putin’s Chef” for his successful catering business that served the Kremlin, stated that only 0.31% of those who were pardoned after working with Wagner have been found guilty of committing further crimes.