I read that Wagner PMC recruits criminals from Russian prisons to fight in Ukraine and pays as much as US$14,000 monthly. However, they have no or minimal training in combat and are practically being used as cannon fodder on the frontlines. Therefore, they are being killed by the hundreds.

Why would someone join Wagner PMC knowing their chance of living is dangerously slim?

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    Most of the dead ones were prisoners who had no choice or had to choose between spending the rest of their lives in prison or take their chances on the front line.
    – A.bakker
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 11:04
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    The question "why would someone join Wagner PMC knowing their chance of living is dangerously slim?" asserts two things. 1. that the chance is actually dangerously slim and 2. that the penal recruits are aware of that. You present these as self-evident. But are they? If yes, you might want to add your own research. If not, you probably should make that part of the question.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 11:07
  • What is the motivation for mercenaries? Even the etymology of mercenary says it already. Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 14:49
  • getting $14000/month seems like a really good incentive in a country where the average pay is $700/month. That is the equivalent of getting paid $1,400,000/year in the USA (median pay $70k/year). Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 23:20
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    One aspect which is not addressed in the Q or in the answers is that it conflates regular Wagner mercenaries with its more recent convict recruitment. I don't think we can really call their recent prison troops, cited in the body, mercenaries (cited in the title) in the regular sense of the term. They seem more penal military units. Both in their recruitment and their expenditure on the battlefield. That said, interesting to see how exactly Russia is finding those convicts. Recruitment of mercenaries would be another Q. Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 16:57

2 Answers 2


Firstly, not all criminals from Russian prisons join Wagner PMC, only a minority do (not more than 8%). Of those criminals who do join, not everyone knows that their chance of living is dangerously slim, since it is hard to come by the mortality statistics, especially if you are in a Russian prison. However, it is true that a substantial number of prisoners join despite knowing all that. Some of the reasons include:

  • Some are optimistic and think that it will be only a quick trip to Ukraine.
  • Some have exceedingly long prison sentences (for murder, etc), and the war offers them a chance to go free in 6 months.
  • For some, in addition to clemency, the military service "offers pride and a sense of purpose" and "gives you the chance to actually be someone".


Artyom [ex-prisoner, Wagner recruit] (through translator):

These military guys show up in full uniform and say: Here's how it is. You fight for half-a-year. If you're alive and well, you get a full pardon, 100,000 rubles per month. Yes or no?

I say yes. I figure I can fight for half-a-year.

Simon Ostrovsky:


Although we weren't able to independently verify Artyom's account, it corresponds to assessments of how Russia is using convicts as expendable fighters thrown at the enemy in human waves. For many of the convicts being held here, the path from a Russian prison to a Ukrainian prisoner of war camp is very short, because the Russian military uses the convicts as storm troops, and the casualty rate is very high, and so is the rate of capture.

This man was recruited from a prison in the occupied the Donetsk region of Ukraine, and was told he'd merely be used to dig trenches and carry the wounded.


Man (through translator):

Yevgeny Prigozhin flew into our prison and talk to the prisoners. There were 560 people; 220 agreed to sign a contract with the Wagner Group and participate in the special military operation.

Simon Ostrovsky:

This prisoner had eight years left to serve on a sentence for attempting to sell two kilograms of narcotics, when he signed a contract with the Wagner Group. After training for seven weeks, he fought just one battle.

Simon Ostrovsky, "From prison to the frontlines: Thousands of Russian convicts sent to fight in Ukraine". PBS NewsHour, March 03, 2023: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/from-prison-to-the-frontlines-thousands-of-russian-convicts-sent-to-fight-in-ukraine

Nabiev’s common-law wife, Olga Viktorova, confirmed to Reuters that Nabiev had been killed while serving with Wagner in the military campaign in Ukraine. She said that her husband had been nearing the end of his prison term, and that he had substantial credit card debts that she was now left to pay. She said she did not know that her husband had joined Wagner until after his death. Russian independent news site iStories has reported that Prigozhin visited Penal Colony No. 2 to recruit fighters in August. Reuters couldn’t independently verify the report.

“He always had crazy ideas. An incorrigible optimist,” Viktorova said. Nabiev probably “thought that he’d take a quick trip to Ukraine and earn some money.”


According to a regular report published by the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service, Russia’s penal colony population decreased by about 8% from 353,210 in August to 324,906 in early November, the largest drop in more than a decade. The report gave no reasons for the sudden, sharp decline, which coincided with the beginning of Wagner’s prison recruitment push. The Federal Penitentiary Service did not reply to detailed questions for this article.


A third man, Vyacheslav Kochas, was sentenced to 18 years in prison by a St. Petersburg court for murder and armed robbery in 2020, when he was 23. [...] Kochas’ lawyer, Stepan Akimov, described his former client as “a really ordinary guy” whom he said had been unfairly convicted. The last he heard from Kochas was a text message after his appeal failed, thanking Akimov for his help. Akimov learned from Reuters that his ex-client had joined Wagner.

“I can imagine, given the length of his sentence, and how young he was, it seemed to him a way to go free,” said Akimov. “When a prisoner has a double digit sentence, here they’re offering release in six months. Apparently, Vyacheslav thought this offer was a way out.”


Mark Galeotti, author of The Vory: Russia’s super mafia, a book on Russia’s criminal and prison cultures, says the potential appeal of Wagner to inmates is wider than just a bid for clemency. Service with Wagner, he said, offers pride and a sense of purpose to convicts with few prospects after release, people who have spent time in a prison culture suffused with “a very strong Russian nationalist tinge.”

“Yes, this will give you the chance to get out of prison, but also it gives you the chance to actually be someone,” said Galeotti. “This is a way in which actually Wagner can appeal to people who definitely are, or believe themselves to be, marginalised, outsiders, losers in some way in the system, and gives them the chance to think of themselves as becoming winners.”

Felix Light, Filipp Lebedev and Reade Levinson, "A Russian graveyard reveals Wagner’s prisoner army". A Reuters Special Report, January 26, 2023: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/ukraine-crisis-russia-graves-wagner/


I find the basic assumption of the question incorrect.

So-called Wagner Group have been involved in military conflicts all over the world for almost a decade, including Middle East, Africa and Donbass.

It seems that it is run less like an army (with rank-and-file officers with their specific mentality) and more like a private enterprise striving for being efficient. As such, many sources agree that Wagner PMC is actually more life-saving than the regular Ministry of Defense army corps, non-MoD volunteer units such as BARS, or LDNR militias. They have better quality of command and fewer lives lost for the same "bang".

So if one is going to go to the war, it seems that the motivation of chooosing Wagner PMC is that you're actually safer there. There's much more chance that you will see military action, since they are on the edge of it, but when you do, you will be more safe under Wagner command than under MoD officers.

If we are talking about inmates, they don't have any other option of getting out of jail before their time is due other than joining Wagner - they can't try their luck in regular army or militia. In any case I don't think what's the ratio of inmates to "regular" mercenaries in Wagner Group and don't think they dominate numbers-wise.

I'm not sure I can point to any specific sources, I suggest Tg channels such as Topaz mil blogger, Grey Zone, etc.

Igor Strelkov is an interesting case of a person who is very critical of Wagner Group yet still doesn't claim their losses are extraordinary.

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    When you can not find any specific sources except some bloggers posting on Telegram, then I would not be so sure that this information is reliable.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 11:17
  • I don't see any links in the question either, so I'm not sure to which standards I have to conform there. There bloggers are either direct participants of the warfare or have many first-hand contacts who are.
    – alamar
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 11:20
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    The reliability of your sources is a red herring anyway, because the question is asking about how prisoners are motivated to sign up with Wagner. I doubt that inmates in Russian prisons have access to Telegram. A good answer should look at what those inmates are being promised and what information they have available to confirm those claims.
    – Philipp
    Commented Mar 13, 2023 at 11:35
  • @Philipp that is, partially, unfair. ISW for one frequently refers to the Russian milblogger community to assess the situation. The key is to be careful who you are listening to on what subject. Grey zone (Wagner affiliated) on low Wagner losses? Errr... On the other hand, milblogger reports on Russian shelling a village is frequently used to assess it as being Ukrainian controlled. That said, supposedly low losses in Africa and Syria 5 years ago do not correspond to Bakhmut convict losses these days in the least, so this answer seems to be besides the point for the most part. Commented Mar 14, 2023 at 17:24

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