ua en ru

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to front

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to front Prisoners in a Ukrainian colony (photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

Since May 8, Ukrainian convicts of certain categories have been allowed to serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. RBC-Ukraine explains how the law works in practice, which prisoners have decided to serve and which have not, and for what reasons.

Since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many men and women have gone to military recruitment offices of their own free will. Some of them were turned back, mostly those without relevant combat experience. Those convicted in prisons at the beginning of the war also wanted to serve and asked for pardons. They were denied, saying that there was no need for this. More than two years later, this need has emerged - on May 8, a law came into force that allows convicts of certain categories to serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, 86 correctional institutions are subject to the law. The potential is 26,000 convicts who could theoretically join the Ukrainian army. The Ministry of Justice says it did not expect such a rush - 4,500 prisoners applied in the first weeks. Some of them have already passed the military and medical commission and are awaiting a decision on whether they are fit for service or not.

Law on mobilization of convicts: nuances and details

In Russia, convicts were recruited to the army mainly by private military companies, most notably the Wagner PMC. Videos of the now-deceased Yevgeny Prigozhin recruiting in high-security colonies have been circulating on all social media.

“The ideal candidate is 30-45 years old, strong, confident, and hardy. Preferably, he should have served fifteen years or more. Preferably with fifteen years or more to go. Preferably more than once for murder, grievous bodily harm, robbery, or assault. If he beat up the administration or the cops, it's even better,” the Wagner leader said, addressing the prisoners.

Prigozhin selected his soldiers from among the convicts with special care, emphasizing the brutality of their crimes. After six months of such recruitment, the Russian media began to publish news about how a cannibal and a homicidal maniac became best friends in the Russian army and a Wagner prisoner returned from the war and killed someone again.

PMCs recruited prisoners without an appropriate legal framework, but the Kremlin soon created one. In November 2022, Vladimir Putin signed a decree that allowed virtually everyone to be recruited into the Russian army, except for pedophiles and extremists. In reality, only extremists, as oppositionists are called in Russia, were not recruited. After the law came into force, the Russian Defense Ministry started recruiting prisoners.

When the initiative to mobilize convicts was discussed in Ukraine, some opinion leaders claimed that the idea was similar to what Russians were doing, and therefore it should not be implemented, i.e., not to be like the Russians. However, so far there are many more differences in its implementation, and they are critical. The main thing is the criteria for selecting prisoners.

To demonstrate how the law works, journalists were invited to a penal colony in the Kyiv region in late May. The Ministry of Justice said that the press would be able to talk to the prisoners themselves, not only volunteers but also those who decided to serve their time.

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to front

Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine

The colony was visited by both Ukrainian and Western journalists. Before the prisoners were brought to the parade ground, the press was gathered in a small room where representatives of the Ministry of Justice and several MPs spoke about the law in more detail.

“At first, this initiative did not seem quite clear, there were many skeptics, but we managed to convince them. I think it's a fantastic story in terms of re-socialization of convicts and helping the army,” says Justice Minister Denys Maliuska.

There are 700 prisoners in this colony. 130 of them have already written applications and are preparing to go through all the necessary procedures, and there are many of them - in addition to the court itself, which will decide whether the offender can be released on parole, the prisoner must be interviewed by the brigade to which the colony is attached, talk to a psychologist, and then pass a military medical commission. Not everyone is accepted, the main selection criterion is the article.

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to frontDenys Maliuska (photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

“First of all, these are crimes (after committing which a prisoner cannot serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine - ed.) against the foundations of national security. Traitors (serving a sentence for high treason - ed.) have no right to be released on parole. In addition, these are articles on crimes against human sexual freedom. There is the intentional murder of two or more people, terrorism,” says one of the initiators of the law, MP Serhii Ionushas.

Top corrupt officials will also not be able to be released on parole and serve in the army. This question was asked several times at the impromptu press conference, both to MPs and Maliuska.

“This was just one of the discussions in the parliament so that any person who has committed a serious crime will not be able to use this procedure and defend the state. Nor will those who held responsible positions and committed a crime while in office be able to do so. These are MPs, ministers, spokespersons, advisors, representatives of various executive and legislative branches of government,” says MP Olena Shuliak.

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to frontOlena Shuliak (photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

Some prisoners, although the law was adopted only a few weeks ago, are already serving in the army as part of a separate unit of the 225th assault battalion. Their training took little time, as these particular convicts have combat experience. The rest will be trained for several months. For now, assault units are being formed from volunteers. According to Maliuska, the army has a shortage of assault rifles, so they will be replenishing it first.

Before going to the prisoners, the journalists asked, perhaps, one of the most sentimental questions raised by many while the initiative was being discussed in parliament - how it differs from what is happening in Russia. According to the Ministry of Justice, literally by everything.

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to front

Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine

We don't have paramilitary groups, we have regular armed forces. We have good social protection, they are decent, classical soldiers, not representatives of paramilitary groups, as in Russia. Plus, we have a voluntary scheme, no one forces ours, in Russia they do. Maniacs and serial killers do not participate in this, in Russia they do. Ours are motivated by patriotism. The differences are enormous,” Maliuska adds.

Volunteers and refusers: pros and cons

Prisoners were brought to the prison parade ground - young men in identical overalls. The journalists were immediately informed that there were volunteers, refusers, and those who wanted to join the Armed Forces, but the article did not allow them to.

Mykola is 29 years old, smiling and joking all the time. When asked about the article he is in prison under, he mints the words - it is clear that he has repeated them often in recent years.

- What did you steal?

- Money.

- From whom?

- From the prosecutor.

Mykola is already used to being surprised by his answer, so he immediately shrugs and adds guiltily: “I didn't know it was the prosecutor.” A few years ago, his friend offered to rob the cottage where he was working part-time. They spent money in a week - four thousand dollars and several thousand hryvnias. The police were already waiting for them at home.

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to front

Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine

- They gave me six years to serve, and I served five. You see, if I had to sit here for another year, I would have done my time and been released anyway. But to sit here for another year, walking around, wiping my pants, doing nothing, roughly speaking, just sitting around, is wrong. If you have the opportunity, you have to do it. I have also done a lot of bad things in my life, and there is a chance to somehow correct this situation.

On the first day of the war, Mykola woke up to explosions and saw the light on the horizon through his prison window. He immediately decided to go to the front and wrote a petition for clemency, but he was denied - there was no need. Now there is.

- Why can't prisoners fight? There are, of course, hardened criminals here. But there are also completely random people, I've seen all kinds of people here in five years. Vitalik, my friend, just decided to make some money and buy himself a PlayStation. He wasn't even a drug dealer, he just had to pick up a parcel and transport it from one place to another. He was just a stupid kid, 20 years old, what could be in his head?

- Who exactly shouldn't go to war?

- Drug addicts. A person who is on a needle has nothing in his head anymore.

28-year-old Valentyn is in prison for murder. He doesn't want to talk about the details of the case and says that they didn't share views. The court sentenced him to 12 years in prison. The man can join the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but he does not want to. In 2014, he volunteered for the war and stayed at the front for a year and a half. Today, he is sure that he will be of little use as an assault rifleman.

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to front

Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine

- I have a profession, I am a cook. They don't need cooks, they need stormtroopers. I understand that there are better-prepared people. I also don't understand this law very well. It is being written, and rewritten.

The man speaks quickly and switches from Ukrainian to Russian several times and vice versa. He is uncomfortable talking to journalists, but even more uncomfortable explaining why he refuses to go to war, although no one is trying to pressure him.

- I understand that if the war does not end, I will be released in two years, I am on parole. I'll be out, I can earn money. And I understand that if I get out and buy 10 drones for the money I earn, I will help our Armed Forces much more than if I go there and stay for half an hour.

- So you are sure that this is death?

- In my opinion, yes. So, why else would they recruit prisoners there?

23-year-old Vitalii is the most suitable - he is shy but does not refuse to communicate. His young face and clumsy movements, almost like a teenager, immediately catch the eye. Vitalii is in prison for drug dealing.

- I needed money, there were problems at work at the time, and I wanted easy money. I did it for about a week. That's how I got caught.

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to front

Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine

Vitalii is a volunteer. When the war broke out, he, like many others, wrote an application for pardon, but he was not accepted. Now he has passed the military and medical commission board and had an interview with the brigade. The commander of the 5th Separate Assault Brigade is ready to take him on as a bail bond. When asked why he is going to war, Vitalii smiles and shrugs his shoulders: “To be remembered not as a convict.”

The guy has several months of training ahead of him, which he talks about with poorly concealed enthusiasm: “They say that there will be three months of training - a training ground, tactics, and so on. And then they will transfer me to a military unit and see how it goes. Honestly, it's not scary.”

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to front

Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine

30-year-old Oleh is in prison under the same article as Vitalii. A few years ago, he needed money and decided to start a drug dealing business. Oleh explains his motivation philosophically.

- Why did I decide to do drug dealing? Money. Money is to blame for everything. Women and money.

Out of 6.5 years, Oleg served 3 years in prison and decided for himself that it was more rational for him to sit down in such a troubled time.

- If you were free, would you join the Armed Forces?

- Yes, I would. The only thing that pushed me away from it was not knowing how they would treat you there. As an ordinary person or as a convict.

- And how do you treat yourself?

- 50/50. There is also criticism, of course, a lot of criticism.

Uncertainty is the main reason for prisoners' refusal. Many say that they do not understand the law, and a small number of them directly say that they are afraid. One of the convicts, not wanting to speak on the record, said that he would join the Armed Forces when he is released from prison, so he could receive vacation leave on an equal basis with everyone else, not just sick leave like other prisoners. The law does not provide for vacation days for convicts to go home or to rest in general. Only for health reasons.

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to front

Photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine

Oleh Petrenko, a representative of the 3rd separate assault brigade, says he has been waiting for this law for a long time, as have the soldiers in his unit.

- Our famous soldiers in the brigade have been saying for a long time that it is necessary, it is logical. And it was illogical when problems with motivated people began, and now these people are 4.5 thousand, they can be called anything, but they can also be called volunteers.

According to Petrenko, you can't just get into the 3rd Assault Brigade - there is a selection process and basic criteria. Among them are a psychologist, a joint interview, and the prisoner's health condition.

- You definitely can't take traitors to the motherland, you can't take corrupt officials who were sentenced during the war, that is, looters. And those who, let's say, have committed acts beyond the limits of human morality—psychopaths, rapists, etc.

'Not to be remembered as a convict': Why Ukrainian inmates go to frontOleh Petrenko (photo: Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many Ukrainian prisoners have applied for pardon and been denied with approximately the same answer - no need. More than two years of full-scale war have passed. The most motivated citizens have long been at the front or have died. The law that has finally been drafted and adopted will help to at least partially compensate for the losses. And in this story, the convicts have a double motivation. The first is obvious: to protect the country from the Russian occupiers. And the second is purely personal, but simultaneously one for all - to atone for their guilt. And this is perhaps the main difference between Ukrainian convicts and Russian prisoners.